Water In The West
The bad news is there’s a crisis. The good news is you can do something about it.
One look at recent photographs of Lake Mead at historic lows, down 110 feet since 1999, and you realize, deep in your gut, that the American West is facing a water crisis. Our water supply is like a giant milkshake glass, and each demand for water is like a straw in the glass. Many states permit a limitless number of straws in the single glass. A recipe for disaster, this system epitomizes the tragedy of the commons: limitless access to a finite public resource.
We Americans are spoiled. We wake up in the morning and turn on the tap, and out comes as much water as we want for less than we pay for cell phone service or cable television. Most Americans think of water as they do air, as infinite and inexhaustible, when it’s finite and exhaustible.
The water crisis in the United States is a national one, not merely a regional issue of the arid West. Consider recent events in the humid Southeast. In the last three years, Atlanta came within 90 days of having Lake Lanier, its principal water supply, dry up. The little hamlet of Orme, Tennessee, did run out and had to truck in water. South Carolina sued North Carolina in the U.S. Supreme Court over the Catawba River. A South Carolina paper company, Bowater, closed its doors and laid off hundreds of workers because the nearby river was too low to permit the company to discharge its waste. In Georgia, low flows prompted the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to deny permits for two new power plants, even though the United States is desperate for more energy. And in Florida, excessive groundwater pumping has dried up lakes and opened cavernous sinkholes.
Turning to the West, we find an equally dire situation. Since 2007, Colorado farmers have watched helplessly as their crops withered in the field because the state engineer required groundwater wells to be turned off in deference to senior appropriators of surface water. Scripps Institution scientists predicted that Lake Mead, the principal water supply for Las Vegas, has a 30 percent chance of going dry by the year 2050. In California’s Central Valley, farmers have suffered economic losses that already exceed $1 billion. Although the snow pack of 2011 ended the drought in March, as Gov. Jerry Brown points out, “Drought or no drought, demand for water in California always outstrips supply. Continued conservation is key.”
Robert Glennon is the author of Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis And What To Do About It.
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Off the coasts of California and Oregon, the commercial fishing season was canceled 2008 – 2009 and restricted in 2010, idling hundreds of fishing boats and decimating fishing communities up and down both coasts. Regulators in three other Western states — Idaho, Arizona, and Montana — denied permits for new power plants because there was not enough water to operate them. And in Southern California’s Riverside County, scores of residential and commercial projects were cancelled for want of water.
The milkshake glass metaphor helps us understand the imbalance between supply and demand. The elephant in the room when it comes to the demand for water is population growth. The U.S. population reached 300 million in 2006. Yet, the U.S. Census Bureau predicts that, by the year 2050, the population of the United States will reach 420 million. While the recent recession has dampened growth in Western states, there are already signs of a rebound. Internal migration is exacerbating Western water shortages as citizens move from states where water is abundant, such as Michigan, to states where it is scarce, such as Colorado.
To put the matter in sharp relief, consider that the population of California, now 38 million people, is expected to grow to almost 60 million by 2050.
Then, there is the problem of global climate change. Despite some protests to the contrary, the scientific community has no doubt that the Earth is warming. People can quibble about who is to blame, and for what, but the signs of warming are obvious: melting glaciers, declining polar ice caps, increasing ocean temperatures, and shattered record-high air temperatures. Climate change has dramatic consequences for our water supply. It’s not rocket science. Evaporation loss, reduced snow pack, and earlier spring runoff pose serious challenges for water managers. So the issue is sharply framed: The demand on water is increasing, but the supply is finite or, worse, declining.
What are we going to do about it? The usual assumption in Western water policy is that we can “augment” the supply, which means diverting more water from our rivers, building new dams, or drilling new wells. As for increasing diversions from rivers, we could do so, but with alarming environmental consequences. Existing diversions already have many of our Western rivers on life-support systems. Others have literally gone dry. And these are not merely miniscule creeks. The Rio Grande in New Mexico and Texas and the Colorado River going through seven Western states into Mexico both dry up before they reach the ocean.
As for building dams, we’re good at that. In fact former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt once quipped that we have effectively built a dam every day since Thomas Jefferson signed the Declaration of Independence. The beauty of dams is that they change the hydrologic cycle, providing water over the course of the year instead of only during the snowmelt season. Dams even out the supply, both for farmers and for cities. But to think that we are going to solve the crisis by building a slew of new dams is not facing reality. Dams are enormously controversial, immensely expensive, and environmentally destructive.
The reality in the United States is that rather than building new dams, we’re removing old ones, with plans to deconstruct the Klamath River in Oregon and the Penobscot River in Maine. Nationwide, 450 dams have been removed since 1999.
The third business-as-usual response to water scarcity is to drill more groundwater wells. But we have drilled so many wells in the American West that we’re experiencing plummeting water tables, land subsidence, earth fissures, saltwater intrusion, and even rivers and creeks drying up.
While the latter point may seem puzzling, consider this riddle: Where does water in a river come from if it hasn’t rained recently? The answer is groundwater. Because rivers are at the low point of a basin, the surrounding upland provides, subsurface through the simple phenomenon of gravity, a supply of water. Groundwater wells effectively intercept water that is moving subsurface toward rivers and creeks.
So the conventional response to water shortages is simply not a viable option. What else can we do? There are both real options and surreal ones. Some of the surreal options are water pipelines over the Rocky Mountains (yes, someone is actually proposing this) and cloud seeding, or as its proponents would prefer to call it “weather modification.” This truly desperate idea demonstrates that we humans have an infinite capacity to deny reality. We can seed clouds by dumping silver iodide out of airplanes, but it is dubious whether that will increase the amount of precipitation that would have fallen anyway.
In an important recent report, the National Research Council concluded that there is “no convincing scientific evidence” that cloud seeding works. Nonetheless, we in the West have developed an ingrained belief that we can ignore the hydrologic limits of our arid homelands. We do not want to change our habits — whether it’s watering lawns in Los Angeles or San Diego (which are, after all, deserts) or growing cotton and alfalfa in Arizona — but want instead to continue business as usual.
What, then, are the viable options? Desalination is one, but it is not a silver bullet. It is extremely costly, very energy-intensive, and requires solving the problem of how to dispose of the brine stream that is left over from the process. Still, if the desalinated water is for a high-value use, and there are few other sources of water, desalination may be a viable part of a water portfolio.
A second option that we are just starting to take seriously in the American West is to reuse the water. People initially react to this idea with a kind of aesthetic “Yuck!” But in fact, we’ve been reusing water forever. We are drinking the same water as the dinosaurs did. In Tucson where I live, about 10 percent of the water delivered is reclaimed water. We don’t drink it, but we use treated municipal wastewater to irrigate golf courses, ball parks, cemeteries, highway medians, and in light industrial applications.
A third viable option is conservation. We waste an immense amount of water in the United States. We can do better. Let me give you two rather surprising examples. First, use your kitchen food disposal sparingly. A recent study found that your food disposal used two minutes a day will consume 150 gallons of water by the end of the month. Instead, put your food scraps in your compost pile or in the trash.
Second, if you want to save water, turn off the lights. It turns out that there is a close connection between water and energy. It takes an immense amount of energy to produce water and of water to produce energy. A single 60-watt incandescent bulb that burns 12 hours a day will require as much as 6,300 gallons of water over a calendar year to produce the electricity to run the light bulb. It bears repeating: If you want to save water, turn off the lights.
An intriguing form of water conservation is water harvesting. Installing cisterns that capture rainwater that hits the roof of your house is a perfectly sensible idea. Around the American West, this movement is gaining traction, especially for watering gardens. Forward-thinking green architects are designing attractive water catchment systems and water recycling into building plans. At the municipal level, Portland, Oregon, and Seattle are pioneering green infrastructure methods to use rainwater rather than send it to the treatment plant. All too often, combined storm and sewer water overwhelms the capacity of treatment plants, resulting in raw sewage entering rivers.
Desalination, reclaiming water, and conservation are sensible, viable options, but neither singly nor collectively will they end the water crisis. There are two additional things that we should do in the United States but currently are not doing. We need to use price incentives to encourage water conservation and market forces to bring about the reallocation of water.
Americans pay less for water than any other advanced industrial country, save Canada. In fact, we do not pay for water at all. Even if you pay a bill to the local water department or to a private company regulated by the state public utility commission, you are only paying for the cost of service. There is no commodity charge for water. Even worse, many American cities use decreasing block rates so that the more water people use, the less they pay for the final units. Even more bizarrely, some cities, such as Fresno and Sacramento, California, have resisted installing water meters to measure how much people use. We need to price water appropriately to create the right conservation incentives.
My second suggestion is to use market forces to encourage the reallocation from lower-value water uses to higher-value water uses. We waste an immense amount of water in the Western United States. Most water rights were doled out at a time when water was abundant. The prior appropriation rule of “first in time, first in right” developed in the 19th century and encouraged a mad dash to use as much water as possible. The system has remained essentially unchanged, especially because some states’ water laws discourage ranchers from using less water for fear that the rancher may lose his water rights. If we can encourage Western ranchers and farmers to use less water, we should allow them to benefit from their conservation efforts.
The system that I have in mind is a demand offset system. Let’s go back to the milkshake glass. If someone wants to put a new straw in the public resource glass, he should be required to persuade someone else to remove her straw.
This is in fact starting to happen around the American West. Let me offer two examples. In Montana, two creative environmental lawyers, Laura Ziemer and Stan Bradshaw, worked with third- and fourth-generation Montana ranchers to puzzle out how the ranchers could use less water by improving the efficiency of their irrigation systems and then dedicate the conserved water to creeks that had dried up as a result of their diversions. It was a win-win situation.
Another example comes from eastern Oregon, where the Oregon Water Trust worked with Pat and Hedy Voigt, third-generation ranchers on the Middle Fork of the John Day River. The river — a popular one for canoeists, rafters, kayakers, and fishermen — tends to have low flows late in the summer. The Oregon Water Trust offered the family $700,000 if they would turn off their center pivot irrigation system on July 20th of each year and keep it off for the balance of the irrigation year. The Voigts quickly accepted the offer and used the money to make on-farm improvements to their infrastructure. The river received the benefits of dedicated in-stream flow water rights. Best of all, the ranchers lost essentially nothing from their bottom line. The reason is quite simple: The alfalfa that the Voigts used to grow during the dog days of late summer in the West had almost no nutrient value. Taking that alfalfa cutting out of production cost them nothing and benefited the environment immensely.
In the end, I am optimistic about our water future. To be sure, the crisis is real. But a crisis is a time of opportunity, not a time for despair. It is a time when there are still choices to be made, forks in the road ahead of us. It will take moral courage and political will to prevent the crisis from turning into a catastrophe. The time to act is now.
Robert Glennon is the Morris K. Udall Professor of Law and Public Policy at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. His books include Water Follies: Groundwater Pumping and the Fate of America’s Fresh Waters (2002) and, most recently, Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What to Do About It (2009).