April 19, 2024

Water & the West

Observations of a Michigander cycling through the green deserts of the West
Dec. 9, 2012

Last fall, my wife Laura and I embarked on an adventure. With good health and time available, we cleared our schedules and relied on friends and family to fill in on the home front. We dropped our youngest daughter off at college, and took off for a 10-month, 9,000-mile journey around the perimeter of the USA on touring bicycles.

The geography changed subtly over the days as we travelled at the speed of a bike. Coastlines, mountaintops, watershed divides, and rivers valleys are features that defined our trip. The view from a bike seat was so rich and detailed, even the 1,000 miles of the Great Plains provided flora, fauna and topography that you miss in a car.


We first noticed that something was wrong as we cycled into north central Montana.

We had left the forests behind in northwest Minnesota, and entered the mostly treeless Great Plains. It was October, and we were camping in an arid region that receives less than 12 inches of rain a year, and there were mosquitoes, lots of mosquitoes. As we looked at the landscape, we noticed there were no lakes or wetlands, few trees, little rain, but pesky mosquitoes; how could that be?

We continued west to the Pacific Ocean, and traveled 1,000 miles south along the coast to Southern California. In December, we stayed for several weeks in Carlsbad, a tropical-looking small city on the coast with lush vegetation and hundreds of blooming Birds of Paradise flowers. Again we were struck by this arid region with little rain and asked ourselves, how it could be so lush?

We left Carlsbad, climbed over the coastal mountain range, and dropped into the Anza-Borrego Desert, a real desert, scattered with cacti as the only living things visible.

We camped at a primitive campsite with no drinking water, and no mosquitoes. The next day, after traveling relatively few miles, the environment changed completely. The landscape was filled with green farm fields, and there were Great White Egrets fishing along the irrigation canals. All of this in a region that receives only three inches of rainfall a year, and the average high temperature in July is 108 degrees Fahrenheit.

I studied civil engineering and hydrology in college, and have worked as a consulting water engineer most of my career. I know something about dams, reservoirs and groundwater supply wells. But until this trip, I just never realized the magnitude and immense scope of the fabricated environment that we have created out West.

The breeding ground for the Montana mosquitoes was an irrigation canal along the Milk River, fed by reservoirs. The 20 million people who live along the Southern California coast receive most of their drinking water from the Colorado River via the 240 mile Colorado River Aqueduct through the Mojave Desert, and from northern California via the 300 mile California Aqueduct. The California Aqueduct includes open canals and conduits where water flows through a series of pumping stations, eventually climbing 2,000 feet over the Tehachapi Mountains before entering the LA basin.

The Mormons of Utah were among the first to employ irrigation to help them grow crops in the late 1800s because of the inadequate precipitation in the arid west.

Initially, the Mormons and other settlers simply diverted water from streams. As more water was needed, however, settlers wanted to store "wasted" runoff from rains and snow for later use, and small dams and reservoirs were built in the early 1900s across the west, mostly through private and state efforts.

The Reclamation Act of 1902 lead to the formation of the Federal Bureau of Reclamation, which became involved in the planning, funding and construction of water projects. The initial act required that water users repay construction costs from which they received benefits, and the goal was to provide water for small farms.


When my wife and I returned home to Traverse City this past summer, I did some reading on the development of the western water projects. Cadillac Desert (Reisner, 1986) was particularly revealing. The book discussed how projects were planned, funded and built despite questionable and perhaps short-term benefits, not to mention all of the tremendous cultural and environmental impacts.

It was the construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s that really ignited the colossal federal water projects out West that would open the floodgates to new farming acreage, expansive farms, and uncontrolled population growth across the arid landscape.

From the 1930s through the '70s (when the environmental movement slowed the relentless pace), hundreds of major dams were built. These projects were mostly federally funded, and what western politician wouldn’t love a project that would bring water and also electricity to her/his area? As the water fever grew, merits of a particular project became less important than just getting your fair share of the federal dollar. The concept of users paying for the cost of the projects also fell by the wayside.

One goal of many of the projects built in the 1930s was to provide jobs. This made sense at the time, but rings hollow now.

We camped for two nights at Fort Peck Dam on the Missouri River in northern Montana. Built by the Army Corps of Engineers, this dam created a reservoir 130 miles long and 200 feet deep. Picture an artificial lake that would stretch from Traverse City almost to Lansing. In the 1930s there were 10,000 construction workers living in the Town of Fort Peck and area shantytowns. Last fall, we could not buy a loaf of bread within 20 miles of the mostly abandoned town.

Because of these water projects, population in the U.S. has moved westward, in turn shifting Congressional votes and political power. For example, in 1932, California and Michigan had about the same number of congressional seats (20 versus 17). California now has more than doubled their seats to 53, and Michigan has dropped to 14 seats. This growth could not have happened without federally-funded water projects.

The problem with all of this, and what it may mean to those of us in the Great Lakes region, is that these projects have a useful life, and the useful life of many of these projects will be coming to an end, sometime soon. Dams eventually fill up with silt, and the structure deteriorates. Irrigation in arid climates de-waters aquifers and can increase the salinity of the soil. Climate change will put additional stress on the system, with rising demand for irrigation water, increased evaporation from reservoirs, and less snowpack in the mountains. The unprecedented artificial environment that has been created out west will not last. Where will they look for new sources of water?


The West’s need for water is not diminishing, and conservation is only ingrained in isolated pockets of populations on the landscape. For example, Arizona state parks were the first ones we encountered in the West where the showers were free, all of the hot water you wanted, for free (not that we complained). At the same time, Tucson is monitoring their depleted groundwater levels, and that data is now reported in the daily news, like the weather. There is perhaps a growing realization of the need to conserve their limited water.

Those of us living near the Great Lakes have a treasured resource that we need to be vigilant to preserve, value and guard for our future generations. I now have a new appreciation for the massive projects that can be built when a regions’ unchecked needs and its political will gain momentum. Shipping Great Lakes water westerly does not seem so far-fetched if we look at the past and ponder the future

Bob Otwell has lived in Traverse City for the past 23 years. He is the founder of Otwell Mawby, P.C., an engineering consulting firm. He is also the former executive director of TART Trails, Inc. Today, Otwell volunteers with For Love of Water (FLOW), a nonprofit whose mission is to recognize the Great Lakes as a commons held in public trust for the benefit of current and future generations and to raise public awareness on how public trust principles can counter systemic threats to the Great Lakes.


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