A Thirsty West
By Stephen Tuttle | Sept. 8, 2018
Some folks out West are about to face troubling times; they're running a bit low on water.
The Colorado River Research Group, an unofficial collection of 10 scientists, recently released their conclusions on the future of the upper and lower basins of the Colorado River. They believe a crisis has already arrived, and it will only get worse.
The Colorado River system and its tributaries provide water for about 40 million people, and irrigation for 5 million acres of farmland. Seven states — Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, California, and Arizona — plus Mexico and tribal nations are all entitled to a portion of the river's water.
(Mexico is entitled to a share because the Colorado used to flow all the way into the country and formed a delta into the Gulf of California, until we dammed it up. That area is now a desert.)
Those who cobbled together the agreement, known as the Colorado River Compact, were especially generous, allocating more water than the river actually contains. That's been acceptable as long as some states took less than their full allocation. But now they'd like more, and there is significant trouble down river.
Most of this water is provided by Lake Mead, an enormous reservoir on the Colorado created by the Hoover Dam. About 100 miles back upriver is Glen Canyon dam, which holds back the sprawling Lake Powell reservoir.
Mead was to be the primary source of water and Powell a backup. Both provide significant renewable hydroelectric power, enough for nearly a million homes. The once-mighty Colorado River, the flow of which is completely controlled at Glen Canyon dam, is really just a very fancy spillway connecting the reservoirs.
But Lake Mead is now just 38 percent of its capacity and is being kept that high with constant help from Lake Powell, which is now only 48 percent of capacity. Powell's water levels are now a whopping 94 feet lower than they were in 2000. If either goes much lower, both will need to cut back their power generation.
If Lake Mead drops just another nine feet, which it may do within a year, water rationing will begin for Arizona and Nevada, the first two states required to do so. In Arizona's population centers, that means more reliance on an aquifer from which water is already being withdrawn seven times faster than it's being recharged.
What happened? The Colorado Upper Basin is in the 19thyear of a drought cycle that has been the driest in 1,200 years. Less rain, smaller snowpacks and run-off, hotter temperatures that increase evaporation, and increased demand have all contributed.
If the climate scientists are right, that region is headed for even hotter and drier weather and even less water flowing into the Colorado system, and less for people and crops.
And everybody knows where there is a lot of fresh water: here.
We're good targets since we have a history of taking our most valuable asset for granted. We spent more than a century using our Great Lakes as dumping grounds for all manner of toxic and human waste. New laws and enlightenment helped us stop most of that and restore our lakes, but even now our appreciation of the water that is our lifeblood seems more muted than it should be.
We've allowed Nestle to pump billions of gallons of water from beneath Michigan soil and sell it as Mountain Ice. According to environmentalists in Mecosta County, the site of their wells, Nestle has done so to the detriment of local springs, seeps, streams, and wetlands.
Lake Michigan is awash with invasive species, including zebra mussels whose shells now cover the bottom feet deep in some places. We are not far away from the inevitable arrival of Asian carp. President Trump tried to strip away all funding designed to protect the Great Lakes, only to have our congressional delegation restore it. Scott Pruitt, the former EPA Administrator, rescinded agency restrictions that forbade oil and natural gas exploration and drilling in our big waters.
More importantly, we've already established a precedent of allowing water to be taken for municipal use well beyond the terms of the Great Lakes Compact. Waukesha, Wisconsin, is more than 20 miles from Lake Michigan, more than twice the Compact's established 10-mile limit for withdrawals. But it is now allowed to suck nearly 8 million gallons of water from the lake every day.
A longer water pipeline isn't as farfetched as it might sound, especially for people about to go dry. We have a seemingly bottomless reservoir of water we've worked hard to restore. But the next challenge won't be something in the water, it will be those wanting to remove the water itself.
The American West is going to get thirsty. They'll be asking us for a drink. They will expect us to be good neighbors.