Western Water Woes – Is Big Infrastructure the Way to Go?
Guest Blog by Michael Clark
Pat Mulroy, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, spoke on July 20 at a US Chamber of Commerce conference, as part of its Invest in Water Initiative, and proposed a bold idea: build a pipeline to divert Mississippi River flood waters to the West. This, she said, would alleviate stress on the Colorado River system. That she proposed what some would consider an outlandish project at such a venue is an indication of her seriousness or, as some would say, desperation.
Desperation may well be accurate. The Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), which supplies water to Las Vegas, is struggling to keep the water on. It built, at a cost of $700m, Intake No. 3, which is lower than the other two, higher intakes at Lake Mead, its primary source of water. The purpose: build another straw in case the other two became obsolete due to falling lake levels. Eleven years of drought reduced the lake to its lowest level ever in October 2010, just six feet above what is considered critical shortage stage.
The SNWA has also gone searching for more water. In 2004, it proposed a project to convey via a 306 miles pipeline 176,000 acre feet per year, half of the amount of water allocated to Nevada under the Colorado River Compact of 1922, from aquifers underlying several valleys in northern Nevada. The Bureau of Land Management released the Draft Environmental Impact Statement on July 14, and the results weren’t positive. Under the proposed alternative, groundwater drawdowns could range between 10 and 200 feet over the life of the project and groundwater discharge to perennial streams could be reduced up to 84%. Groundwater drawdown could result in at least five feet of subsidence in widespread areas; land could dry up. Opponents are coalescing– ranchers who depend on the aquifers are concerned their water source will dry up. In recognition of this, BLM has taken the unusual step of extending the commenting period by 30 days, ending it in October, after the ranchers’ summer labors are complete. The Great Basin Water Network, comprised of ‘organizations, businesses, and individuals’ calls the plan a ‘water grab’. Their main concern is:
“……… that the Las Vegas metropolitan area and other large communities in the Great Basin implement an effective water conservation program including economic incentives for water smart-practices and implementation of simple, inexpensive conservation measures as opposed to multi-million projects that would burden urban taxpayers while leaving rural families high and dry.”
The prospects of the pipeline look grim. But it gets even grimmer for Las Vegas. In 2007, BLM released Draft Interim Guidelines for the Operation of Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Seems like an innocuous document, but it is extraordinary for two reasons. First, it defines shortage conditions at the reservoirs and the water allotments that follow. Prior to this, shortages were not defined. BLM operated on a binary system defined by two conditions: Normal and Surplus. That the system has been operated without shortage contingencies plans is astoundingly shortsighted.
The second reason is that BLM, based on volumes of Law of the River statutes, treaties and precedents, begins prioritizing water deliveries. Nevada, under all three shortage scenarios, which are defined by lake levels, experiences a decrease in its allotment, while California’s remains the same. Under normal conditions, Nevada receives 300,000 acre feet per year (AFY), but under the three shortage scenarios, this allocation drops to 287,000, 283,000, and, under the worst case scenario, 280,000 AFY.
The imminent failure of the SNWA pipeline project, the reduced allocation suggested by BLM under drought conditions, the recent Scripps Institute study predicting a 50% chance Lake Mead will go dry in 20 years due to severe decreases in runoff, and the US Census Bureau’s prediction that the region’s population will grow by 29.5m by 2030, constitutes nothing less than a pending disaster.
Thus, Pat Mulroy’s plan to a build a pipeline from the wet East. It is, as it would appear, an act of desperation, a means to meet growing demand amidst dwindling supplies. But it’s not the first time such an audacious plan has been proposed. Though not as long as what is currently being considered, the Romans built massive aqueducts to carry water to far flung cities which, at the time, were considered massive distances. The Aqua Appia was 59 miles long and recently Der Spiegel reported that a German archaeologist discovered an underground aqueduct 100 kilometers in length. More recently, a Colorado rancher and engineer, Gary Hausler, after reading a 2004 report finding that Colorado needed over 600,000 AFY more water to meet future demand, proposed to build a two story tall, 1200 mile, pipeline from the Mississippi River to Colorado. He’s taken his proposal, which according to his estimates would costs $22.5b, to politicians and other audiences, most of whom responded with slack jawed amazement.
Then there’s China, who’s embarking on one of the most colossal infrastructure projects this world has seen. China’s water and economic situation is similar to ours, arguably. Its economic engine is the northern cities, specifically Beijing, which is a relatively arid region. Each year, the Gobi Desert inches further south, and there’s rampant water mismanagement. Beijing, wracked by drought for decades, continued building, at no consumer expense, large engineering projects to fix the problem of dwindling water supplies. The city’s two largest reservoirs have gone dry. Now, two-thirds of the city’s water demand is met with groundwater, which has lead to massive agricultural impacts as farmers’ wells have dried up and their lands dry, crack, and subside. The Chinese government, recognizing the economic implications of this water crisis, have begun construction of the $62b South-North Water Transfer project which will bring trillions of gallons of water from southern rivers to the thirsty north. The project entails the construction of thousands of miles of pipelines and canals, 427 water treatment facilities, countless pumping facilities, and the displacement of 300,000 residents.
China, unlike the US, is unencumbered by NEPA, water rights and democratic processes in general. Such a pipeline here in the US would therefore surely have little chance of being realized. Mr Hausler, the Colorado engineer, reckons thirty years for his project to become operational: 10 years in design, 10 years in construction– and 10 years in permitting/courts. But, before jumping to that conclusion, consider three things. First, in the US, there are 55,000 miles of crude oil pipelines. If the commodity to be transported is valuable enough, the transportation infrastructure will be built, sometimes at the expense of the environment (see Yellowstone River). Second, the chief economist of Citigroup recently predicted water to be the next oil and the result will be the construction of water pipelines, the volume of which will exceed that of oil pipelines. Third, consider that the seven states who receive water from the Colorado River comprised 19% of total US GDP in 2010; California, the 8th largest economy in the world, alone comprised a whopping 13% of total US GDP in 2010.
This then raises many questions. If water becomes what Citigroup says it will become, will projects such as Ms Mulroy’s become feasible? If the water crisis in the southwest deepens, will the federal government step in, in order to save one of its most valuable economic assets, California, and begin the push to build such grand water supply projects?
Or will the federal government, perhaps through BLM, force states to implement strict water conservation goals and measures to achieve them? Or provide cash to build local water augmentation projects like, for example, desalination or, the unfortunately derisively named, toilet to tap projects in California. California is the biggest user of Colorado River water, but the one with perhaps the most potential for water demand management and local water supply projects.
But first must come water efficiency. Clearly, there is room for water conservation. I’ve driven down I-5, in San Diego, during the middle of a scorcher, and witnessed the irrigation of miles of median strip. Pools and verdant green lawns abound. A recent Pacific Institute study indicated California could reduce its demand by 20% and meet its future water needs to 2030. The same could probably be said for all of the other states. But the reality is this: these are pipe dreams. A long term water supply plan will inevitably include water conservation, which should happen first, followed by targeted water supply augmentation projects that relieve stress on a system that was doomed from the start: the Colorado River Compact of 1922 was based on six years of flow data, which, as it turns out, were years of unusually high flow.
The federal government, instead of embarking on massive East-West pipelines, should invest in and mediate a water plan for the Southwest. Our economic future could depend on it. That the federal government needs to get involved was evidenced by a speech I saw Ms Mulroy give in Washington DC last year. With Jeffrey Kightlinger, the general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, looking on, she said: “We will all walk off this cliff together.” In other words, neither the SNWA, nor any other water supplier dependent on the Colorado River, will accept anything but shared sacrifice.
(Michael Clark lives in Providence, RI and has a BS in Environmental Planning from UMass Amherst and an MA in Environmental Studies from Brown University. He practiced as an environmental/engineering consultant for 8 years, with a focus on water, and currently works as an independent environmental consultant.)