Western Water Woes – Is Big Infrastructure the Way to Go?

by |September 6, 2011

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.

Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, has a grand plan. Photo: Las Vegas Sun

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.

After a decade of drought, Lake Mead reached its lowest level ever, in October 2010, just six feet above Critical Shortage Stage. Photo: Earth Observatory/NASA

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.

One of the many fountains on display in Las Vegas, which is on a desperate search for more water. Photo: wallpaperchase.com

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.)

Columbia Water Center demonstrates research-based solutions to global freshwater scarcity and climate-related water risks.  Follow Columbia Water Center on Facebook and Twitter

7 thoughts on “Western Water Woes – Is Big Infrastructure the Way to Go?

  1. Maurice J. Higuera says:

    Any efforts to ameliorate the continuing extensive droughts in the US Southwest and flooding in the upper Mississippi should be recognized to be a national benefit from both the flood control to the mid-west and restoration of agricultural production to the Southwest that would overshadow any environmental impact from pipelines, pumping stations, etc. Yes. Diverting some of the Mississippi river to the Colorado River will have an environmental impact.

  2. Mark Atwood says:

    The ONLY long term solution is a water pipeline to replenish Lake Mead.
    The source of this water might be the Mississippi River when it is in a state of flooding….OR the Columbia River which wastefully pours trillions and trillions of gallons of water into the ocean near Portland every second of every day. It makes no sense that Oregon would miss any of this water as it is currently unused, unneeded, and unwanted.

  3. Mark Atwood says:

    CRAPS or CROPS ?? This is the really big question seven states should be asking as California farmers suck Lake Mead dry. Maybe California should not be in agriculture. There are other states that grow crops where there IS water…either by rainfall or simply nearby. AND agriculture is not “that big” of a part of California’s economy.
    ——–So, what is more important to those drying up in the seven thirsty states: almonds
    grown in California….or the near future prospect of zero water no-flush toilets and the return to corn cob DRY WIPES ????

  4. Mark Atwood says:

    To clarify my above comment re/ “agriculture is not that big of a part of California’s economy” ……A balance should be reached where California DOES grow SOME crops…..but wasteful flood irrigation that sucks up most of the water used in the entire state of CA should be ended
    by eliminating the more non-essential crops such as almonds and even iceberg lettuce which has the nutritional value of paper. LAS VEGAS should pay in full or at least in part for a pipeline from the Columbia River to farmers in California to reduce the amount of water California currently takes from the Colorado River. Las Vegas is right next to Lake Mead and yet gets cut off at the knees by California’s pre-eminent water rights.
    Again…Las Vegas….get with it !!!! Think of the prospect of zero water no-flush toilets and the return of corn cob dry wipes !!!

  5. Mark Atwood says:

    Want to conserve water? Everyone..including restaurants get one the band wagon with this one !!! “Paper Plate Mid Week” All restaurants, bars, casinos, etc….serve all food on throw away paper plates…Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday,….and stop using water to wash plates !!!! Yes, the paper comes from trees but the trees are grown where there is a huge amount of rainfall….such as Washington and Oregon…..which brings us back to my above comment on the water pipeline from Oregon’s Columbia River……so that we might avoid having zero water no-flush toilets and the return to corn cob dry wipes !!!!

  6. Robert Hutchinson says:

    I applaud the work and comments from Ms. Pat Mulroy. Most of the points I have read make very good sense as a much-needed national infrastructure project. I listened to a recent news report about the new Water Intake No. 3 with great interest. It seems like a lot of money to spend on a project that will have no impact on the water that is available to or from Lake Mead. It will only make it easier to pump it down to alarmingly lower levels while reducing the reserve capacity available for cities and agricultural interests below Hoover Dam. As others have correctly stated, there is nothing much we can do to increase the availability of water from the Colorado river or it’s tributaries because they are already being captured. I think this leaves only one practical option to address this problem on a long term basis. However, as a lifelong resident of Louisiana I question the concept of relying solely on excess water from the Mississippi River to feed a pipeline to the west side of the continental divide. Even in Louisiana this river is often far below flood stage and in recent years barge traffic has been restricted by low water levels. Nevertheless water from this river could be used for export when the river is high. If a major pipeline-aqueduct system is to be economical the source of water must be more dependable than using excess river flow alone. Fortunately, this region is also blessed with an almost limitless supply of shallow groundwater that could be used to feed the same pipeline system discussed above. I believe an east-west pipeline makes much more economic and engineering sense if it utilizes water from the Mississippi River Valley alluvial aquifer and Mississippi River excess (flood) water.

  7. Water transfer from Mississippi River to the Western states is a very interesting news.

    It is a big plan to transfer water from Mississippi River excess (flood) to the western states.

    Though the cost of this big plan is $22.5b, it is worth doing since the perennial water shortage of the 7 Western States’ thirst and water miseries will be permanently arrested.

    For a 19% GDP income generation by these 7 states the money spent for this human development will be likely to be got back in another 5 years.

    As a water resources person always advocating “In sharing water–caste, creed, clan, colour, religion, faith, ideology, language, greed, politics and political borders should not be the barriers” will be happy that the USA as a model nation is always interested in the welfare of the people.

    Let the Federal USA Government, people of this nation, the legal and political systems will support this development wholeheartedly in the interest of the people.

    This incident will make the people in the 286 transboundary river basins to share the water. Water sharing is the top most water management option to sustain water resources development.

    Dr. P.M.Natarajan, Tamil Nadu State, India E-mail: natarajan_pm@yahoo.com

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