Dropping water levels in Lake Mead, behind Hoover Dam. (Source: Peter Gleick 2013)
It is no surprise, of course, that the western United States is dry. The entire history of the West can be told (and has been, in great books like Cadillac Desert [Reisner] and Rivers of Empire [Worster] and The Great Thirst [Hundley]) in large part through the story of the hydrology of the West, the role of the federal and state governments in developing water infrastructure, the evidence of droughts and floods on the land, and the politics of water allocations and use.
But the story of water in the West is also being told, every day, in the growing crisis facing communities, watersheds, ecosystems, and economies. This isn’t a crisis of for tomorrow. It is a crisis today. What is, perhaps, a surprise, is that it has taken this long for the entire crazy quilt of western water management and use to finally unravel. But it is now unraveling.
The old adage of the blind men describing an elephant based on their experience touching different parts of it applies to western water. In the past few years, we’ve seen bits and pieces of the puzzle: a well, and then two wells, and then a town goes dry. A farmer has to shift from water-intensive crops to something else, or let land go fallow. Vast man-made reservoirs start to go dry. Groundwater levels plummet, yet the response is to try to drill new and deeper wells and pump harder, or build another dam, or move water from an ever-more-distant river basin. Competition between industry and farming increases. And politicians run back to old, tired, half-solutions rather than face up to the fact that we live in a changed and changing world.
Here are a few pieces of the puzzle that we had better start to put together into a coherent picture if we hope to change our direction.
- In January 2012, the Texas town of Spicewood Beach ran out of water. Then Magdalena, New Mexico ran out. More recently, Barnhart, Texas. Now Texas publishes a list of towns either out or running out of freshwater. In some parts of Texas, demands for water for fracking are now competing directly with municipal demands.
- Because of a severe, multi-year drought (described as “the worst 14-year drought period in the last hundred years”) and excessive water demands, the US Bureau of Reclamation, this week, announced it will cut water released from Lake Powell on the Colorado River to the lowest level since the massive reservoir was filled in the 1960s. Water levels in Lake Mead have already dropped more than 100 feet since the current drought began in 2000, but even in an average year, there is simply more demand than supply.
- Las Vegas is so desperate for new supplies they have proposed a series of massive and controversial ideas, including: a $15+ billion pipeline to tap into groundwater aquifers in other parts of the state, diverting the Missouri River to the west, and building desalination plants in Southern California or Mexico so they can take a bigger share of the Colorado.
- Governor Jerry Brown is pushing a $25+ billion water tunnel project to try to improve water quality and reliability for southern California farmers and cities and improve the deteriorating ecosystems of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, with no guarantees that it will do any of those things at a price users are willing and able to pay.
- San Luis Reservoir in California, which serves the Silicon Valley and other urban users, has fallen to 17 percent because of severe drought, making business, communities, and water managers nervous. Other major California reservoirs are also far below average, though massive deliveries of water continue on the assumption that next year will be wet.
- Praying for rain has become an official water strategy for some politicians in Texas, Georgia, Florida, Oklahoma, and elsewhere.
- Another popular water strategy seems to be to sue your neighboring state. Here are some examples: Texas v. Oklahoma and Kansas v. Nebraska and Colorado, and outside of the west, Florida v. Georgia (and Alabama too).
- Groundwater is disappearing in California; the Great Plains; Texas (tables in this report (pdf) show continuous and often massive declines in almost all Texas groundwater systems); and elsewhere in the West, because our laws and policies ignore the fact that surface and groundwater are connected. Contributing the problem, water managers and legislators typically put no restrictions on groundwater pumping, leading to inevitable, and inexorable, groundwater declines.
- In the Lower Tule Irrigation District in California, demand for water has grown over the past two decades from 250,000 AF/year to 450,000 AF/year, much of it supplied by overpumping groundwater. In parts of the district, the average depth to groundwater in 1983 was 50 feet. In 2003, groundwater levels had declined to 75 feet. Today it is 125 feet, and some wells 300 feet deep are going dry. In April 2013, John Roeloffs, a farmer and member of the Lower Tule Irrigation District Board, noted “Some guys are drilling wells 800 feet deep.”
- There is more and more and more evidence of declining snowpack in the western US as the climate warms.
These are just a few recent examples of the growing water-related dislocations in the western US. Writ large, the entire region is at risk. As long as we fail to address the real problems, real solutions will never be applied.
First, we must acknowledge that we’ve reached peak water in the American west. We have promised more water to users than nature provides. Until demand and supply are brought back into balance, groundwater levels will continue to drop and our rivers will continue to run dry, destroying natural ecosystems. Second, we must acknowledge that there are limits to new supply and that we must turn to the demand side of the problem. This means figuring out how to use water more efficiently and productively, and thinking about moving some water-intensive activities and products to more water-abundant regions. Maybe it is time to grow less rice, alfalfa, cotton, and pasture with flood irrigation. It is past time to retire the green lawn as an acceptable landscape option in arid climates. All toilets and washing machines should be water- and energy-efficient. Finally we have to stop assuming that the water available for future use is the same as in the past. Climate change ensures that it won’t be, but until politicians start to heed the warnings of climate scientists and the on-the-ground evidence of the current water situation, our water problems in the west, and elsewhere, will worsen.