Drying Out in the West

Lake Mead by BrotherMagneto, http://www.flickr.com/photos/brothermagneto/4263702906/In the southwestern U.S., where water supplies come from the Colorado River, which in turn is fed by snowfall in the Rockies, people use more water each year than the amount that falls from the sky. It’s an unsustainable situation, one whose increasing precariousness can be seen in the giant bathtub ring visible where Lake Mead’s water used to be. (The reservoir is currently at 1,093 feet, 32 feet below “drought” level.) A report released last week by the U.S. branch of the Stockholm Environment Institute shows just how serious the situation is, and how much of it is due to human folly—theoretically easy to fix, except for that pesky little issue of changing people’s behavior.

According to the report,

In the U.S. Southwest – Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah – there is less rain and snowfall each year than the amount of water used in homes, businesses, farms, and for environmental purposes. Today that shortfall is made up for by pumping groundwater, and in at least two states, Arizona and California, the stock of groundwater is falling every year. Add the higher water use that comes with growing population and incomes, and the Southwest is expected to face a major water crisis in the coming decades. As the century progresses, groundwater reserves will run dry, and current trends in water use cannot possibly be continued.

Part of the problem stems from a mistake made back in 1922, when the parties to the Colorado River Compact—the agreement that divided up the river’s flow between seven Western states (and left the barest trickle for Mexico)—misjudged the amount of water normally in the river. While scientists now put the average yearly flow at between 9 and 14 million acre feet (one acre foot is the amount of water that would cover an acre to a depth of one foot), the compact was based on an estimate of 17 million acre feet. All told, 16.5 million acre feet are spoken for. Oops.

Climate change will only make the situation worse, of course. But the region’s growing population and its thirst for lawns, swimming pools, and asphalt parking lots don’t help either. Nor does the fact that vast amounts of water are going to types of farming that would be unprofitable if the true cost of water were factored in. As the report put it, “The sale of agricultural products for less than the price of the water used to grow them may seem counterintuitive and, indeed, it could not happen if there were a free market for water.” Municipal water prices in the U.S. are based only on the cost of the delivery system and not on the value of the actual water.

Here’s one example of the problem, from the SEI report:

…two-thirds of Nevada’s water currently goes to the agricultural sector, and 97 percent of that water is used to grow hay. The value per acre foot of water of Nevada’s hay is just $76 per acre foot…. Even the value per acre foot of dairy and cattle is low in Nevada, at $149. Other crops grown in the state are far more valuable: greenhouse and nursery crops, $4,865 per acre foot; vegetables and melons, $1,933; and wheat, $415. Nonetheless, the dairy industry accounts for more than half (55 percent) of total agricultural sales in Nevada.

The sad fact is, every few years, a report like this comes out, with excellent scientific and economic analysis showing that water use in the American West is unsustainable and that climate change will only make it worse. And it gets a lot of buzz–and then nothing much happens. And when the next report comes out, the only difference is that we’ve inched closer to crisis.

Continuing along the current path will eventually cost a lot, monetarily and otherwise. As Time’s Bryan Walsh wrote:

Based on the price of adding reservoir capacity in California, meeting the baseline water shortage could cost $2.3 trillion—yes, that’s “trillion” with a “t”—plus $353 billion to $549 billion if climate change is factored in. Higher water prices would make adaptation even more expensive—assuming additional water could be found at all in a drier future.

Some innovative small-scale solutions are starting to appear. In southern Nevada, the water utility pays residents $1.50 per square yard to replace their thirsty green lawns with more desert-appropriate plants. But that alone isn’t going to cut it—as Pat Mulroy of the Southern Nevada Water Authority acknowledged at the Aspen Environment Forum last summer. “There have to be bigger solutions,” she said. Especially because, as the SEI report notes, “Nevada has the highest per capita domestic use in the nation, followed by Utah.” Banning bluegrass lawns in the desert is apparently un-American—but what about charging people the true cost of maintaining them, rather than just paying them to change their ways?

As former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt put it in Aspen, turning water conservation into a “rational economic choice” is worth a try. “What farmer in his right mind will use drip irrigation when he’s getting water delivered free?”

Photo via Flickr / BrotherMagneto

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4 Responses to Drying Out in the West

  1. Unfortunately “It always has worked, therefore it always will work” is all too common a way of thinking. And “always” generally means for the last few years.

  2. MM stuck in LA says:

    Good reason why my home in the desert in Arizona has cactus, ocotillo and gravel landscaping instead of grass & trees that suck up water……….no watering needed for indigenous plants! Too bad more people don’t get a clue and lose the big-city mindset that “city water” is always gonna be there.

  3. Mike Wade says:

    The SEI report attempts to establish the comparative value of crops based on how much water each crop consumes, opening the door to eliminate certain crops in order to use less water and to protect underground aquifers. Such a comparison ignores the real world of economics that determines which crops a farmer plants.

    The scenario put forth by the SEI report is based on an assumption that water is delivered at no cost within a state in order to create a crop versus crop comparison. In a state such as California, an individual crop may be grown in regions that are hundreds of miles apart. The regional factors that impact this crop cannot be ignored as the SEI report suggests.

    The SEI authors explained that they “modeled the Pacific Institute’s adaptation scenarios for California’s urban and agricultural water use.” Reports by the Institute have claimed agricultural water use in California can be drastically reduced, resulting in millions of acre-feet that could be used by other water users. Water specialists from various California universities have disproven the Institute’s claims. Use of this information from the Pacific Institute further jeopardizes the acceptability of the SEI report.

    You state that part of the problem with groundwater overdraft in the Southwest began with the 1922 Colorado River Compact. But you did not provide further information from multi-state agreements since that time that govern how much water is delivered to the basin states. The most recent amendments came in 2005, as outlined in the Federal Register, dated March 29, 2005.

    The participating states and individual water users within each state have long recognized the value the Colorado River represents in providing water. They also recognize that efficient management of that water resource is important not only to the individuals they serve today but also those of the future.

    Mike Wade
    California Farm Water Coalition

  4. Hillary Rosner says:

    Thanks for commenting, Mike. You’re right that the SEI report oversimplifies things to the point where some of the findings may be too far removed from reality. I appreciate you pointing that out. I didn’t get into it — or the issue of multi-state agreements — here because there wasn’t space and I simply wanted to 1) draw attention to these issues for an audience that might not follow them closely and 2) point out that despite decades of studies, the core problem isn’t going away. I recognize that there are many good efforts underway, at all levels and sectors. But that doesn’t change the basic fact that people vastly undervalue water as a resource in the southwestern US, and both policy and behavior are going to have to change in the years ahead.