Pumped Dry: The Southwest's Looming Water Crisis

The California Aqueduct in Palmdale

Wash your hands, irrigate crops, or cool an industrial process: if you do this anywhere in the American southwest, chances are that water comes from someplace else.

To move it from where it has fallen as rain or snow to our taps, irrigation pipes, or conduits, the states and federal government have spent billions of dollars on a massive array of distribution systems, including, among others, the Central Utah and Central Arizona projects and the California Aqueduct. For all their brilliant engineering; despite their remarkable capacity to push vast quantities of this captured flow up and over mountains and across deserts, these interlocking structures--dams and reservoirs, channels, tunnels, and pumps--contain a fundamental flaw. They were built in the mid-20th Century when the region's population was considerably smaller and precipitation was more abundant.

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That's no longer the case. Which is why in advance of World Water Day (March 22 in case you missed it), the U. S. Center of the Stockholm Environmental Institute (SEI) released an ominous report on the water crisis confronting California, and the neighboring states of Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Backed by some pretty arresting data, "The Last Drop" indicates that this region, home to some of the nation's largest and fastest growing cities, and the site of major agricultural production, is in deep trouble.

Yes, we have had a cool and wet winter: the reservoirs are full, the rivers are running fast, and the upper elevations of the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains, like the Sierra, Wasatch, and Rockies, are thick with snow. The apparent bounty is such that this past week California Senator Dianne Feinstein even issued a press release demanding a greater allocation of water to some of her favored constituents (and donors)--the major agricultural interests in the Central Valley. "The disconnect in federal water allocations is the worst I've seen in years," she asserted. "South-of-Delta farmers are getting only 55 percent of contractual amounts, a shocking number when the state snowpack is as high as 165 percent.That is simply unacceptable." (Update: on Monday, March 28, the Bureau of Reclamation announced that allocations will increase to 65%).

Actually, what is unacceptable is the presumption that state (and by extension, regional) water policy should be enacted during flush times, framed around short-term analyses, and devoted to a single interest. It is this kind of narrow thinking that has set us up for the water-pinching years that are coming.

How odd that this skewed perspective almost seems rational compared to some of the head-scratching claims of Republicans representing California in the U. S. House of Representatives. Consider Water and Power Subcommittee Chairman Tom McClintock, a former southern Californian now representing constituents in a district that runs from Sacramento to the Oregon and Nevada borders. His response to a season so rainy that the water-project pumps supplying Central Valley farmers have been turned off due to lack of demand was to hold a series of hearings designed to preach the virtues of "a policy of abundance," as if "abundance" is a quality that the federal government can conjure up.

Or take Congressman Devin Nunes of Tulare County, who, when Sen. Feinstein and California's Secretary of Natural Resources John Laird opposed his legislation to undermine ongoing water-policy negotiations, angrily tweeted that they had "move[d] quickly to starve valley of water."

But this year's wet weather and the bizarre politics it is inspiring doesn't change the fact that the long-term news is grim. According to the SEI, the five southwestern states already are engaged in unsustainable practices--individually and collectively, they are withdrawing more water than nature is replenishing. They are able to do so by over-pumping of ground- and surface-water supplies, and they are doing so because of the rapidly increased demand for water.

The Central Valley is a case in point: its groundwater supplies are disappearing much more rapidly than predicted. Between 2006 and 2010, farmers pumped more than 12.8 trillion gallons of water, which works out to 40 million acre-feet. That's enough to bury half the state under a foot of water, UC Irvine hydrologist Jay Famiglietti recently testified before Rep. McClintock's subcommittee. Years of steady rain will not begin to make up that loss.

Clearly, the pressures on regional water systems will only intensify if, as predicted, agricultural production of water-intensive crops remains the norm across the southwest; and should Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Diego; Phoenix, Tucson, Salt Lake City, and Albuquerque continue to grow as quickly as they have over the past 20 years. Just how difficult this can be emerges in SEI's projections. In one scenario, which assumes population and income growth will continue and holds constant current climate conditions, the overdraft is an estimated 260 million acre-feet. That's an unnerving number, especially when you consider that a single acre-foot is roughly the amount of water needed to supply two average American families for one year.

It becomes more so when you factor in a modest change in climate that projects diminished precipitation between 2010 and 2110: then the water shortfall amounts to a staggering 2,096 million acre-feet. Should current trends in global greenhouse emissions continue unabated--which the SEI report considers likely--then the shortfall spikes to 2,253 million-acre feet.

This is really bad news for Arizona, which draws 90% of its water from the Colorado River and local aquifers. It might be worse in Nevada, which has the highest per-capita water use in the country. But the good citizens of this golden state really are up against it. To survive the next century at our present rates of extraction, California will need three times the currently available groundwater. In a state saturated with dams, no amount of reservoir construction will meet that need (one reason why opponents were able to quash former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2007 proposal to spend $4B to build two new dams). This data should also silence the squabbling rhetoric of those who are trying to use this season of wet to grab additional supplies without thought to the future.

How then will California manage its water crisis, current and coming? The Oakland-based Pacific Institute is convinced that the state can achieve a sustainable balance between water supplies and demand. The first step is to admit that the next century can look nothing like the last. "Unconstrained and unmanaged growth in southwestern cities and suburbs can no longer be accommodated from the perspective of water supply," notes the institute's president, Peter Gleick, in a recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences. Neither can agriculture continue to operate as if nothing has changed: "The irrigation of certain crops in certain places no longer makes sense, even with economic subsidy." As for urban consumers, they "must be more attuned to the hydrologic realities of the region."

The impetus driving these critical reconsiderations is climate change. Adapting to its added impact on an already strained water supply, Gleick and his colleagues argue, requires the implementation of a set of high-efficiency measures. The goal is to reduce consumption on the part of irrigation-heavy agriculture and thirsty cities, and to do so through incentives, technological and fiscal. After all, the American Southwest--urban and rural--was built on the basis of cheap, subsidized water. Many California farms receive enormous quantities of water today simply because the law acknowledges the old principles of "we were here first" or "we hired the right lobbyists." That approach already is unsustainable in the face of a growing population and a decreasing water supply. To change this paradigm is essential if we hope to make the transition to a smarter water-use regime.

Some of this is already happening: per-capita water use in Los Angeles is roughly the same today as it was 40 years ago, a consequence of elevated pricing and rigorous conservation. The same is true across the nation: "total water use in the United States," Gleick observes, "was less in 2000 than it was in 1975, yet population and gross domestic product over that same increased." We've done more with less.

Will these efforts be enough? SEI researchers are doubtful. Without radical decreases in use, particularly in the southwest's agricultural sector, which uses 78% of the region's developed water but produces but less than 2% of its GDP, life here in the year 2111 will be very tough.

So if we want to continue to call this rough, dry, and beautiful land home, if we want the pumps to bring up water, not dust, then we are going to have to adapt--starting right now.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every Wednesday at 2 p.m. on environmental issues.

The photo used on this post is by Flickr user Aquafornia. It was used under a Creative Commons License.

About the Author

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and author of numerous books, including "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy"
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