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for people who care about the West

Weighing our water options

 

My minuscule slice of the Colorado River Basin’s flow dried up yesterday. When I opened the plug on our 6-inch pipe, a trickle of brown water dribbled out, followed by a black glob of sediment, writhing with a half-dozen crawdads. And that was it.

The local ditch company usually stops delivering water in mid-August, when the last dregs of the reservoir above town drain out. This year, we made it to September. Such liquid riches remind me of just how much water and effort we pour onto our fields, all to grow two cuttings of hay, one of which was spoiled this year by rain.

Growing hay or grapes or apples is not a moneymaker for most landowners in this Colorado valley. A few of us are bona fide farmers, but most are coal miners, accountants, retirees — even journalists. We farm because we like fresh vegetables or want to raise food for our animals, and we delight in the green landscape that water creates in this semi-desert country.

But as the West fills up with people, and the thirst of our cities and suburbs grows, does farming in a dry place make any sense?

Assuming that my family’s share of the ditch yields an average of 10 gallons of water every minute, we pour 14,400 gallons of water on our fields every day. The average home in a Western city uses 300 gallons of water a day; if my irrigation water were potable, it could supply 48 households for four months. And I am one of the smallest players on a small ditch.

In an essay High Country News published in 2000, historian and Las Vegas booster Hal Rothman had a proposition for the rest of the West: "Go to the ranchers and farmers and tell them we’ll give them their best year plus annual cost-of-living raises to match inflation, and in return they’ll give us their water."

His words were not received kindly by some of our readers. By the same token, Las Vegas’ proposal to suck the groundwater out from underneath the rest of the state is being met with considerable hostility by Nevada’s rural residents. But, as HCN Associate Editor Matt Jenkins writes in this issue, the battle goes far beyond that: Rural Nevada has become a pawn in a much larger fight over the Colorado River.

It’s no surprise that Nevada is at the heart of this new water war. The state with the fastest-growing city in the nation and the smallest share of the Colorado River is running up against its physical and legal limits. With Nevada threatening to shake apart the whole Colorado River Compact, the six other states on the river are suddenly eager to help Las Vegas find water. Water does flow toward money.

But where that water comes from, and what impact its loss will have on the region’s fragile ecosystems and rural communities, are complex issues that must be weighed carefully before the West starts building more pipelines and pumps.

I’d like to think that Las Vegas, Phoenix, Denver and the like don’t need my little brown ditch flow to slake their thirsts; there is plenty of waste and inefficiency in the system from large-scale agribusiness and lawn-watering urbanites.

But growth and drought pack a powerful one-two punch. In the long run, small farms like mine may be doomed. For now, though, I’ll sit back and keep my eyes on the mountains, looking for the first snows that, next spring, will once again turn my fields green.