The Efficiency Paradox

Why water conservation along the Colorado River — a much-vaunted silver bullet for the West’s coming era of shortage — could have devastating environmental costs

  • An endangered Yuma clapper rail in Colorado River Delta wetlands

  • A 23-mile-long earthen section of the All-American Canal will be lined to save 67,700 acre-feet of water a year for the Imperial Irrigation District — water that for more than 70 years has seeped into the Mexicali Valley

  • Mexicali Valley farmers like Luis Hernández, left, brother of Gerónimo, use well water fed by seepage from the All-American Canal to irrigate crops

  • Children in a Mexicali Valley canal, center

  • Flooding in the Mexicali Valley in the 1950s caused by seepage from the newly constructed All-American Canal, right. Drainage canals were later built to capture the water for irrigation


  • The Colorado River runs dry at the border


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Zamora has cajoled numbers from the National Water Commission, sought money to install stream gauges to quantify how much water now makes its way through, and scrounged up $70,000 so scientists at the Autonomous University of Baja California and the University of Arizona can construct a computerized hydrologic model to tease out the intricacies of flow patterns. It is an effort that would normally cost close to a half-million dollars.

Wastewater flows into the Delta are now, at most, 2 cubic meters per second — less than four-tenths of 1 percent of the river’s long-term annual average flow. Zamora is trying to scare up another 2 cubic meters per second. And he has possibly found it, or at least knows where to start looking.

Zamora is trying to get the city of Mexicali to agree to “donate” the outflow from a new wastewater treatment plant to the Delta, rather than selling the treated water for re-use in Mexicali. But working closely with Osvel Hinojosa and the Mexican conservation group Pronatura, he has also identified nearly 15,000 acres of farmland in the Mexicali Valley that could be bought or leased to free up more water for the Delta. Last year, Hinojosa found the money — in a somewhat promising sign, it came through a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — to buy water rights from 114 acres of farmland. He is now using a new provision in Mexican national water law to dedicate that water for the Delta. “We wanted to test the process and show that it can be done,” Hinojosa says. “Hopefully, now, other organizations will be interested in providing funds” to expand the effort.

Yet the push for efficiency weighs heavily on both men’s minds. “If we buy two cubic meters per second, but we lose two” because of efficiency improvements elsewhere, says Zamora, “then we go back to the same thing. Or even worse.” And so, here, at the end of the line, a somewhat absurd possibility has suggested itself to Zamora and his colleagues: Deploying efficiency to fight the environmental impacts of efficiency itself.

The Sonoran Institute and Pronatura are now trying to identify opportunities to fund water-efficiency improvements in the Mexicali Valley and deliver the saved water to the Delta. It may be the only way for the restoration effort to hold the line in a spiraling arms race of efficiency whose costs will otherwise fall entirely on the environment.

Zamora and his colleagues are at a decided fiscal disadvantage, however, when compared with the wherewithal that the seven states and the West’s booming metropolitan areas can bring to bear on efficiency. They may be stuck trying to play penny-ante stakes in a game that they cannot afford to win.

Meanwhile, not far north of the Delta — and in several spots throughout the Mexicali Valley — Julio Navarro’s plan for staving off a water war is taking shape. The scene is eerily reminiscent of what is planned for the All-American Canal. Alongside an old, unlined canal, a backhoe with a special scoop shaped like the cross-section of a canal is slowly digging a second, parallel trench. Close behind, a dump truck and six men with shovels and trowels are lining the new canal with concrete, to save water for the Mexicali Valley irrigation district.

In the face of the renewed quest for efficiency by the seven basin states and Mexico, the paradoxical need to protect the “waste” that keeps the Delta alive is more important than ever. Jennifer Pitt, a Boulder, Colo.-based analyst with Environmental Defense, says, “I’m in a really awkward position, having to argue against efficiency projects, but we need to get water dedicated to the environment.”

Pitt and other environmental advocates have alternately pleaded for and strong-armed access to the world of the water bosses as they make plans to tighten the screws down even further. In an effort to reduce some of the pressure on the river, the Delta advocates have proposed a further expansion of the trading-conservation-investments-for-water idea, in which water users in the U.S. could fund water-efficiency programs in Mexico, in exchange for the conserved water. That could obviate the need for new projects like the Drop 2 reservoir, which will essentially vacuum up any unintentional “slop” that heads down the river toward the Delta. It would also potentially allow U.S. water users, like snowbirds doddering across the border for cut-rate dental work, to get more bang for their efficiency-improving buck in Mexico.

The seven states are interested in investigating such possibilities — a move, Pitt concedes, that puts the restoration effort on somewhat perilous ground. “If we get everybody playing nice to increase efficiency, and we make no progress on environmental flows,” she says, “then we’re really screwed.”

In the Mexicali Valley, people are contemplating how the cascading impacts of efficiency will change their lives. Not far from Gerónimo Hernández’s farm, a farmer named Jesús Figueroa stands on the edge of a field of flood-irrigated alfalfa, his pants rolled to his knees. After 25 years in the U.S., Figueroa returned to Mexico in 2001 to help his father run the family’s farm. If the All-American Canal seepage dries up, he says, “there are no other options in the valley,” and he will likely head back across the line. It would save him a lot of trouble, Figueroa laughs, “if they just move the border line down here” — either way, he’ll end up in the U.S.

The problem for the Delta, too, is ultimately less one of technical fixes than of borders and horizons. The contemporary focus on efficiency is a significant shift away from the mindset that tried to outflank the harsh realities of the desert with dams and concrete. It seems to fit the curves of the Western landscape far better than a dam. Yet instead of vanquishing the demons of aridity, efficiency has only chased them into the dark. And it has now run up against the quintessential problem of the West.

The entire Western pioneering enterprise was, at its core, an effort to push the world’s boundaries ever farther. Far horizons offer eternal promise: another river, just over the next ridge, to be tapped for its water; another planet to mine. But we have never expanded our field of vision enough to include all the real costs of being here. We have not civilized the West so much as savaged it — leaving Francisco Zamora and Osvel Hinojosa rattling a tin cup in an effort to pay down the ecological debt run up by every single person who depends on water from the Colorado River.

Untangling the competing demands on the river will be an incremental and possibly perpetual endeavor. It is tempting to argue that the enterprise of developing the Colorado was made feasible in the first place only by writing off the cost of its environmental effects on the Delta. But that simply is not true: Those costs are mere fractions of the total amount of water in the river and the money spent to develop that water. They are so small that including them in the dealmakers’ calculations from the very beginning would have never come even remotely close to breaking the entire river-development proposition. And so we are now left with a choice: endlessly pursuing yet one more house-of-mirrors fix — or, finally, trying to set the equation right.


Matt Jenkins is West Coast correspondent for High Country News. This story was made possible by a Western Enterprise Reporting Fellowship from Stanford University’s Bill Lane Center for the Study of the North American West.