Across the West, proposed high-stakes projects to tap new water supplies are generating well-deserved controversy. It's well-deserved because these projects ignore cheaper alternatives that make a lot more sense in the long term.
The building proposals also share extremely large price tags that place uncertain but likely onerous levels of financial burden on present and future taxpayers and ratepayers.
Consider the following:
- Southern Nevada Water Authority's proposal to pump 41 billion gallons of water a year to a thirsty Las Vegas from rural Nevada would cost an estimated $7 billion, plus another $8 billion for financing costs. Who would pay?
The authority's study forecasts that the 300-mile long pipeline will more than double water bills for existing southern Nevada businesses and homeowners, but this assumes that residents and businesses will continue using water in large quantities no matter its cost. That's unlikely; if water prices go up, people will modify their behavior and use less. And when that happens, it's "buyer beware" for future taxpayers and water ratepayers. Someone will have to pay for the expensive project in the absence of high-usage revenues
- In Utah, the proposed 139-mile Lake Powell pipeline to St. George would take a $1.2 billion chunk of future statewide sales tax revenues in order to build a project primarily serving just one region of the state, the Washington County Water Conservancy District. Critics rightly complain that the district needs to pursue more affordable, local options before asking the state for help. Even today, property taxes cover more than half of customers' bills, effectively subsidizing water rates that otherwise might encourage wiser water use.
- In Colorado, a proposed $7 billion, 500-mile-long Flaming Gorge Pipeline from Wyoming's Green River is on life support after a recent federal denial of a preliminary permit; still, the project's developers vow to press on. The pipeline has drawn not only a formal objection from Wyoming's governor, local communities and businesses, but also criticism like this statement from Bart Miller of the nonprofit advocacy group, Western Resource Advocates: "The public doesn't want the pipeline, elected officials don't like it, and we can't afford it. We need to move on to other ideas."
In all three cases, far cheaper and simpler alternatives are here for the taking, including cutting back and using less water.
But getting to those fixes first requires a reality check: The West simply cannot build its way out of the region-wide water shortage that's already under way and will only get worse. Growing demand and long-term drought prospects triggered by climate change make the reliability of these hugely expensive mega-projects uncertain. The only certainty about them is their giant future debt loads.
Smarter strategies for meeting future water needs and supporting growth would not tie current and future residents to massive debt. Urban water conservation, increased use of recycled water, and flexible water leases between farmers and cities are all strategies that allow cities to increase water supplies incrementally, as growth occurs.
Conservation has the biggest potential. When water is mispriced, as it currently is with Washington County's subsidized water, it can only encourage needless misuse as exemplified by the county's extensive watering of thirsty, non-native landscapes. Seventy percent of Southern Nevada's water is also used for non-essential landscaping. Mispricing is key: We must stop treating water like a cheap, virtually limitless commodity.
Conservation also has the significant benefit of limiting future rate hikes, for the simple reason that if you're saving water you don't need to build new capacity for current needs, or as much of it for expanding needs. It's like getting better mileage out of the car you already own, rather than buying a brand-new car to save gas.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority has shown what conservation can do. Most notable are its water reuse projects, such as the one that supplies the Bellagio Resort fountains, and the 5 billion gallons saved annually by paying Las Vegas residents to replace their lawns with native xeriscaping. All told, Las Vegas has cut more than 30 percent of its consumption of Colorado River water in the last 10 years.
Does it really make sense to build water systems whose massive financing depends on keeping water usage at current levels, when near-painless conservation measures are within reach?
Western water officials should double-down on reducing consumption before embarking on financially risky uncertain paths for boosting supply. Conservation is just common sense.
Sharlene Leurig is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is senior manager of the water and insurance programs at Ceres, a national coalition of investors and public interest groups based in Boston.