The problem of Western water is not what you think

by William deBuys

The dirty little secret about Western water is that water conservation is a hoax, or at best a waste of time.

When we conserve water by using less, we don't save it for the health of the watershed or put it aside in any way; we simply make it available for someone else to consume, if not today, then tomorrow in the next strip mall or housing development down the road.

In this respect, water conservation is good for the short-term economy because the water it frees up keeps the real estate industry, the building trades and much else going. But it doesn't work out well for the resilience of our communities because it leads to "hardened demand." That means that the water is needed all the time, no matter what.

This is the big irony of water management: In dry times, the practice of wasting water becomes our best friend. When water has been used wastefully, it is easy to deal with drought. Once everybody stops watering the lawn or washing the car, current demand drops like a stone.

But when everybody conserves all the time -- putting in low-flow toilets, xeriscaping the yard and all that other good stuff in both the public and private sectors -- the demand for water "hardens." The uses that remain are essential; you can't turn them off, and sometimes you can barely pare them back.

Conservation enables a community with fixed water resources to continue growing. But the more it grows on the strength of conservation, the more vulnerable it becomes to drought. Then when dry times inevitably come, there's no flex in the system.

One logical response is to limit growth, but I don't know of a single community that has done this without unintended consequences. Consider Bolinas, Calif. Because of limited water supplies, Bolinas put a cap on the number of water meters its utility would support. This past spring, the New York Times reported that one of these meters changed hands for a cool $300,000. Outside of small, boutique communities like Bolinas, a major spike in the cost of access to water would be socially and politically unacceptable.

Environmentalists might respond by saying, "Communities will have to handle shortages the best they can. In the meantime, we enviros need to secure in-stream flows for rivers and place those water rights in a blast-proof public trust. That way we can prevent the collapse of rivers and streams that sustain the non-human environment."

The trouble is, anything can be raided. There is no such thing as a blast-proof public trust, and certainly not if whole cities face death by thirst. That kind of threat may not be far away.

Most climate-change models forecast reduced water availability in the Southwest usually on the order of 10 percent to 30 percent, as well as in other areas of the West. Higher temperatures and faster evaporation guarantee that the region will become more arid even if precipitation remains constant. (But don't bet on precipitation remaining "normal.")

Our utilities tell us that conservation is the answer to future water scarcity. I think they tell us that because they don't have another answer. In a pinch, utilities will also talk about "augmentation," meaning desalination, interbasin transfers, etc., which might keep the water-supply hamster wheel spinning for another generation or so, at considerable fiscal and environmental cost. But none of these strategies will stop the wheel of increasing need and hardening demand from spinning.

And no one dares mention that, over the long term, water conservation paints us into a tighter and tighter corner. Optimists say that conservation at least buys us time by putting off the day of reckoning. This may be true, but what are we doing with the time we've bought?

Pragmatists argue that, when push comes to shove, we can always squeeze more water out of agriculture. Some water districts have already done this, partly by financing agricultural efficiencies, partly by moving the water out and dewatering valleys. Even this strategy has limits, however, and it raises other troubling issues, such as: How do we feed ourselves?

In the end we are back where we started, lacking the ability to set limits and live within them. I don't have an answer to this conundrum, but it seems to me that the sooner people start talking about it openly, the better our chances of solving it. Meanwhile, our rivers, cities, and farms remain in peril.

William deBuys is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion syndicate of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer and conservationist in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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