Warning: Water policy faces an age of limits

  • Dan McCool


Change comes hard to Western water policy. The Prior Appropriation Doctrine, interstate compacts, groundwater law, the "law of the river" -- all of these seem set in stone in the minds of the region's policymakers.  Of course, the West's rivers aren't bound by such a static existence.  Indeed, they are changing in fundamental ways, opening a wide chasm between our water policy and our water sources.  This is particularly true for the Colorado River Basin.

Climate scientists are predicting a 10-to-30 percent reduction in flow for the Colorado -- a stark contrast to the rosy assumptions that underlay the Colorado River Compact when it was signed 88 years ago.  Researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography recently predicted that Lakes Mead and Powell have a 50 percent chance of going dry by 2021. These days, Lake Mead is at 45 percent capacity and Lake Powell is at 57 percent capacity.

Farther south, water shortages are predicted for northern Arizona communities, including Flagstaff, by 2050.  The Central Arizona Project, which provides water to Phoenix and Tucson, may run short of water as early as 2012.

And farther downstream, Mexico is looking at a disaster along its stretch of the river due to inadequate flows, prompting one Mexican official to declare, "We are clearly on a collision course with a catastrophe," according to the Los Angeles Times.

Then there are the numerous environmental problems in the basin.  Six aquatic species are threatened or endangered, though the invasive quagga mussels are doing just fine.  The river corridor in the Grand Canyon, deprived of sediment and choked with tamarisk, is dying; the river's delta is already on its deathbed.  The Colorado is plagued by water quality problems, especially salinity, perchlorate rocket fuel, runoff from agriculture and inadequate sewage treatment.

The shortage of surface water has pushed some communities to mine groundwater. Communities as diverse as Tucson, Ariz., Las Vegas, Nev., and Cedar City, Utah, are experiencing subsidence because of their excessive withdrawals of groundwater.

The sediment that once was the lifeblood of the river now forms a giant plug at the junction of Cataract Canyon and Glen Canyon.  It is simply a matter of time before Lake Powell becomes the world's largest mud catchment, rendering the 710-foot-tall dam useless.

Water shortages in the Lower Basin will be greatly exacerbated by proposals to build giant pipelines. Las Vegas, which gets 90 percent of its water from Lake Mead, wants to build a $4 billion pipeline to central Nevada to pump groundwater from beneath several valleys in the Great Basin.  This 300-mile pipeline is likely to lower groundwater levels, threatening a national park, national wildlife refuges, an Indian reservation, and local ranchers and farmers.  The resulting loss of surface flora is not just a cosmetic problem; it could result in huge dust storms that blanket Salt Lake City.

St. George, Utah, sort of a Las Vegas wannabe in terms of growth rate (but without the sinful fun), wants to build a billion-dollar pipeline that sucks water out of Lake Powell -- despite the imminent demise of the lake. In the Upper Basin, Aaron Million, with dreams to match his name, wants to build a 560-mile pipeline from the Green River to Colorado's Front Range and divert 250,000 acre-feet. In addition to these proposed pipelines, the city of Denver wants to dramatically increase the water it pumps out of the Colorado River Basin, and the state of Wyoming recently created a new state "Dam and Reservoir Section" to investigate the feasibility of new diversions on the Green River.

These grandiose schemes for new diversions are not "the way of the future," but rather the last gasp of a dying water ethos.  The myriad problems of the Colorado River point to one inescapable conclusion: Western water policy is hopelessly, irrevocably unsustainable.  Policies that once created stability are now an albatross, preventing the West from making fundamental changes in the way it allocates and uses its water.

It is time for a new era in water management. The first step requires dispensing with the absurd notion that infinite growth can take place in a region with severely constrained resources.

The second step is to realize that agriculture, which uses the lion's share of the river, is going to take a big hit.  Many of the crops grown in the basin are low value, such as hay, or are commodity crops that are already over-produced in the United States.

And the third step requires improving the quality of the water by forcing all polluters to clean up their mess. That includes agriculture, mining and municipalities with inadequate urban treatment. These changes will not be easy -- it's like prescribing a root canal for an entire region without offering nitrous oxide.  But the longer we wait, the more difficult it will be to make the transition to a policy that meets the reasonable needs of cities, a service economy and the age of limits.

Dan McCool is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a political science professor and director of environmental studies at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Somebody talking sense on water policy in the West? It's about time!
Ian Bowen
Ian Bowen
Apr 22, 2010 10:13 AM
Articles such as this are the reason that High Country News is the best news source on issues facing the West. Not everyone will agree with the claims presented (and most will fight them), but they are well-reasoned and do an incredible job at laying out what needs to be done either to adapt to changes the region is undergoing or to avoid disaster from existing problems.

Water policy in the Colorado River Basin has been a disaster since agriculture was first brought to the region. Time and time again studies have shown that our approach to water is severely out of touch — in allocation, treatment of environmental concerns, water usage, sediment, floods, and so on.

We need to completely reexamine every aspect of how we view and use water; only a policy set that is new from the ground up will be sufficient. The question is, does anybody have the guts and political capital to do it?

If you drive Interstate 5 through the Central Valley you will see signs proclaiming "Congress Created Dust Bowl". My response to water interests and policymakers: Want to see a real dust bowl? Continue as you would.
Prior Appropriation
Bente Marie Callaway
Bente Marie Callaway
Apr 29, 2010 06:52 AM
Regulation hasn't worked very well that's for sure? Will the market? Unless the doctrine can be made fully flexible and court decisions reversed regarding third party impacts of transfers due to return flows, water won't flow to money as easily as it should. The role of government should be to monetize environmental/non-market values and compete straight up with market values, instead of these environmental regulations to which the market can adjust and defeat.
Western water policy problems.
Chuck Howe
Chuck Howe
Apr 27, 2010 05:28 PM
Dan McCool makes several fine points regarding the futility of more dams and pipelines. But let's be clear: the weaknesses of the current system do not lie in the priority (appropriations) doctrine of water law. They lie in the lack of federal, state and local planning: federal agricultural policy that subsidizes western ag that should be located elsewhere; state policies that inhibit the reallocation of existing supplies; and towns that often let developers determine their fate, while under pricing water more than half of which is used to irrigate bluegrass lawns.
water pollution
Apr 29, 2010 07:32 PM
No need to wait to see the effects of Climate Change on water quality, it's here now. New research by Gregory Clark, USGS Boise, indicates that the low summer flows in 26 Idaho streams has already decreased by 25% over the past 40 years. The low flow is the number used to set the pollution limits for point source polluters from cities to pulp mills. Meeting the new low flows that already exist will require reductions in pollution of over 33% before future climate change is considered. Wake up EPA!!
Human Behavior
Jonathan Hughes
Jonathan Hughes
May 07, 2010 02:14 PM
The current water utilization trend will continue until it is no longer sustainable. Only then will we change our behavior, despite the fact that if we'd acted sooner we could have mitigated the pain we will now have to endure.

Examples abound - Copenhagen Climate Conference, Greek/EU finance, etc. Politicians will always kick the can down the road for some other poor sap to deal with.

On the plus side - when the inevitable happens, we seem able to adapt our behavior quickly.