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Jodi Peterson | Jun 26, 2012 01:00 AM

Moving water from one part of the West to another – it's a time-honored tradition, a way to channel the bounty of rivers in less populated areas to drier regions with greater populations. We've reported on many of these projects, like the San Francisco Bay/Delta that supplies southern California, and the Central Arizona Project that's Phoenix's lifeline.

Water managers have also begun to emphasize reducing demand and conserving, as much less costly ways to supply water than sending it through hundreds of miles of pipe. But that doesn't mean that the pipeline era is over. Far from it.

A new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council provides a useful – and rather depressing – analysis of more than a dozen water conveyance projects that have been proposed in recent years. They include such ill-advised schemes as the Flaming Gorge Pipeline and the Eastern Nevada to Las Vegas pipeline.

Most of these proposed pipeline projects do not include new surface storage facilities. This change is, to a large extent, the result of the far less abundant water sources that these projects propose to tap into. Together, these new pipeline proposals represent a significant new phase in western water policy, presenting critical issues that must be closely examined before proposed projects are pursued further.

These key issues include: 1) sustainability of water sources, including potential environmental impacts, demands of existing water users, and likely impacts from climate change; 2) conflicts regarding transbasin diversions; 3) costs and potential alternatives, including water use efficiency; 4) energy use; and 5) the role of federal agencies.

According to the NRDC report, these projects could actually make water supplies less reliable instead of more reliable, since they tap into already over-stressed rivers and aquifers. And these pipelines require huge amounts of energy – for example, pumping water south from the Bay-Delta requires about 3,200 kilowatt hours per acre foot, which makes the pipeline the state's single largest user of electricity.

The report makes several specific and sensible recommendations to more effectively meet water needs, including these:

Given the number of proposed projects to divert water from the Colorado River, as well as into the Basin, the Bureau of Reclamation’s (BOR) Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study and subsequent efforts should address the cumulative potential impacts of the potential projects summarized in this report.

A beneficiary-pays approach to financing water projects provides the best way to internalize the costs of water projects and encourage efficient water use.

Federal funds should be focused on projects where there is a strong federal nexus, such as resolving Native American water rights claims and addressing endangered species issues.

Meanwhile, speaking of tapping over-stressed water sources, Las Vegas, which gets 90 percent of its water supply from Lake Mead, continues to desperately chase the reservoir's receding waters with a longer straw. Workers are tunneling nearly 3 miles to connect a treatment plant to a funnel structure on the lake bed that will suck up water (here's a diagram of the crazy-big machine they're using). Sadly, a worker was recently killed on the project, which has racked up more than a dozen safety violations since 2008, according to the Review Journal.

And in Arizona, Tombstone has been fighting for its right to repair aging pipelines to  springs on public land that supply the town's water, according to the New York Times. The Forest Service has asked that most of the work be done by hand to protect wildlife and trees. It also disagrees with the town's claim to 25 springs in the Coronado National Forest. The situation has sparked outrage among Tea Party types who see it as another heavy-handed intrusion from the federal government. In the West, water is always for fighting.

Jodi Peterson is HCN's managing editor.

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