When it comes to importing water, nothing seems too extreme

  • Craig Rowe

 

The West's history of developing water sources, occasionally stained with instances of outright theft, is probably best described as "complicated."

Our decisions on who should get what water -- and how, and from which source they should get it -- usually teetered to the side of whatever person in power had the least tolerance for ethical behavior. We built dams, carved canals, bullied people. Sometimes we lied outright, and no matter how many times a poorly engineered dam flooded out a community or tribe, depriving them of their farmland, we marched ahead with a hostile takeover of Mother Nature's most precious asset.

Today's methods for collecting water and sending it elsewhere aren't much more sophisticated. Improved technology and our arcane water policies simply allow our grand plans to fester a bit longer before they materialize. The most recent case in point: At a July U.S. Chamber of Commerce conference in Las Vegas, the general manager of the powerful Southern Nevada Water Authority, the indefatigable Pat Mulroy, suggested seizing floodplain waters from the Upper Mississippi and its tributaries to alleviate strain on the Colorado River system. The scheme, she said, would also help restore the Ogallala aquifer. The Colorado River's Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, and even parts of Arizona, would see their water shares reduced and potentially eliminated. Growing metropolitan regions farther downriver could then hoard the surplus. This is a grand plan indeed, involving the movement of river water many hundreds of miles.

Barbara Naramore, executive director of the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association, noted that while she did not hear Mulroy's specific comments, this was not the first time the Mississippi River had been the target of a transfer to another water basin.

"These instances are a good reminder of how very complex these issues are when you start to move water around between basins. A lot of economic development decisions get made ... and then at some point down the line we find ourselves scratching our heads, trying to figure a way out from the corner we just painted ourselves into."

J.C. Davis, a spokesman for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, was quick to note that Mulroy's suggestions were taken out of context, even though Mulroy was speaking as part of a Chamber of Commerce's national "Invest in Water" initiative, and the Las Vegas Sun, Las Vegas Review-Journal, and Salt Lake Tribune all seemed to hear and report the same thing.

Asked to put the plan into context, Davis explained that the project "would be a series of exchanges, not necessarily piping water from the upper portion of the Mississippi River complex all the way out to the Great Divide." At this point, he added, "it would be fair to characterize it as a concept."

So where could the "series of exchanges" begin? Every river, stream and babbling brook east of the Rockies eventually finds its way to the Upper Mississippi, including the Musselshell in Montana, a Missouri tributary that recently flooded the town of Roundup, 600 miles north of the Colorado's headwaters. Perhaps Mulroy's pipeline could somehow move floodwater from Pierre, S.D., to Lake Powell, 1,000 miles southwest, where it would benefit the Upper Colorado Basin states.

Historically, a "concept" is typically all we've ever needed to implement absurdly expensive and geographically labyrinthine water-access plans, very much like the one currently close to fruition that will seize water from underneath the Great Basin in rural eastern Nevada and pump it through more than $3 billion worth of pipe straight to the Las Vegas Valley. A significant portion of western Utah will also be impacted by the plan.

Those entertaining the idea of controlling the Upper Mississippi's floodwaters seem to have difficulty associating such a plan with the possibility of failure already established by concepts just as ambitious.  Let's not forget that not long after the Civil War, government officials and profiteers convinced homesteaders of the vast fertility of an arid region that eventually became the Dust Bowl.

It's Mulroy's job to secure and protect her constituents' water supply, and for decades she has gone about her job with gusto. It's up to the rest of us to urge caution and the smart usage of the water we've already got, rather than succumbing to grandiose plans that once again might prove destructive.

Craig Rowe is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a freelance writer in Las Vegas, Nevada.

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 [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a friendly, detail-oriented, and self-motivated Development Coordinator to provide administrative support to the Development department. This position will report to...
  • FIELD ORGANIZER, MONTANA
    Help Northern Plains Resource Council protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the...
  • FOR SALE
    Successful llama trekking business with Yellowstone National Park concession for sale! A fun and enriching business opportunity of a lifetime! Call 406-580-5954
  • ALBUQUERQUE VACATION HOME
    Centrally located. One bed, one bath, lovely outdoor patio, well-stocked kitchen.
  • NEW AGRARIAN PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Quivira (www.quiviracoaltion.org), a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that aims to shift current practices of agriculture and land stewardship to those that produce good food, support meaningful...
  • SPECTACULAR SCENIC MOUNTAIN VIEW HOME BUILDING SITE
    Located on top of Sugarloaf Mtn. 5 mi W of downtown Colorado Springs, CO. $80,000.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    opportunity in Eugene, Oregon! To learn more and to apply, visit our website at www.bufordpark.org.
  • FUNDRAISING & OUTREACH COORDINATOR
    Does the prospect of working to protect one of the Southwest's last remaining flowing rivers get you excited? Join the team at Friends of the...
  • DIGITAL ENGAGEMENT SPECIALIST
    Position Summary Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a dynamic, organized, and creative Digital Engagement Specialist to be an essential part of our growing Communications Team....
  • NORTH IDAHO FIELD REPRESENTATIVE
    Founded by sportsmen and women 1936, the Idaho Wildlife Federation (IWF) is a statewide nonprofit dedicated to conserving and enhancing Idaho's natural resources, wildlife, habitat,...
  • SMALL HISTORICAL FARM FOR SALE - NEW MEXICO
    23-acres, adobe home, shop, barn, gardens, pasture, orchard. https://www.zillow.com/homes/222-Calle-Del-Norte,-Monticello,-Nm_rb/ or call 575-743-0135.
  • NEW MEXICO GILA NATIONAL FOREST HORSE RANCH
    43 acres in the Gila National Forest. Horse facility, custom home. Year round outdoor living. REDUCED to: $1.17 MM 575-536-3109
  • GRANTS MANAGER AND EDITOR
    Are you a strong communicator who excels at building relationships, writing winning grant proposals, and staying organized? You sound like a good fit for our...
  • REPORTER
    The Wallowa County Chieftain, has an opening for a reporter. Experience with and understanding of editorial photography also required. Journalism degree or equivalent, an understanding...
  • 2017 JOHN DEERE LAWN MOWER Z930R
    15 hours on it, 3 years warranty, 22,5 HP, $1600 Sale price. Contact: [email protected]
  • OWN YOUR OWN CANYON - 1400 SF STRAW-BALE ECO-HOME ON 80 ACRES - 3 HOURS FROM L.A.
    1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • HEAD BREAD/PASTRY BAKER AND ASSISTANT POSITIONS
    Hiring Part/Full time for Summer Season - entry level & experienced positions. Year round employment for optimal candidates. Pay DOE.
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • COUNTRY ESTATE NEAR KINGS CANYON AND SEQUOIA PARKS
    Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST NEW MEXICO
    Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921