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January 19, 2019

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Region in jeopardy: How we might beat Western drought

Lake Mead drought

L.E. Baskow

Lake Mead is at its lowest level since being filled in the 1930s.

The history of the western United States during the 20th century was written with an abundance of water, as torrential flows poured down the Colorado River from the Rocky Mountains down to the Gulf of Mexico, giving rise along the way to sprawling metropolises and millions of acres of farmland.

Today, the river feeds a seven-state basin that is home to 40 million people, 5.5 million acres of farmland, 22 Native American tribes and 11 national parks.

But as a historically severe drought enters its 15th year, the growth and prosperity of the West are in jeopardy. With the drought showing no signs of relenting, it’s becoming increasingly likely the future of the western United States in the 21st century will be defined not by excess but by a lack of water and the great lengths governments, residents, businesses and farmers will go to survive.

Already, pieces of the blueprint for adapting to this new reality are beginning to emerge. Spurred by a lack of snowfall in the Sierra Nevada Mountains that has compounded the already difficult situation on the Colorado River, California ramped up conservation efforts to unprecedented levels over the past two months. Gov. Jerry Brown called for a 25 percent cut in municipal water use over the next year, while the agricultural industry pledged to cut water use by 25 percent to try to avoid steeper cuts in the future.

Las Vegas also has done its part for now, investing more than $1 billion in new intake and pumping facilities at Lake Mead while undertaking conservation measures that cut water consumption by 23 percent, even as the valley’s population grew by half a million people.

Still, there’s a real chance the measures alone won’t be enough. New solutions — both technical and political — will need to be found. There’s no silver bullet to solving the West’s water woes, but experts say a combination of aggressive conservation, especially in agriculture, plus tapping new and recycled water sources, offers a realistic path forward.

The politics of a shortage

Claudio Cimiotti, left, senior tunnel engineer, walks with a news crew during a tour of the third intake tunnel under Lake Mead Monday, June 1, 2015.

Claudio Cimiotti, left, senior tunnel engineer, walks with a news crew during a tour of the third intake tunnel under Lake Mead Monday, June 1, 2015.

For all the damage it has done, the drought has at least one upside: It forced the seven states that share the Colorado River’s water to put aside their differences in order to survive.

The pinnacle of the new era of cooperation came in a 2007 agreement that called for water distributions to be cut when Lake Mead’s elevation hits 1,075 feet. That point is fast approaching, and the Bureau of Reclamation predicts the first round of cuts could take place in January 2017. Further reductions could kick in when the lake hits 1,050 feet and 1,025 feet.

Arizona plans to weather the cuts by curtailing groundwater recharge efforts and cutting deliveries to farmers with low-priority rights. Cities would be unaffected, at least initially.

Southern Nevada has prepared with conservation, saving enough water that residents and businesses won’t be affected if a portion no longer is available.

1,296 ft.: Lake Mead at “full” in 1998

1,214 ft.: Lake Mead’s water level in 2000

1,076 ft.: Lake Mead’s current elevation, as of May 30

1,025 ft.: Water rations among states will need to be renegotiated when Lake Mead’s water level falls to this point.

Potential trouble lies beyond 1,025 feet, the point at which a new round of water rationing would have to be negotiated. Water officials already are discussing what’s next, and the recent intensification of the drought has upped the urgency.

Already, upper-basin states are looking into building more dams to make sure they capture every drop of Colorado River water they’re allowed. But that could cause problems if Colorado River supplies drop and there’s not enough water to meet what’s been promised downstream to lower-basin states.

“It increases the likelihood that lower-basin states would have to do a ‘call on the river,’ where the lower basin will have to legally demand that the water is sent down river,” said Gary Wockner, executive director of the nonprofit Save the Colorado River. “It’s likely going to create a political crisis.”

There is some cause for optimism, Wockner said, as states so far have expressed a “we’re in this together” mentality. But if the drought continues and the river supply shrinks, there’s no telling how states will react.

“We’re headed to a new normal,” Wockner said. “It remains to be seen what will happen, but political tensions are very likely.”

Water supply and demand

Click to enlarge photo

A view of the white "bathtub" ring around Lake Mead indicates the drop in water level through the years from the lake’s high point.

Already, seven states and Mexico draw more water from the Colorado River system than nature provides on average.

That has led to steep declines at Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two largest reservoirs in the system. Both are now less than 50 percent full. Last month, Lake Mead hit a record low of 1,076 feet, a point that hadn’t been seen since Hoover Dam opened 79 years ago.

Without action, the deficit is expected to get worse.

Narrowing and eventually closing that gap will be critical to the West’s long-term survival and will require balancing approaches that reduce use and increase available supplies.

The Bureau of Reclamation has studied more than two dozen options. While some were disregarded for being too costly or difficult, the bureau found that the remaining options, if instituted, could yield 3.7 million acre feet per year in savings and new supplies, increasing to 7 million acre feet per year by 2060.


Cost: $1,500-$4,200 per acre foot

Potential yield by 2035: 418,000 acre feet

Lake Mead at Lowest Level

Lake Mead is now at it's the lowest level since the lake was filled in the 1930s and 148 feet below capacity and not expected to rise again until September on Wednesday, April 22, 2015. Launch slideshow »

One of the best ways to maximize a city’s water supply is to get more than one use out of each drop of water.

Las Vegas already has a system in place in which water that goes down the drain is captured, cleaned and sent back to Lake Mead where it can be reused. The recycling system allows Southern Nevada to use about 200,000 additional acre feet each year without counting against its Colorado River allotment, a savings that has caught the attention of other Western cities that are starting to use similar technologies. Many already use “gray water,” nonpotable water that is reused to irrigate parks, golf courses and other outdoor areas.

There are some hurdles to water recycling, however, including the public “ick” factor in drinking water that’s sometimes referred to as “toilet to tap.” Also, building facilities to support reuse in cities will take more than a decade and cost several billion dollars.

Still, there’s plenty of opportunity to be had, as California currently dumps about a billion gallons of treated wastewater into the Pacific Ocean each year.

Urban conservation

Cost: $500-$900 per acre foot

Potential yield by 2035: 600,000 acre feet

There are plenty of ways big and small that residents and businesses can decrease water use.

It starts with simple actions like using high-efficiency plumbing, showerheads and faucets, low-flow toilets and efficient washing machines.

The biggest gains, however, will come by switching out thirsty grass for efficient xeriscaping, something Californians have been reluctant to do but are increasingly embracing as the drought worsens. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California recently infused $350 million into a turf replacement rebate program similar to one used to great effect in Southern Nevada over the past decade.

Tiered rate structures that charge a higher per-gallon rate for heavy water users also have been instituted in some cities in the West and could become more common as a way to curb use.


Cost: $700-$3,400 per acre foot

Potential yield by 2035: 758,000 acre feet per year

While conservation efforts and adoption of reuse and desalination technologies should be enough to avert a water crisis for the foreseeable future, there’s still a chance that if the drought persists, more drastic action may be needed.

That could mean looking to other states or countries to secure new supplies of water in the West.

One of the most discussed options has been a pipeline to the Colorado Front Range from the Missouri or Mississippi rivers, which often bulge with so much water they cause widespread flooding. But building a multi-state pipeline would take decades, presents a number of engineering challenges and requires such huges amounts of energy, the cost would be at least $9 billion to $14 billion.

Even more expensive would be importing water to Southern California using a sub-ocean pipeline or tanker ships carrying water from rivers in Alaska or the Pacific Northwest. Officials even have considered towing icebergs from the Arctic as a potential new water supply, but due to high costs and numerous logistical issues, none of those options are considered realistic.


Cost: $600-$2,100 per acre foot

Potential yield by 2035: 776,000 acre feet per year

A seemingly bottomless source of water — the Pacific Ocean — laps away at California’s beaches, but in a cruel twist of biology, the water is too salty to be much use to humans or plants.

That’s where desalination comes in, a technology already used in arid regions around the world and is starting to catch on in the United States.

The massive plants use high pressure and high-tech membranes to filter and purify ocean water into clean drinking water.

But there are several drawbacks that have kept desalination plants from wider adoption: They’re wildly expensive — a $1 billion plant being built in San Diego will provide about 7 percent of the county’s water supply — and they require huge amounts of energy to operate.

There also are concerns about the environmental impacts of the brine left over from the desalination process being discharged back into the ocean.

Water transfers and exchanges

2014 Aug.18: Aerial Photos over Lake Mead

A view of the white Launch slideshow »

Cost: $250-$750 per acre foot

Potential yield by 2035: 1 million acre feet per year

The distribution and use of Colorado River water is governed by complex rules known as “The Law of the River.” Built up over the past century, the rules have been effective protecting water rights for individual claim holders, but they’ve also encouraged a “use-it-or-lose-it” system that runs counter to conservation efforts.

One way to address the problem would be to shift water rights onto the open market, allowing users to transfer or sell their rights to another party for a certain period of time. For instance, an alfalfa farmer, low on the crop value chain, could sell his water rights at a premium one year to a needy nut grower who can’t allow his orchards to go fallow. The market system even could incentivize farmers to sell water used on low value crops to industries making high-value products, such as computer chips.

Another proposed market-based system would work similar to insurance, paying farmers an annual fee with the caveat that in dry years, they could be forced to give up some of their water allocation for higher-value uses.

Agricultural conservation

Cost: $150-$750 per acre foot

Potential yield by 2035: 1 million acre feet per year

While cities and businesses have to adapt to the drought, little will be accomplished without cooperation from agriculture, which uses 4 of every 5 gallons of Colorado River water.

“The truth is, agriculture is the big user and has to be a part of the solution,” said Peter Gleick, executive director of the Pacific Institute, a non-profit environmental research organization.

Even small savings of a couple of percent from farms could translate into huge gains for cities, without needing to shut down large swaths of agricultural acreage.

In the near term, the agriculture industry could reduce its use by 10 to 15 percent without changing the types of crops it grows by using new technology, such as using drip irrigation instead of flood irrigation and monitoring soil moisture to prevent overwatering, the Pacific Institute found.

In Arizona, some farmers use laser levels and grading equipment to keep their fields as flat as possible to minimize runoff. Farmers in California plan to slash water use by 25 percent by fallowing fields and increasing efficiency.

The Strip uses 7.6 percent of the valley’s water. How does it conserve?

Despite its opulent appearances, the Las Vegas Strip already is one of the most water-efficient places in the valley, providing showers, toilets and tap water to some 40 million tourists per year, restaurants and businesses, while using only 7.6 percent of the valley’s water supply.

That’s managed by retrofitting rooms with efficient fixtures, teaching employees about water conservation, installing drip irrigation, monitoring soil moisture in landscaping and limiting lush foliage.

More water is consumed without being recycled to Lake Mead by running giant chillers that keep casinos cool than is used by guests.

While hotels have started exploring geothermal cooling as the next frontier of conservation, the technology is expensive and remains years away from being used on a large scale.

Instead, casinos are looking for novel ways to encourage conservation both on and off their properties.

MGM Resorts, for example, created an internal social network for its 50,000 employees based around water conservation.

“We’ve figured out how to educate our employees in a fun way to make them aware of water usage in their homes,” said Cindy Ortega, MGM Resort’s chief sustainability officer.

The company’s My Green Advantage platform has 19,000 members who have taken nearly 100,000 actions to save water, such as installing efficient showerheads in their homes. Together, they have saved 67 million gallons of water per year, Ortega said.

The website provides tips and instructions for water-saving steps employees can take at home to earn reward badges that publicly track their progress. Executives are encouraged to invite employees onto the platform, and employees at different properties compete among each other to save the most water.

When you lose habitats, they don’t just come back if water returns

Click to enlarge photo

A team from the National Park Service attempts to capture a ram for tagging purposes. The NPS tagged animals to track data about the desert big horn sheep's movements, data that led to the construction of three wildlife bypasses over US-93 in Arizona.

Humans aren’t the only ones affected by the drought. The lack of rain is changing habitats around the West and forcing animals to go farther in search of water.

“Animals are having to forage longer distances to find food and shelter, which leads them into residential communities because that’s where the water is,” said David Catalano, a supervisory biologist at the Nevada Department of Wildlife.

That means snakes, rabbits, deer, mountain lions and even bears could become more common in urban areas as the drought continues.

In other parts of the West, fish are dying off in hot, low-oxygen waters, while their eggs are disappearing amid dropping water levels.

If the drought worsens, there’s a chance some species could go extinct. Already in California, grassy habitats for the endangered giant kangaroo rat are turning into deserts, sending populations to dangerously low levels.

Further habitat disruption could come from wildfires, which are predicted to grow in frequency and intensity as the increasingly dry West provides an abundance of tinder.

And changes to habitats from fires and the lack of water could have long-term impacts, even if the drought eventually breaks.

“Whenever you start altering a system, it’s pretty unlikely the original system is going to return,” Catalano said. “It can be bad. There are times that nothing can really occupy what returns and you’ve lost acres of usable wildlife habitat that are now Mars.”

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