Marc Reisner was dead on in his book ‘Cadillac Desert’

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Reisner’s book is a must read for all of you water nuts. The stuff about Floyd Dominy is worth the price of the book.

It seems that many of the predictions in the book are being seen today. Here’s the link to the full report. Here’s the abstract:

Increasing human appropriation of freshwater resources presents a tangible limit to the sustainability of cities, agriculture, and ecosystems in the western United States. Marc Reisner tackles this theme in his 1986 classic Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. Reisner’s analysis paints a portrait of region-wide hydrologic dysfunction in the western United States, suggesting that the storage capacity of reservoirs will be impaired by sediment infilling, croplands will be rendered infertile by salt, and water scarcity will pit growing desert cities against agribusiness in the face of dwindling water resources. Here we evaluate these claims using the best available data and scientific tools. Our analysis provides strong scientific support for many of Reisner’s claims, except the notion that reservoir storage is imminently threatened by sediment. More broadly, we estimate that the equivalent of nearly 76% of streamflow in the Cadillac Desert region is currently appropriated by humans, and this figure could rise to nearly 86% under a doubling of the region’s population. Thus, Reisner’s incisive journalism led him to the same conclusions as those rendered by copious data, modern scientific tools, and the application of a more genuine scientific method. We close with a prospectus for reclaiming freshwater sustainability in the Cadillac Desert, including a suite of recommendations for reducing region-wide human appropriation of streamflow to a target level of 60%.

Manifest Destiny and the westward expansion of European civilization in the United States during the 19th century were predicated on an adequate freshwater supply. The assumption of adequate freshwater in the western United States was justified by the prevailing view of hydroclimate, which included a theory that agriculture would stimulate rainfall, or “rain would follow the plow.” Early stewards of freshwater resources—like John Wesley Powell—warned that the American West was a desert, only a small fraction of which could be sustainably reclaimed. Notably, Powell remarked that irrigation would be required in the arid region west of the 100th meridian, to make the parcels provided by the Homesteading Act livable. Indeed, irrigation was necessary to create a sustainable society in the western United States. Today dams, irrigated agriculture, and large cities are the hallmark of western US landscapes. There are more than 75,000 dams in the United States, and the largest five reservoirs by storage capacity lie west of the 100th meridian. The storage capacity of US reservoirs increased steadily between 1950 and 1980—from 246 to 987 km3—and the beginning of these “go-go years” of dam building coincides with the US “baby boom” (roughly 1943–1964). Since that time, there has been an exodus from east to west: population of the 15 largest eastern US cities has declined by an average of 51% but increased by 32% in western cities. Similarly, although 74% of the cropland in the coterminous United States lies in the eastern United States, 68–75% of the revenue from vegetables, fruits, and nuts derives from western farms. Water—not rain—has followed the plow, exceeding the expectations of even the most zealous proponents of Manifest Destiny 150 y ago.

More coverage from Climate Central (Alyson Kenward). From the article:

Nearly 25 years later, a group of researchers has put Reisner’s assertion to the test, checking to see if there is any scientific truth behind it. Armed with modern data from across the Southwest, the group, led by ecologist John Sabo from Arizona State University, found that many of Reisner’s claims were legitimate, and still hold true today. “We asked, is it really as bad as [Reisner] said it is in the book, and are we still where we were in 1986?” explains Sabo, who assembled a group of experts to assess water, dams, fish, soil and crops across the Southwest using modern techniques. “Now we know the answer to both those questions: yes.” The findings from the new study have been published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

More education coverage here.

Upper Arkansas River Valley: Lake Fork restoration update

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From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

[Melissa Wolfe is] the assistant project manager of the Lake Fork Watershed Working Group, which is coordinating the cleanup in one of the old mining districts near Leadville with several state and federal agencies. “By working with the agencies, I’m able to do some hands-on work, and then share that information at several levels,” Wolfe said…

The Sugarloaf Mining District was heavily mined and logged from the 1880s-1920s. While the miners are long gone, the tunnels left behind drain water that is acidic and often contains elevated levels of heavy metals such as cadmium, copper or zinc. The Lake Fork drains into the Arkansas River, and it contains Turquoise Reservoir, the storage vessel of much of the water that is brought into the river basin through transmountain diversions. Blockages in the old tunnels can lead to water seeping out of the mountainsides in unpredictable places. Water flowing on the surface through old tailings piles can leach out harmful minerals as well…

The Lake Fork group has taken a different path [than the EPA cleanup of California Gulch]. The releases from the mining district have not been as dramatic, and the drainage enters the Arkansas River downstream of Leadville. The cooperative approach appears to be working, and could be a model for other watershed efforts, Wolfe believes. “We’re in the process of learning where the equilibrium is between cleaning up and preserving what this town (Leadville) was built on,” Wolfe said.

More Arkansas River basin coverage here.

Colorado Water Congress: 53rd Annual Convention January 26-28

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From email from the CWC (Doug Kemper):

We now have at least 9 excellent speakers from Australia coming to the convention. Specific details on the sessions will be released as those speakers are slotted into the various panels over the next couple of weeks.

The format for the convention will be more interactive than any that we have ever done. Look for plenty of dialogue and exploring many diverse points of view as we compare Colorado’s and Australia’s water situations.

Discounted registration will continue through December 31. It will not be necessary to register for any of the six Wednesday Workshops individually. The Wednesday Workshops registration fee ($75 if attending the convention and $125 if not attending) will cover all of the workshops. Further registration and lodging details may be found on our website at CWC Annual Convention.

Here’s the outline (some items may change).

Fort Collins: 12th annual Big Thompson Watershed Forum Feb. 24

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From The Fence Post:

The 12th annual Big Thompson Watershed Forum will be 8 a.m.-4 p.m., Feb. 24 at The Drake Centre in Fort Collins…Cost is $30 at the door. Reservations may be made to Zack Shelley at (970) 613-6163 or by e-mail at

More Big Thompson watershed coverage here.

Central City: Water rates going up

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From the Weekly Register Call/Gilpin County News (Lynn Volkens):

Per approved Ordinance 10-15, the City will require water meters on all water-using units within the City. The requirement does not endanger any of the City’s water rights, City Manager Alan Lanning told the Council, and the intent is to be able to pay for the water system that currently serves 457 water users in the City. There will be numerous meetings and other community outreach efforts to inform citizens of details. The City expects to pay $220,000 to purchase, up front, all residential meters needed. Installation is included in that amount. For commercial replacement meters and installation, the City will pay, also up front, $61,000. The cost to purchase and install each residential meter is $200. Property owners must pay half that cost, payable at $25 per quarter over the next year. That cost could be offset by paying less for their water, once the exact amount of use is determined by metering. A public hearing has been scheduled for this ordinance on December 21, 2010.

That same date will be the public hearing for Ordinance 10-16 which adopts water rates and fees for water services. The ordinance proposes an across-the-board 20% increase in all water rates. For residents, that means the 2011 quarterly rate will be $135.50 (up from $112.50). Senior citizen owner-occupants will see their rate go from $90 to $108 (achieving the reduced rate by showing proof of age 65 or over, and filing an application for it with the City Clerk). The increased rate for commercial users is $216 with additional charges for quantities that exceed 45,000 gallons per quarter. Hauled water will go up from $45 to $54 per thousand gallons. Adjustments will be made for seasonal water users, such as the Opera House Association. The rates are calculated to recover some of the cost of operating the water system and are estimated to generate $59,247 in additional revenue for the Water Fund. In 2012, the meter data will be reviewed and a tiered rate system developed.

More infrastructure coverage here.