The drying of the West — The Economist #ColoradoRiver

US Drought Monitor February 18, 2014
US Drought Monitor February 18, 2014

Click here to read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

On January 17th Governor Jerry Brown urged Californians to cut water use by 20% and issued a drought declaration, which loosens the rules restricting in-state water transfers. Last week Barack Obama visited Fresno, in California’s fecund Central Valley, to announce $183m of federal aid before spending three days golfing on well-watered courses in the desert. This week California’s leaders pledged a further $687m in drought relief…

Drought is also afflicting California’s neighbours to the east (see map). But they, along with California, are grappling with a longer-term problem: the Colorado river, which waters seven states (plus part of Mexico), is struggling to service its clients. Thanks to declining flows, last year the Federal Bureau of Reclamation (FBR), which oversees its use, cut the release of water from Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border to Lake Mead, America’s largest reservoir. It has never done this before…

Traditionally the West has tried to engineer its way out of water problems, and that approach is not dead in Nevada. Greater Las Vegas, where most Nevadans live, depends on Lake Mead for 90% of its water, but before long the lake is expected to fall below the level of the first of two pipes that connect it to the city. So officials are building a deeper $816m “third straw” to maintain supply. They also want to lay a 300-mile pipeline to bring water from Nevada’s sparsely populated north to Las Vegas, a controversial plan some compare to Los Angeles’s removal of water from the Owens Valley 100 years ago (as fictionalised in Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown”)…

Douglas Kenney of the University of Colorado Law School predicts “a new era” of water management. One still occasionally hears grand talk of transporting water from the Missouri river, or of ferrying icebergs from Alaska, but these pipe dreams are giving way to a focus on conservation and reform. Thanks to careful planning by water authorities many cities in the West have slashed per-capita water use; in the past 12 years Las Vegas has cut consumption by one-third as its population grew by a fifth. Its successful “cash-for-grass” programme (since renamed after grumbles from the Drug Enforcement Administration), which pays residents to tear up lawns, has been imitated elsewhere. All water used indoors is recycled.

But more can be done, says Michael Cohen at the Pacific Institute, a think-tank. Cities in dry places like Israel and Australia still consume far less water than Las Vegas. Other cities in the West have a long way to go: half the houses in Sacramento do not meter water; Palm Springs, close to where Mr Obama teed off this weekend, still peddles the old illusions of desert verdancy. As for water trading, it is underdeveloped within states, let alone between them.

Most of the future growth in water demand is likely to come from cities. Some therefore argue that urbanites should bear the burden of reducing demand. This is too kind to farmers, who waste far more. Crops that cannot be grown without subsidies should not be grown. It should not take a drought to make people stop building paddy fields in the sand.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here and here.

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