From the El Paso Times (Marty Schladen):
Last year, when my boss, Bob Moore, mentioned a project about water, I thought the outlines were clear: We live in the desert. There’s not much water. We waste too much. Instead of managing the Rio Grande Basin as a whole, Texas and New Mexico usually just sue each other.
Each of those is true, but they don’t begin to describe the profound importance of this particular molecule or the size of the challenges it places before us. Thanks to some special good luck, I’ve been able to spend the past few months getting to know just how much I don’t know about them.
Bob connected with Keith Hammonds at the Solutions Journalism Network and secured a grant that will enable us to study the issue long-term and help grope for ways to solve it. It enabled me to travel to a conference of water managers in Las Vegas, where I got to hear some really smart people discuss ways they’re working to ensure taps never run dry in some of the largest, driest metropolitan areas of the country.
But it was on side trips that the long-term difficulty of water management were manifest. I drove to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, where the Colorado River gashed through 2 billion years worth of rock and 6,000 feet of geologic time.
When I drove to Hoover Dam, I saw another view of the Colorado.
Look over the concave side, and you see how humans have harnessed a mighty Western river to generate thousands of megawatts of electricity.
Look over the convex side and into Lake Mead, and you see nature not bending so easily. There’s a giant, white “bathtub ring” where the people of Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles — as well as California’s Imperial Valley — are draining the vast reservoir faster than the Colorado is willing to fill it.
The Rio Grande on which we depend is in even worse shape. Less than 10 percent full, its main reservoir at Elephant Butte is unable to provide its customers with anything like their full annual allotment.
Scientists tell me population growth is driving thirst while the weather is reverting to drier historic patterns. Climate change, they say, will only make things worse.
I’ve read that we’re in a trap of our own making. We’ve dammed Western rivers, encouraged growth and sought outcomes that ran not only against nature, but also common sense. In “Cadillac Desert,” Marc Reisner writes how in the 1960s, the Bureau of Reclamation spent billions building dams and flooding important natural habitat so it could open western lands so farmers could grow crops the government was paying other farmers not to grow back east, where rain fell reliably.
The Southwest is old and it’s seen painful versions of this tale before.
Great Indian cultures thrived for centuries, only to disappear when the weather changed or their irrigation practices ruined the soil.
We’ve made lots of mistakes when it comes to water, but one of the most profound lessons I’ve learned is that this is a story without many villains.
Who can blame farmers, businessmen or the politicians who represent them for wanting the prosperity reliable water promises? Decades on, though, our prosperity jeopardizes that reliability.
As part of this project, we got to travel to arid Australia, where the government has a similar history of ill-advised, well-intentioned water projects. A recent, devastating drought terrified the faraway nation and forced it to undertake sweeping reforms that many believe are working.
I don’t know enough to say whether any are applicable here. But I’m pretty sure we need to start planning a new water framework — now.
Marty Schladen is the El Paso Times’ Austin bureau reporter.