We keep hearing about the forthcoming water crisis in the Western states. This is a complicated issue and one in which water planners and conservation advocates have, in some ways, become victims of their own success. For a variety of reasons, water consumption in the U.S. has dropped since peaking in 1980. That is a good thing, but concern is growing rather than shrinking for two reasons: population growth in regions of water stress and reduced water supply, courtesy of global warming.
In order to head off what could easily be a future filled with massive shortages, particularly in these high water-stress areas, aggressive action must be taken. A number of ambitious and expensive projects have been proposed, but with Federal funds evaporating, it is left to water districts to fend for themselves. At the same time, revenues, which have historically been based on consumption, are down. So how in the world can these projects possibly get paid for?
Let’s take a look at the particulars.
A recently released three-year study of the Colorado River Basin by the Bureau of Reclamation forecast a significant and growing gap between supply and demand over the next 50 years. The mean natural flow of the river is expected to decrease by 9 percent while the population of the region is expected to grow by anywhere from 25 percent to 92 percent depending on which scenario is followed. And this is starting from a point in time, where, according to Eric Kuhn, Colorado River District General Manager, “the Colorado River is already fully used.” The overall shortfall is expected to reach approximately 25 percent of the river’s projected annual flow and in places like Nevada, ten times that state’s allocation.
A number of solutions were proposed in the report, which, like in the budget debate, consist of some combination of cutting demand (spending) and bringing in new sources (revenue). Included among the suggestions are several pipelines including a 263-mile line to bring eastern Nevada water to Las Vegas, southwestern Utah’s 139-mile Lake Powell pipeline, and the 500-mile Flaming Gorge pipeline from Wyoming to Colorado. Also mentioned are water desalination plants, and even icebergs towed in from the Arctic. Each of these is expected to cost over $1 billion.
At the same time, water revenues are drying up due to successful efforts to conserve, including low-flow showers and toilets, smaller households, conservation programs, rising water prices and the economic slowdown. Average household consumption dropped by as much as 100,000 gallons per year in Las Vegas. To put that in perspective, that was almost double that of Phoenix at its peak. It is now only slightly more than Phoenix, which is still, in turn, three times as much as Seattle, one of the nation’s lowest. Unfortunately, that decline is enough to drop the revenue of the Las Vegas Valley water district to the point where its $2 billion debt was downgraded last year, but not enough to avert disaster. There is a ticker on the Las Vegas Sun’s website that currently shows 2910 days remaining until the city runs out of water. The current trend shows Lake Mead running dry by 2021. Something needs to be done. A federal “safety net” project to bring renewable groundwater into Southern Nevada was approved in December.
This is a grim prognosis. But the solutions need not be as onerous or expensive as one might expect. In the midst of all this grandiose planning and fiscal hand-wringing, sit two common sense questions, like a pair of elephants in the room that are being ignored. The first is why we are still making it so attractive for people to relocate to these unsustainable areas where their presence puts such a burden on public infrastructure, with no requirement that they share the cost of this burden? The answer might be as simple as raising the price of water, but with consumption down, there is still not enough revenue to cover the cost of these projects. Another approach, assessing heavy connection fees for new housing, seemed fair and worked quite well in Las Vegas during the housing boom. But, once the economy dried up, so did this source of revenue.
Perhaps the biggest opportunity might just be the simplest one. Grass. Grass was not meant to be grown in the Mojave Desert. According to the Southern Nevada water authority, 70 percent of the water used by a typical resident is used to water plants outdoors. The big mistake was the dirt cheap water prices that were subsidized by the federal government when the area was first developed. This encouraged people to move in and to take water consumption for granted.
How about raising rates even higher? That could threaten those with lower incomes. In order to address social justice issues, the price structure could be set so that rates increased with usage, so that a person behaving responsibly with their consumption would not have a particularly large bill, but those using excessive amounts would pay a lot more.
The bottom line is this: before jumping into billion dollar projects that prop up inherently unsustainable activities, we should fully exploit efficiency, conservation and common sense.
RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.
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