Western states edge ever-closer to water conflicts

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A water war may soon erupt among Western states, and Colorado could end up losing.

Demand for water is increasing, supplies are shrinking, and cities including Colorado Springs, Phoenix and Las Vegas are bracing for battle on the political and legal fronts.

Seventy percent of Colorado Springs’ drinking water comes from the Colorado River, which supplies municipal water to 30 million people and irrigates four million acres. Seven states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — all depend wholly or partially upon the river.

But the Colorado River basin has been gripped by an unremitting drought for the last 10 years which, combined with increased demand, has created a looming supply crisis.

And rather than easing, the drought may worsen in coming years, thanks to climate changes and the effects of this year’s La Nina, during which ocean conditions in the Pacific contribute to drought conditions in the West and Southwest.

“If I were concocting a recipe for a perfect drought, this would be it,” said Glen MacDonald, director of UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

While shortages have been around for years, the region may now be moving toward true crisis.

Lake Mead, the vast reservoir created by the construction of Hoover Dam in 1935, is at its lowest level since it began to fill in the 1930s. In the past decade or so, the lake, which is fed by the Colorado River, has fallen 135 feet to less than 35 percent of capacity.

A further 7-foot fall will trigger a 2007 drought-mitigation agreement, reducing water deliveries to Arizona by 11 percent and to Nevada by 4 percent. And if that’s not bad enough, another 25 feet could trigger a water crisis without parallel in American history.

More than 90 percent of Las Vegas’ water supply comes from Lake Mead, via two existing underwater intakes. Once the reservoir’s level falls 32 feet below today’s level, the primary intake will be unusable, according to Colorado Springs Utilities water resource manager Wayne Vanderschuere.

That’s a big problem for Vegas — and maybe a big one for Colorado Springs.

Thanks to complex agreements which govern the river, the Springs’ fate is inexorably linked to the drought and overuse that threatens to drain Lake Mead.

Almost all of the Colorado River’s water comes from winter snowpack in the Rockies, but most of the users are in Arizona, Nevada and California. A 1922 compact divides the water between the states, and obliges the water-producing states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) to supply 9 million acre-feet of water annually to the water-consuming states (Arizona, California and Nevada, as well as Mexico).

Ongoing drought and depleted reservoirs could force the producing states to reduce deliveries below the levels mandated by the compact.

In that case, consumer states would issue a “call” on the river. A call would force all Colorado users with rights dating after 1922 to end or curtail their waster use.

That would include Colorado Springs, and many other Colorado cities.

The opposing sides’ arguments aren’t new:

Producer states believe that consumer states ought to diversify their supply sources and reduce consumption, while consumer states want the water to keep flowing. And all seven states want economic growth, which leads to increased demand.

Gary Yaquinto, a former member of Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano’s cabinet who now heads the Arizona Investment Council, predicts conflict ahead.

“We’ve had water wars in the past,” he said, “and we’re going to have them again. As an arid state, Arizona has paid insufficient attention to the fact that our water supplies are limited. But water is vital, for life and for economic growth. We may well see political fighting.”

In a recent blog, Yaquinto pointed out that Arizona’s water supply will soon be insufficient — even if deliveries from the Colorado are not reduced.

“Lake Mead is being depleted by 1.5 million acre-feet annually,” said Eric Kuhn, the general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “It’s a little like the federal budget — we’re drawing it down and down and down. We’re taking 100 percent of the risk of climate change (in Colorado and the other producer states), since we’re obligated by the compact to deliver those acre-feet.”

The outlook could brighten, under certain circumstances.

“Some (long-term) forecasts predict increased precipitation in the Northern Rockies, and dry conditions in the rest of the basin,” Kuhn said. “That would put us in a good position — we’d be able to make our deliveries, and supply local demand, but the lower basin states would have to conserve (to accommodate continued growth).”

And if it’s dry throughout the basin?

“We’re in a world of hurt,” said Kuhn.

2 Responses to Western states edge ever-closer to water conflicts

  1. Would wind &/or water current powered desalination help those territories on the coast?

    Best regards


    Charlie Madden
    November 26, 2010 at 11:04 pm

  2. With greater Los Angeles, greater Los Vegas, and the Phoenix sprawl loaded to the gills with backyard swimming pools, I don’t think they are really “into” conservation.

    November 28, 2010 at 12:47 pm