Phoenix admirably uses less water than it did decades ago, even as its population has grown hugely. The city wants to store its unused Colorado River allocation in Lake Mead for future use, but due to archaic, convoluted water laws, is not allowed to do so. This is the Tragedy of the Anticommons, where poor management leads to sub-optimal use of resources. As Butters once said on South Park, “Ouch, that makes my brain hurt.”
Inkstain unravels the tangled skein that allows such absurdities to happen. It should be noted that Phoenix storing water in Lake Mead would help southern Nevada, as it would mean less chance of water levels dropping below crucial Las Vegas intake pipes.
Prior to 2007, water use on the Lower Colorado River among Nevada, California, and Arizona was pretty much use-it-or-lose-it. The 2007 shortage sharing guidelines, an agreement among the states and the federal government, created a new management widget that changed that, called “Intentionally Created Surplus.” Lower Basin water users holding contracts with the Bureau of Reclamation could conserve water, jump through some bureaucratic hoops, and leave the water in Lake Mead for later. By the end of 2013, there was 1.1 million acre feet of ICS water in Lake Mead. In other words, this new institutional widget encouraged Lower Basin water users to conserve enough water to raise Mead’s elevation by something like 10 feet.
But Phoenix can’t use the ICS mechanism, because it is not a direct contractor. It gets its water instead through the Central Arizona Project, which as holder of the contract is the only one eligible for ICS. So CAP can store water in Mead, but Phoenix can’t.
The Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers converge in the crucial Sacramento Delta. Water is pumped southward from there to the Central Valley and southern California and is fed by precipitation in the Sierra Nevadas. Unfortunately, the drought will persist in the Sierras, which is bad news for California. It doesn’t really matter if conditions improve in southern California as the vast bulk of its water comes from the Delta.
Some reservoirs in northern California are considerably lower than last year, with some being perilously low. Camp Far West is at a mere 4% of capacity.
In all, the state of reservoirs statewide means that the winter will need about 150 percent of its average precipitation, both rain and snow, to recover, said Ted Thomas, spokesman for the Department of Water Resources.
“If we get another dry winter, our reservoir storage will become even more critically low, and we would expect mandatory conservation to spread across the state,” Thomas said.
Los Angeles is beginning to offer incentives for drought-resistant lawns and water-saving appliances. This is a good start. However, it should have been done long ago. Further, if the drought worsens, then watering lawns should simply be banned.
California, with the exception of some agriculture, can survive mega-drought by reusing water, implementing underground water storage, mandating xeriscaping, and treating water as a local product rather than assuming the Water Fairy will always deliver water as needed. Las Vegas already has toilet-to-tap reuse of water. Arizona and California will need to adopt such measures too. California will also need to strictly regulate groundwater pumping. It is the only state that doesn’t do so, which to my mind, is nearly criminal, and leads to such atrocities as water being pumped from desert aquifers to be used in bottled water. (Newly-passed California laws on groundwater pumping will take years to implement and are mostly toothless.)
According to the researchers, the state may weather the changes without experiencing serious economic or social difficulties, assuming it does one big thing:
Researchers at the University of California-Davis Center for Watershed Sciences constructed a computer model of the consequences of seven decades of drought in California. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, their findings were surprisingly upbeat. With some exceptions — notably the disappearance of a substantial amount of Imperial Valley agriculture — the California economy could thrive despite long-term mega-drought.
Australia survived a brutal drought recently by simply learning to use less water. California will no doubt do the same, especially if it becomes clear the previous 150 years were exceptionally wet.
Currently, California gets a huge share of Colorado River water, which discourages conservation. However, there is no way in Hell California would continue to get full allotments if cities in other states started to go dry. That simply would not be allowable politically, the Law of the River be damned.
In-state hydropower output dropped 50% from the norm in California in 2014. The difference is being made up with increased use of natural gas, as well as wind and solar. However, natural gas power does require substantial amounts of water for cooling, creating a bit of a Catch-22. California also imports large amounts of energy from big hydro in Washington and coal plants in Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico.
California’s drought, which began in 2011, has resulted in a significant decline in hydropower generation. On average, hydropower accounted for 20% of California’s in-state generation during the first six months of each year from 2004 to 2013. During the first half of 2014, however, hydropower accounted for only 10% of California’s total generation. Monthly hydropower generation in 2014 has fallen well below the 10-year range for each individual month.
Wind and solar generation are also playing an increasingly significant role in California’s generation mix. For the first time, wind generation surpassed hydro generation in California, doing so in both February and March of 2014.
The Columbia River Basin in Washington supplies 40% of hydropower in the US. Some parts are in drought but nowhere near as severe as California.
Once land subsides, it can never rise back up to where it had been. Worse, constant pumping of water from aquifers alters their structure, making them less able to hold water. The San Joaquin Valley in California is ground zero for unregulated groundwater pumping. Yes, California finally passed a law regulating groundwater pumping. However, it will be years before it is implemented and it’s mostly toothless. Meanwhile, crucial aquifers are overpumped, the earth is subsidizing, and aquifers canna take any more of this, captain.
Mavens Notebook has a comprehensive article on subsidence in the Central Valley. It is required reading for water wonks! Subsidence is some areas is now a foot a year and isimpacting the ability of crucial canals to carry water southward.
It’s been called the largest alteration of the earth’s surface. In the San Joaquin Valley, since the 1920s, farmers have relied on groundwater to varying degrees, and over time, overpumping of groundwater basin has caused the land to subside – over 30 feet in some locations.
We care about land subsidence for two reasons: Infrastructure damage and flood protection and damages to our natural resources, she said. “Water conveyance systems and other water infrastructure get damaged by subsidence because it’s happening at different rates at different locations. If the whole San Joaquin Valley was subsiding at the same rate and in the same way, then nobody would really care, but it’s this differential subsidence, the different amounts of subsidence in different places that really damages canals, roads, railways, pipelines, bridges – anything that crosses these areas of differential subsidence can get damaged.”
Canals are particularly sensitive because gravity is oftentimes used to move water, and this means that every point downstream needs to be at a lower elevation than every point upstream or pumps are needed.
It’s not just the drought. California’s refusal to be proactive about pumping water from wells is a major reason for shallow wells running dry. Wells that have been reliable for years are running dry in the San Joaquin Valley. Worse, water levels are dropping faster than normal. Thousands of residents have scheduled new wells to be drilled. The waiting list is months long. Some wells have already run dry. The extreme drought coupled with big ag drilling ever-deeper wells is dropping aquifer levels. California recently passed a toothless law regulating groundwater pumping however it will take years to implement. Other western states have regulated wells for decades.
The winter precipitation ended up about half of normal. Last week, Clark’s well went dry.
Clark is filling up water bottles at another neighbor’s house. She’s using it to cook, drink and flush the toilet. The shower is unusable. She’s eating off paper plates so she won’t have to wash dishes.
To bathe, she’s going to a relative’s house in Lemoore.
270 families in East Porterville, population 7,000, say their wells have run dry, a number which will certainly grow larger.
England said counting the number of dry wells is difficult because people don’t come forward fearing their children will be taken away if their home lacks a safe water source, or they believe that their home would be condemned, making them homeless.
The lower Colorado River Basin may get a bit more rain than normal for the next three months, which is certainly good. However it still looks dire for California and its all-important Sierras and Sacramento Delta.
The good news is that odds favor wet for the southerly part of the basin, especially Arizona and New Mexico. The “meh” part is that the low country doesn’t contribute much of the river’s overall supply. Most of that falls in the Rockies to the north, where the current forecast could be worse – slight tilt in the odds toward wet for a portion of the basin. But only slight.
However, Lake Mead and Lake Powell are at their combined lowest total since 1967.
“The people of the state of California are more or less destroying themselves in order to give cheap almonds to the world.” – David Zetland.
California grows 80% of the world’s almonds. Over one million acres on the Central Valley is now almond trees. The extreme drought and complete lack of laws regulating groundwater pumping means aquifer levels are dropping fast. Yes, California (finally) passed a weak law regulating groundwater. However it’s toothless and will take years to implement.
David Zetland, economics professor at Leiden University College in the Netherlands, says farmers are pumping water at a rate four to five times greater than can be replenished.
“The problem is that California, because of its failed institutions for managing water, is allowing these almonds to come on market at $3-$4 a pound wholesale, when the price would be tripled if California was managing its water sustainably and farmers faced the real cost of water.”
Flood basin intake. South Point casino in background
Flood basin intakes from basin side. Stratosphere way in background
When it rains in Las Vegas, it can easily flood, hence the city has an elaborate system of flood channels. Water empties into this large basin, located in a residential area near South Point casino, where excess water can be stored befor releasing it downstream. This basin is about half a mile long and a quarter mile wide. The Clark County Regional Flood Control District wants to eliminate the possibility of damage from a 100-year flood. So far, 90 detention basins have been built along with 581 miles of channels and underground storm drains.
California could gain over 10 million acre feet of water a year by implementing urban and agricultural water use efficiency, water reuse, and stormwater capture, says a recent report titled The untapped potential of California’s water supply. The entire Southwest could benefit greatly from supply and demand reduction too.
“The blue bars show our estimate of what efficient use would be if we were comprehensively using the technologies and practices we know work, that in fact we’ve been developing and applying in California for several decades, but not completely,” he said. “The green bar is the really optimistic, if we were really efficient, if we were maximizing technology and the policies and practices that we might do – Some of the things that Australia did after eight or nine years of drought when they were really up against the wall and they really had to push beyond the kinds of things that they had been doing day to day.”
The experience of Australia shows that huge reductions in water usage can be accomplished. This is good news, even if the Southwest might be headed for a mega-drought.
He noted that with really aggressive savings, we could cut residential water use substantially, as much as up to 50%. “We know that from experience in Australia that these are achievable; this is what really efficient residences could look like. There’s a conversation to be had here about what kind of gardens we want and what kind of lawns we want, if we want lawns and gardens. But these are achievable. Whether your savings occur inland or whether your savings occur at the coast make a difference as well.”
If the Southwest drought continues, lawns may simply have to be banned. Golf courses too. Groundwater pumping will need to be strictly regulated and water will need to be metered, with pricing that encourages conservation. It can be done. And probably will have to be.