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Archive | Water

Lake Mead and Lake Powell get water, more needed


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The major amounts of rain and snow this winter will boost water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, and this is good news indeed. However more is definitely needed and these crucial lakes are still historically low.

Plus, because the politics of the Colorado River are always more convoluted that they might seem,  needed water this year could mean less emphasis for negotiating the Drought Contingency Plan which would cut water use in the Lower Basin and plan for shortfalls in the Upper Basin. Long-term, that could be a problem.

For those trying to get the damn deal done, the big snowpack is a setback.

So it’s worth reminding ourselves where we’re at. From the perspective of the last few years, a 4 million acre feet bump is great news. But as the graph above makes clear, we’ll still end up the water year down 20 million acre feet from the start of the 21st century. We’re along way from being out of the hole.

Sacramento Delta tunnels impact entire Southwest water plans

Graphic shows location for proposed twin giant water tunnels within the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta;

Journalist and blogger John Fleck, author of Water is for Fighting Over: and Other Myths about Water in the West points out in his newsletter that Obama now favors the Sacramento Delta tunnels project (and Trump almost certainly will too.) Yes, it will be hugely expensive. Yes, the Delta may suffer. However the delivery of that water impacts the entire Southwest, yes it does.

Because the more water Southern California gets from Northern California, the less it will need from the Colorado River, water which seven states rely on.

From his email newsletter.

The interconnected nature of the West’s water system means California’s success or failure at dealing with the Sacramento Delta impacts the rest of us. Problems there make it harder for Southern California to make the deal that needs to be made to conserve water on the Colorado River. Non-Californians watch all of this nervously.

There’s a second California water issue that also makes me nervous. I had an op-ed Dec. 23 in the Sacramento Bee about the Salton Sea, arguing that without a solution to the Sea’s problems, it is hard for Southern California to join a Colorado River water conservation deal.

Water conservation works. Lake Mead levels have stabilized


Lake Mead will end 2016 only two inches lower than in 2015, despite the drought. This is because, among other things, Nevada and Arizona continue to use less water than their allotment. Las Vegas also recycles all inside water. It flows back into lake Mead and is reused over and over. This does not count against its minuscule 1.8% allotment of water from Lake Mead.

Conservation works. Southern Nevada, Phoenix, and Tucson now use less water overall than they did twenty years ago, despite much larger populations.

As I write this on New Years Eve, it looks like Mead will end 2016 at elevation 1,080 feet and change above sea level, just a couple of inches below where it ended 2015. Maybe the experience of the last couple of years suggests “inexorable” is no longer the right word?

A few things are going on here:

Arizona only took 2.61 million acre feet of water in 2016, 93 percent of its full allotment.
Nevada only took 235,000 acre feet, 78 percent of its full allotment.

Over the last couple of years, the combined conservation efforts of Arizona and Nevada are equivalent to about 8 feet of elevation in Mead – water that is currently sitting in the reservoir.

Resilient thinking. Las Vegas and water usage

A common misconception is southern Nevada and Las Vegas are huge water pigs. The opposite is true. Per capita water use has dropped since 2001, thanks to a smart region-wide water authority that encourages conservation and a world-class system that recycles and reuses every drop of water that goes down a drain or toilet, as well as saving rainwater, by letting it all flow back into Lake Mead where it is reused.

The entire rainwater capture system works by gravity. There are no pumps. Rain is captured in huge basins, flows downhill to water treatment plants, marshlands, Lake Las Vegas, then into Lake Mead. By law, southern Nevada can use 1.8% of water in Lake Mead. However, recaptured water does not count towards that total. It’s one of the most innovative water systems anywhere.

In the early 1990s, southern Nevada was headed towards a water crisis. One problem was there were seven water agencies. They joined together to create the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which shares resources.

The ability to band together to take collective action for the common good is a key to resilience in human systems.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority created a regional framework for the pursuit of conservation, and pursue it Las Vegas did. With publicity campaigns, restrictions on landscaping in new construction, and policies like lawn buy-back programs, Las Vegas residents’ water use began to drop. From 1994 to 2014, per capita water use declined by 36 percent. Conservation soon outstripped population growth, such that total water use peaked in 2002 and has been declining ever since.

From the comments. This is key. Charge more for water and people will use less.

Fun fact – in Nevada, it is legal for a water authority to raise prices with the intent of encouraging conservation in usage. Aggressive pricing of a scarce resource is a key driver in reducing Vegas’ water usage per capita, along with the other policies you mention. In contrast, In California water authorities can only charge for cost of service, which makes it much harder to reduce water usage per capita.

Largest power plants worldwide are hydroelectric

biggest power plants hydro

Hydroelectric is the quiet workhorse of electricity generation. The nine biggest power plants in the world are hydroelectric. Three Gorges in China is the biggest by far, with a capacity of 22.5 GW. (One gigawatt can roughly power 725,000 homes in the US, probably more in China.)

The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant in Japan has been shut down since Fukushima, thus the top nine are all hydroelectric. Big coal and nuclear plants come close to matching the 6.5 GW output from bottom-ranked Sayano-Shushenskaya Dam but do not surpass it.

Big hydro is indeed renewable energy, however not without environmental issues. Huge dams displace large number of people. The weight of all the water can trigger earthquakes. Eventually the lakes do silt up. And there are other issues too.

Dammed rivers have also impacted processes in the broader biosphere. Most reservoirs, especially those in the tropics, are significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions (a recent study pegged global greenhouse gas emissions from reservoirs on par with that of the aviation industry, about 4% of human-caused GHG emissions). Recent studies on the Congo River have demonstrated that the sediment and nutrient flow from the Congo drives biological processes far into the Atlantic Ocean, including serving as a carbon sink for atmospheric greenhouse gases.

Large dams have led to the extinction of many fish and other aquatic species, the disappearance of birds in floodplains, huge losses of forest, wetland and farmland, erosion of coastal deltas, and many other unmitigable impacts.

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