The future is drying up

The perfect drought. NY Times magazine

Thoughts and quotes from the superb New York Times magazine feature story on drought in the southwest.

The problem

Lake Mead, the enormous reservoir in Arizona and Nevada that supplies nearly all the water for Las Vegas, is half-empty, and statistical models indicate that it will never be full again.

“As we move forward all water-management actions based on ‘normal’ as defined by the 20th century will increasingly turn out to be bad bets.”

Every available gallon of the Colorado River has been appropriated by farmers, industries and municipalities. And yet, the region’s population is expected to keep booming.

When I asked if the drought in his models would be permanent, he pondered the question for a moment, then replied: “You can’t call it a drought anymore, because it’s going over to a drier climate. No one says the Sahara is in drought.”

The real problem is the growing population and decreasing water supplies. Every drop has already been appropriated. But the snowmelt is lessening, and that means less water. You’ve heard of Peak Oil. We could be looking at Peak Water in the southwest – and the peak may have already occurred.

Possible solutions

Aurora CO plans to continually reuse water by pumping treated water into the South Platte river, then pumping it out miles downstream, purifying it again, and reusing it.

In the future, wastewater will have to be recycled and reused, so let’s all get used to it.

Treated wastewater isn’t a liability, it’s an asset.” We don’t need potable water to flush our toilets or water our lawns. “One might say that’s a ridiculous use of potable water. In fact, I might say that. But that’s the way we’ve set it up. And that’s going to change, that’s got to change, in this century.”

Las Vegas, ground zero for southwest water problems.

From Pat Mulroy, head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

“We have an exploding human population, and we have a shrinking clean-water supply. Those are on colliding paths. This is not just a Las Vegas issue. This is a microcosm of a much larger issue.”

I got the feeling that for Mulroy it means that every blade of grass in her state would soon be gone.

Presumably that will include golf courses. Any golf course in a southwest desert needs to be shut down. Period.

Mulroy has been jawboning, breaking up water accords made in the 1920’s in favor of newer ones that get Vegas more water, something every other city and town in the southwest wants to do with their water supply too.

Water shortages and global warming

The two problems — water and energy — are so intimately linked as to make it exceedingly difficult to tackle one without the other. It isn’t just the matter of growing corn for ethanol, which is already straining water supplies. The less water in our rivers, for instance, the less hydropower our dams produce. The further the water tables sink, the more power it takes to pump water up. The more we depend on coal and nuclear power plants, which require huge amounts of water for cooling, the larger the burden we place on supplies.

Should millions of people even live in deserts? If, because of crisis, water gets diverted from agriculture to humans, then there will be less food for all. What then? Clearly, these problems can not be solved on a local or even state-wide basis. The solutions will have to come from regional alliances and agreements where all the stakeholders have a say in what happens. the only alternative to a morass of lawsuits, turf wars, and nasty fights.