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.


  1. One of the interesting aspects of this is the urban vs. rural component. To wit: when I flush my toilet, the water is processed through a septic tank and leach field, and thence back into the water table. When someone in Los Angeles flushes theirs, the water goes out to sea. So ten million people in the LA basin are taking fresh water and converting it into salt water!

    Irrigation, of course, is different no matter where it’s done: a lot of that water evaporates and is lost from the water table. I agree that golf courses in the desert are one of the most extravagant excesses of our culture. Yet much of our nation’s produce also comes from what is essentially desert climate.

    Lastly, it’s no accident that many nuke plants are built on the coasts: they can be cooled with salt water. (The effect of that increased temp on the local seacoast is another matter.)

    Seems like we ought to start taking into account that some uses DON’T need to be potable. And that fresh water needs to return to its source. (I wonder, will LA build another aqueduct to return its water once it’s been used rather than dumping it in the bay?)

  2. Doomsday scenarios and prophets are nothing new. We live in a culture of fear. That’s why chances are you’ll always hear more bad news than any good ones.

    If, however, you look at the kind of money and business coming to Vegas every day, it is hard to imagine that all these investors would be pouring their cash in a hole that’s about to disappear in several years. The largest real estate project in the history of US worth $7 bil. is in progress and several more to come. No one’s going to leave all of that till the money invested is returned and multiplied at least several times.

    Water, certainly, is a significant factor for growth and survival, but as someone recently said – if we run out of water, we’ll buy it, but we’ll always find ways to get it.

  3. Interesting. If you run out of water, you will buy it. Now, if the water you buy means that the farmer using it has to shut down, then do you care about the cost of food? OK, I know, we will buy our food from Brazil until they run out of water.

    If we are not ready to start dealing with the fact that global warming, the rainfall patterns in the Southwest and the fires now ravaging S. California are all connected.

    It really makes me ashamed to be part of a society that is built on the excess of taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich. That is why we have lotteries instead of raising taxes. That is why we tolerate Lost Wages and Laugh-lin. Tell me exactly what real value they places bring to our society.

    If you think that the Iraq war is about oil, just consider this. The fighting in Darfur is really about water and who controls the deep aquifer under that tortured place.

  4. Reading Harry’s comments, I can’t help but be reminded of the many boom-and-bust ghost towns throughout the west– some of which were quite large. Those in early got rich. Those who came late, left broke.

  5. Why in the midst of all of this dialogue has there not been one word mentioned about desalination?

    We need to start looking to the future. One person above commented on war being fought over water, not oil; that’s our future if we remain shortsighted. As a people, we seem to wait until the last minute to act on so many things. If sea-levels are indeed going to rise and leave us surrounded with not a drop to drink, we better be willing to invest the money it will take to convert some of that sea water or we will leave nothing for our children’s children to live on.
    America is a great country…if we don’t start looking to her future, that statement will just be another platitude.

  6. Las Vegas has mentioned desalinization, proposing to build a plant on the Pacific. They would swap that water for water from their own area that had been allocated for California.

    Desalinization is expensive, takes lots of energy, and disposal of the salt wastes is problematic. But certainly is one of many things that can be done.

  7. > hard to imagine that all these investors would be pouring their cash in a hole that’s about to disappear in several years

    Pat Mulroy, head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said in the article she knows there are no more untapped sources of water. None. And she’s a hardball business type, not a misty-eyed green.

    And besides, hey, lots of investors pumped billions into dot com companies, and much of that went away…

  8. Money does seem to have a way of protecting itself. One just hopes that it’s not a short-term investment that will cost us in the long run. Vegas has changed a lot since I was born here over 40 years ago, but it seems that people will never stop flocking here to leave us their money. If we’re smart and look down the road creatively, we should be able to maintain what people come here for. It’s good that people are talking about water in increasing numbers. For years it was just a handful of “greens” as Mr. Morris puts it, that were talking about it. Now everyone is beginning to realize this is an issue that won’t go away.

  9. Part of Vegas’s current plan is to divert (steal?) water from neighboring states like Utah– already the second-driest state in the union. See Proactively devloping its own sources, like desalinization, is a more sustainable path. Plus, returning urban water to the water table would seem to be a positive approach.

    I would think a desalinization plant would do little to change the salinity of ocean water since the same amount of water is typically pumped right back into the ocean as waste. If the salt went anywhere but the ocean, that would be a problem.

  10. It would only increase salinity if the concentration increases– i.e. if water decreases. But if you’re putting back (as waste) all the fresh water you’re removing, net salinity remains unchanged.

    Imagine it as a box of pingpong balls with one blue one and one hunded white ones– a ratio of 1:100. If you take a white one out and put a white one back, it’s still a ratio of 1:100. Only if you fail to replace the one you took does the ratio change.

    Depending on methods, currents, and tides, there could be a problem of local salinity variations (around the plant), but I would think that by coordinating input with dishcarge (as well as choosing an appropriate site) this could be overcome.

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