Next crisis? Usable water

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Deseret News, Sunday, May 13, 2001

Next crisis? Usable water

By Mort Rosenblum AP special correspondent

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. The desert around here, so dry that imported Arizona cactus needs watering, has sprouted a man-made ski lake, 100 lush golf courses, outdoor air conditioning and gardens fit for the tropics.

A quarter-million residents use an average of 375 gallons of water a day at home, twice the national norm. That costs a household only half as much as cable TV.

Beyond the Salton Sea to the south, 400 Imperial Valley farmers receive as much Colorado River water as Arizona and Nevada combined. Their main crop is alfalfa, a thirsty, low-profit feed for dairy cows and horses.

There, rain is a curse. It wilts the lettuce and unbalances the water district's cash flow by cutting demand for irrigation.

This is just a start. The river, flowing from sources in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, is piped to the fastest-growing cities in the United States: Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson. What little is left irrigates Mexico's richest farm region.

To water specialists, the overtapped Colorado River basin is symbolic of a calamity facing much of the world. Fresh water reserves are disappearing fast.

These experts see the California power crisis as the harbinger of

much worse to come.

"No one thought that a state richer than most countries could fail to deliver reliable supplies of electricity," warned Richard Brusca, a University of Arizona environmental scientist. "Well, guess what's next?"

People can survive power cuts and even live without oil, he adds. Water is another matter entirely.

Water wars

Like China's lifeline, the Yellow River, and other waterways on six continents, the Colorado often runs dry before reaching its mouth. Across America and the world, ancient underground lakes are squandered by overpumping.

Pesticides, fertilizers and solvents poison some aquifers far below the surface. Others take on salt water when levels drop too low.

The planet has no more fresh water than it did millennia ago. But with today's rocketing growth in arid zones, conflicting needs of farms, cities, industry, recreation and wetlands promise bitter water wars.

"We foresee serious problems," said Bruce Smith, the U.S. Defense Department official who supervises 300 projects in 100 countries designed to help provide water and reduce political tensions. "This is getting very bad."

He said the Pentagon and State Department now give high priority to preventing violent conflict over water in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

Yet water managers across America say the public and political leaders who can effect change seem to ignore the danger.

"Planners always say that we can worry about water supplies in the future," said Tom Turney, the New Mexico state engineer. "That doesn't work anymore. The future is now."

The Rio Grande is as overcommitted as the Colorado. Albuquerque, whose underground reserves were until recently vastly overestimated, could dry up by 2050. Already it has closed wells because of natural arsenic in the soil.

Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, has soared beyond a million inhabitants, typical of northern Mexico's growth. It could run out as early as five years from now.

"When you open the doors and see inside, it terrifies you," said Aletta Belin, a Santa Fe, N.M., environmental lawyer. "You think, 'Isn't someone supposed to be watching all this?' "

Linda Vida, of the Water Resources Center at the University of California-Berkeley, sees the same phenomenon across the American West and beyond.

"Nobody is looking out," she said, "The stakeholders want what they want. No political leader is willing to go out on a limb and make some people very unhappy. No one wants to deal with tying growth to resources. They just squeeze out more." As a result, she said, a drought that otherwise might be managed with water reserves could hit California far harder than the energy crisis.

Asking questions

Interviews with scores of specialists lead to a gloomy picture, but some also see points of light.

"People are beginning to ask the right questions," said Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute for Development in Berkeley. Technology is helping. Now, he noted, it takes one-tenth the water to make a ton of steel.

The Metropolitan Water District's conservation programs have reduced consumption, stabilizing water in Los Angeles despite population growth. "Met" is filling new reservoirs, above and below ground, to add reserve capacity.

Orange County Water District has a revolutionary project to triple-filter wastewater and recharge the substantial Santa Ana aquifer. This also helps to block encroaching sea water.

"We're showing California and the world that you can effectively recycle water," said William Mills, head of the district.

Still, as a seasoned engineer and manager, Mills sees the conflicts ahead. Old-style fights involved rifles and dynamited aqueducts, but now stakeholders head for the courts.

"We're going to see lawsuits everywhere over the next 10 years," he said. "The water wars are going to start all over again."

Each state has its own complex policy based on the days when farmers and ranchers held sway. Municipalities and water districts set their own rules. There is no federal water master.

Arizona is regarded as forward-looking in water matters. But its Water Resources Department in Phoenix, which sits behind a lush green lawn, faces frightening projections. The state population grew by 40 percent in a decade.

Two decades doubled Arizona's population to 5.13 million, pushing new homes onto waterless wasteland. Golf courses and parking lots climb dramatic hillsides, replacing unique Sonoran desert.

In Phoenix, where urban canals still flood home gardens, daily water use is 250 gallons per person. Wealthy suburbs are awash in lagoon-fringed subdivisions with "water" and "lake" in their names.

In Tucson, with more restrictions, the average use is 175 gallons. Yet saguaro stands and mountain foothills are plowed up for more resorts.

Tom Levy, general manager of the Coachella Water District and president of the California Water Contractors Association, sighs ruefully when asked about long-range planning.

"We water guys can never confront the hard issues," he said. "We find a temporary fix and hope we're retired before we have to answer for it. Then if our kids are attorneys, they can make a living sorting it out."

Dennis Underwood, former head of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and now assistant director of the Met in Los Angeles, lamented, "When it comes to planning, we're still looking at the end of our noses."

Around the country

Although attention mostly focuses on the U.S. Southwest, rivers as unlikely as the Ipswich near Boston have been pumped dry.

William Alley, director of groundwater research at the U.S. Geological Survey, sees shortages looming in much of the United States. Even areas with plentiful supplies are taking no chances.

The Great Lakes have one-fifth of the world's fresh surface water, he said, but recently a Korean tanker was refused permission to fill up there for ballast.

Along the Atlantic coast, seawater seeps into aquifers from Cape Cod to the tip of Florida.

The huge High Plains (Ogallala) Aquifer has been tapped so heavily that parts of Kansas and other Midwest areas may have to switch to rain-fed agriculture, Alley said.

In many places, land subsides. Overpumping in California's San Joaquin Valley has caused one section of farmland to drop 29 feet. Tucson, Albuquerque and Las Vegas are slowly sinking.

In the Southeast, drought has further depleted aquifers, letting in seawater. Desperate Florida authorities seek federal clearance to replenish underground water with untreated runoff.

The value of water

Most experts believe people won't save water until it costs what it is actually worth. Water is now essentially free. Most consumers pay only the cost of treatment and delivery. In some places, it is even illegal to meter water.

But putting a value on water is touchy.

Las Vegas authorities, for instance, insist their lavish use of water draws big spenders. Casinos among blazing lights and lagoons bring in far more than wheat and alfalfa.

Sandra Postel, author of two books on global water issues, worries about monetizing water. If the wealthy can buy up scarce water, what about the poor?

"How do we decide who wins and who loses?" Postel reflected. "Is this just a market issue?"

Palm Springs and nearby towns bloom on a desert moonscape against a backdrop of starkly beautiful mountains. Less than three inches of rain fall each year.

Nearly every home has a swimming pool, its water evaporating in the heat.

"People today are selfish, thoughtless and don't seem to care about anyone's future," fumes Pat Finlay, a retired actress and self-described "water Nazi" who badgers her Palm Desert neighbors to save every drop.

Levy, the district's manager, scheduled two public meetings to push conservation. Despite newspaper ads and 80,000 mailed notices, only 40 people showed up.

Controversy erupted when developers of Shadow Lake, near Indio, Calif., bought land and planned to pump groundwater to fill a 43-acre ski lake, 12 feet deep, and sell 48 sites for shore-side homes.

Kevin Loder, sales manager at Shadow Lake, acknowledges that his project might look like a waste of water. But he insists the opposite is true.

When completed, the opulent gated community will be worth $70 million, he said, contributing $1 million a year in taxes. The same water used for agriculture would add up to a fraction of net value.

"It all depends on the price you put on a bucket of water," Loder said. "The beauty of this is that we paid only $3,400 to fill the lake because we used agricultural water." He estimates the total at 100 million gallons.

He added: "We have a right to dig wells. Anyway, if we didn't use the water, it would just be sitting in Lake Havasu." California draws its Colorado River water from Havasu, a man-made reservoir on the border with Arizona.

A complicated reality

Others disagree vehemently. Mexico has twice as much farmland as the Imperial Valley but only half the water. Shrimp industries and fisheries are imperiled when Colorado water does not reach the Gulf of California.

The Los Angeles metropolitan area and San Diego are eager for more of the Colorado. Both have negotiated with the Imperial Valley district for water saved by more-efficient and costly irrigation.

In all, California gets one-quarter of 17.5 million acre feet divided annually among seven Western states and Mexico. It has also been consuming an extra 900,000 acre feet unused by others.

An acre foot, or 325,000 gallons, would cover a football field in a foot of water.

After negotiation last year, then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt signed a 15-year plan that would return California to its quota despite rocketing new demands.

Imperial Valley Irrigation District has raised $23 million to defend historical rights to its 3.1 million acre feet.

Some farmers say the only way to long-term survival is to fallow mediocre land, sell surplus water rights and use the remaining land more wisely. "I'm convinced we can eventually grow 10 times the food on a quarter of the land," said Alex Jack, whose high-tech investments include soil sensors linked by radio to his laptop computer.

Big-picture solutions

Jesse Silva, IID manager, is open to new water transfers but sees limits to how much water farmers can save.

"The way we're going, it's pretty scary," he said.

In Palm Desert, Levy predicts that large-scale desalination will be essential within 50 years. Even if technology cuts the cost, he said, agriculture will still face severe changes.

Desalination now costs about $800 an acre foot, Levy noted, but farmers can lose money with water at $15 an acre foot.

That adds in the issue of food security. What American farmers do not grow must be bought in world markets. But water shortages already cut deeply into other countries' production.

Experts agree that big-picture solutions in America and beyond must be as much political as technical.

Victor Baker, head of the University of Arizona hydrology department, believes engineers could solve most of the world's water problems if scientists and politicians alike would think differently.

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2001 Deseret News Publishing Company

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-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), May 13, 2001


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