Welcome to summer! As we seem to be running out of all sorts of essential and nice to have things, courtesy of COVID-19, the Pandemic Panic, and those looking for any crisis to blow up into a world-ending disaster, we see we have another supply problem.
Here in the West, especially the Southwest, it is a little thing called water. The Colorado is short of it, and so Lake Mead keeps dropping, exposing all those mysterious dead bodies and more. And until the torrential rains last week, Montana and Wyoming were hurting too. (And may still be, even with the flooding.) Much of the West is in drought.
With that background, a correspondent asked this:
“What are the two major problems facing the water supply in the Southwestern United States?”
I figure that a LOT of people will be upset with me, but here goes.
First, let me be clear: by Southwestern I mean: Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and portions of Nevada, Utah, Colorado and a slice of Wyoming. I include Wyoming because it is at the extreme northern end of the Colorado River watershed (and that basin didn’t get much last week).
That said, the biggest problem with the water supply in the Southwest is excessive consumption of the limited amount of water available. This is especially true of the major and minor urban areas. Look at Google Earth and see how brilliantly green much of those areas are – compared with what is outside them. This bizarre New England-Atlantic Seaboard fetish with green lawns and trees, fountains, enormous urban parks with more green, and other wasteful and excessive consumption in a land where 15–20 inches of precip is a wet year? Crazy.
So look at all the big complexes: San-San (San Francisco to San Diego including ALL the Bay Area, the Los Angeles Basin, and more, Reno and Vegas, the Wasatch Front, Phoenix – Tucson, Albuquerque, El Paso, Midland – Odessa, the Dalworthingon Complex, and probably San Antonio and even Houston. And do NOT forget the Front Range of Colorado: Fort Collins, Greeley, Boulder, Metro Denver, Colorado Springs, and Pueblo. They ALL take water from the Colorado’s tributaries, as well as the Arkansas and Platte drainages.
But it is not just the urban residents and governments (and businesses) that are being stupid. Farmers – especially but not only truck farmers are also part of this excessive consumption. Whether you are pumping vast amounts of water from wells in the Texas Panhandle and Trans-Pecos (or father east) or using huge dams to capture and send water by pipelines to croplands. Whether you are growing cotton (a real water hog), wheat, corn, and such. Or if you are growing veggies and fruits in the Rio Grande valley or the Big Valley in California, the Wasatch Front and Dixie in Utah, the Grand and San Luis Valleys in Colorado, or all those places in Southern Arizona, you are using vast quantities of water to irrigate corps that were originally intended to grow in far wetter climates. And way too much is allowed to evaporate to the air by using sprinkler and flood irrigation.
Reason or problem number two: human stupidity on the large and small scale. From failing to recognize that drought-wet cycles have existed in this region for thousands of years, to refusal to conserve water in your house, your business, even your car and your church building. From government officials who just throw more money at a problem (or pass a hundred laws) to people who JUST HAVE TO HAVE a two-acre pond and 20 acres of alfalfa on their little 35-acre parcels in Colorado. And to people who refuse to think outside the box. A couple of thorium molten salt reactors and a few acres of land on the edge of San Diego, Los Angeles, and perhaps San Jose could produce virtually unlimited pure water from seawater, instead of stealing the water from the Rockies, the Great Basin, and the Sierra Nevada. You probably wouldn’t even have to use the land: floating off-shore might work! There are other problems, but they are almost nothing compared to these two, excessive consumption and stupidity. And really, much of the excessive consumption is due to… human stupidity. ESPECIALLY but not ONLY on the part of voters, politicians, bureaucrats and environists. (And to some degree, engineers without the fortitude (courage) to stand up and lay out the facts.)
To summarize, the problem with water is people. Careless and greedy, spoiled people who have let themselves be bought by all that government money and control – money of course that government did not earn – but rather, stole. People (and especially those in the government agencies) that have the hubris to believe that anything is possible – until it isn’t. And then they panic.
Today, that is reinforced by the environists who want us all in Xth Dynasty Egypt. Politically, economically, and socially. Especially the neo-Luddites who want to tear down the dams and dismantle the irrigation and water supply systems. It is NOT a shortage of water, but an excess of fear, greed, and stupidity.
The people of the southwest for over 100 years has turned a desert into what new England looks like in the summer. They have abuse the use of water and when it is not there they complain to the elected people who can do nothing.
California in particular is perplexing. They’re right next to an ocean, but don’t seem inclined to build desalinization plants, preferring to prop up their water usage by bringing already fresh water in from areas that have it (and need it).
Back in the 1930s and 1940s, I suppose that made sense. But today? You are absolutely right.
In 1930, California had a population of 5.7 million. Now it’s at about 40 million. And basically every advance in agriculture in e.g. the Central Valley has relied on more water to irrigate more acreage of more densely planted crops (agriculture constitutes about 40% of the state’s water usage).
Draining the entire western United States to keep that up isn’t, to use a favorite buzzword, “sustainable.”
I don’t know how much money it would take to switch from distant water sources to ocean desalinization, but that’s probably the only alternative to collapse of California agriculture, western aquifers, or both.