Day of reckoning for the parched Southwest: technology and conservation won’t be enough

Original Reporting | By T.J. Lewan |

Indeed, despite the 1980 Groundwater Act, a 2010 study on aquifer water levels by the U.S. Geological Survey found mixed results; while many developed areas around Phoenix and Tucson showed levels that are nearly stable or rising, they remain hundreds of feet below what they originally were. And in many other aquifer areas where farmers rely on groundwater to irrigate crops, water tables are declining steeply.

K. Bruce Jones says that if population growth and economic activity are not curbed or managed in a sustainable way, the result will be constant, ever-steepening increases in water prices – a situation that will become so untenable “at some point you’ll have a reverse trend – massive depopulation.”

Around Prescott, Pinal, Santa Cruz, and Tucson, groundwater levels are down anywhere from 50 to 400 feet, according to Fred Tillman of the Geological Survey in Tucson, the study’s author. “So, we are actually running a water deficit now, one that’s absolutely not sustainable.”

The problem, of course, isn’t limited to Arizona: Aquifers across the Southwest are declining, says Leonard Konikow, an emeritus scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Va., who published a report last May on groundwater depletion in the United States between 1900 and 2008. During that time, Konikow found that American aquifers had lost the equivalent of two Lake Eries; alarmingly, the rate of decline increased between 2000 and 2008.

The situation in the American Southwest is particularly critical, he told Remapping Debate. “We’re already seeing areas where the water levels of wells have dropped so low that the costs of pumping the groundwater are too high for some farmers.”

Above ground, the scarcity is no less dire. A 2010 analysis funded by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that cities, industries and farms soak up 76 percent of all freshwater stream flow in the Basin region – nearly double the sustainable rate. “We’re leaving less than a quarter of what used to be in rivers,” the lead author of the study, John Sabo, a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences, says. Besides putting farms at risk during droughts, he says, the environmental impact of this “is staggering.”

And there’s this elephant in the room: Population within the Basin states is projected to nearly double from about 40 million in 2015 to 76.5 million by 2060, according to the Reclamation Bureau study, which based its forecast on state and U.S. Census Bureau figures. The arrival of more water consumers will itself eat into gains that would otherwise be made through conservation. On top of that, the region will have to deal with the consequences of the jobs that are created for those new arrivals – a requisite for that level of growth. Added workplace water use will further tax water supply than would be the case under a stable population scenario.


Facing a no-growth future

Of the several dozen people we interviewed, Brian Czech, an economist and president of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, a nonprofit in Virginia, was the most outspoken in saying that the region’s growth was unsustainable and would come to a stop – one way or another.

In Czech’s view, the Southwest’s conundrum is long in the making and derives from a basic flaw in its economic model: that non-stop growth is possible as long as enough money and labor is spent trying to achieve it, mindless of natural-resource limits.

Recycle and re-use water by all means, he says, but at the end of the day “the natural water cycle cannot pump perpetually faster. There is a finite stock of water, a finite rate of water cycling,” which limit the size of a sustainable economy. “Wishful thinking won’t change that. It won’t make your water supply infinite.”

As the Southwest continues to grow beyond what Czech calls “sustainable scale,” it will ultimately suffer “a great depression,” he says. “Water is not a luxury, and as the price of it becomes too much for people and their economic activities, why, that’s the very definition of poverty. Rising water prices mean wide-spreading poverty.”

What to do? Start curbing growth now by scrapping tax incentives and subsidies to homebuilding, mining, and high-tech industries, and fixing growth caps on the energy industry, Czech says. Won’t that be painful? Yes, Czech agrees, but the economy will gradually stabilize while businesses get more in sync with the environment – in other words, become more sustainable.

“To use a train metaphor,” Czech says, “you could say that we want to put the brakes on this runaway train now and try to get it to a stable speed and recognize at some point that we may need to slow it down even more to avoid a train wreck further down the line.”

Our troubled aquifers: low in many areas, and going lower

Aquifers across our nation are in trouble, but across the Southwest subterranean stores of water are in particularly dismal shape.

In New Mexico, a half-century of intense pumping has dramatically drained the aquifers around Albuquerque, says Nathan Myers, a groundwater specialist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Water Science Center. Since 2008, the first year the city began drawing surface water from the Rio Grande, water levels have since risen 10 to 20 feet – but they’re still 100 feet lower than they were in the 1950s, Myers says.

Elsewhere in the state, aquifer depletion is worse. In Clovis – whose motto is “A City on the Move – Come Grow With Us!” – groundwater levels have steadily declined for 30 years, says George Sieber, a hydrologist at the Water Science Center. Around Clovis the aquifers “are virtually being mined. There’s very little hope of recharge there.”

The aquifer picture in Nevada is mixed, but “I’d say on balance that groundwater levels are declining,” Kip Allander, a hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Science Center in Carson City. In the Diamond Valley, water-level declines are on the order of 150 feet, he says, and “there are regions in the state that have declined hundreds of feet as a result of irrigation use and over-appropriation of water rights.”

A half-century of groundwater pumping in California’s Central Valley has diminished aquifers in some areas by 300 feet, according to Claudia Faunt, a supervisory hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey in San Diego. “During wet periods the water levels stabilize or go up a bit, but they aren’t enough to make up for what we pump out of the system in the dry years.” Water banking and artificial aquifer recharging help, Faunt says, “but they’re not enough to keep up with the pumping.”

And even in sparsely populated Utah, which doesn’t yet utilize its full Colorado River allocation but projects a water deficit of 734,000 acre-feet by 2060, the groundwater picture is grim. In at least seven areas statewide, groundwater pumping is outpacing the natural rate of recharge, Kurt Vest, an engineer with the state’s Division of Water Rights, says.

Most critical is the Beryl-Enterprise area, a region that largely cultivates alfalfa, which is water-intensive. There, farmers pump 45 percent more groundwater than is naturally replenished; aquifer levels are down 70 to 120 feet, he says.

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