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

Original Reporting | By T.J. Lewan |

Czech isn’t alone in recognizing limits. Water resource officials from states around the region gave us candid responses when asked whether conservation and the application of high technology would be enough to close the gap between water demand and supply.

Pat Mulroy, director of the Southern Nevada Water Authority: “We can’t conserve our way out of this. And technology is not something we can pull out of our back pockets tomorrow … There are no silver bullets here.”

Ted Kowalski, water manager for the state of Colorado: “I don’t believe that conservation in itself is enough to meet the growing needs that we see, especially if an additional five million people move into our state.”

Eric Millis, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources: “No, conservation can’t do it all. And technology can only take you so far, even less than conservation would.”


Higher water costs are coming…and those costs bring consequences

There are water mavens who would say that water supply isn’t as limited as we think – that, as a final fallback position, we can always tap the oceans to make up for shortages.

One is Herb Guenther, a former state senator and director of Arizona’s water resources department from 2003 to 2011. He envisions a day when desalination plants mushroom up and down the Mexican and Californian coasts and water pipelines carry blue gold into the desert. Another tack, he says, would be for states like Arizona or Nevada to pay for those desalination plants in exchange for using Mexico’s and California’s allotments of Colorado River water.

Groundwater pumping for irrigation, mining, and municipal use is depleting aquifers across the Southwest, in some places by hundreds of feet. Increasingly, as more aquifers are drawn down, the earth above them is subsiding and splitting open – as it did in this area near Hunt Highway in Pinal County, Arizona. Fissures like this one sometimes damage roads, dams, canals, bridges and utilities, posing threats to public safety – and public coffers.

“The only thing that will limit our ability to meet demands is if we don’t eventually go to ocean desalination,” Guenther says.

To Frank Ackerman, a senior economist at Synapse Energy Economics, a consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass., that analyzes the energy industry’s footprint on the environment, that scenario “sounds like dreaming.”

Desalting plants are extremely expensive, and the costs of building and maintaining a network of water pipelines into the interior would be astronomical, Ackerman says. Disposing of the brine concentrate is a major environmental concern, and communities aren’t going to welcome not-very-attractive desalting plants to California shores with open arms. Desalting plants “don’t really add to your property value, if you buy a house at the beach,” he says.

Already facing an energy crunch, California would have to generate enormous amounts of power to run the desalting plants and pump the treated water into the vast, high-plains desert. And don’t forget the cost of separating salt from seawater – currently around $2,000 an acre-foot. (One acre-foot is enough to supply two average homes for a year.) Those costs follow inflation; as energy gets pricier, so does desalted water, Ackerman says.

Guenther concedes that homeowners would pay “significantly” more for desalted seawater – $500 a month, or higher. “Water would probably be the highest demand on a family’s budget as you get out to those crisis points.” But because water “is such a necessary commodity for existence, I think you’d pay what you need to pay in order to exist. So, it’s just a matter of adjusting the economies of it, and being able to move desal water to the areas where you are going to need it.”

His successor, Fabritz-Whitney, who also views desalination as a viable solution to future water shortages, acknowledges that “it’s going to cost people money … We’re talking millions to a billion dollars, up-front.” If people aren’t willing to pay, “you aren’t going to achieve those growth projections. You can’t.”

Even optimists about water supply can’t see anywhere for costs to go but up. Elliott D. Pollack, an economist and real estate consultant in Scottsdale, projects annual home sales in Phoenix to double by the mid-2020s, reflecting renewed population inflow to Arizona. He asserts that there won’t be a water shortage, but says that “absolutely” Phoenix will have to raise water rates.

Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis, recalls an old economics axiom: “There’s never a shortage of water; there’s only a shortage of cheap water.” In the Southwest, the cost and price of water will rise, he says, and “if we’re smart about it, we’ll allow some regulated trading to even things out.”

But whom will these increases hurt? “As always, those at the bottom of the economic ladder will feel it the most,” says Czech, the steady state proponent. Later, as more people get squeezed, “it’ll be like a rising blood pressure scenario for the Body Economic: The damage starts at the extremities and then spreads throughout the entire body.” As more people are forced to devote larger and larger shares of their budgets to paying for water, he explains, they’ll have less to spend on other goods and services, which in turn will further dampen economic activity, thereby causing more pain to more people.

K. Bruce Jones, executive director of the Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas, 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.”

That’s not unheard of in the American experience, he notes. Indeed, Americans once believed that cities such as Detroit, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Cleveland, and Buffalo would perpetually grow – until they started hemorrhaging people.

Voice from the past: John Wesley Powell on sustainable development

John Wesley Powell, the legendary geologist who led the first known expedition down the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon in 1869, knew a thing or two about the Southwest. It was he, after all, who provided the earliest available blueprint of what we now describe as “sustainable development” in the Southwest.

In his 1876 account, “A Report on the Arid Regions of the United States, with a More Detailed Account of the Lands of Utah,” Powell had already recognized a special difficulty that water managers would forever struggle against in the Southwest: the psychological desire to deny that the region is fundamentally dry, and that the rules for building, living, and working there are different from those in wet regions.

Powell defined the region as arid – land that received less than 20 inches of rain a year – and wrote that the West was not suitable for agricultural development, except for about 2 percent of land near water sources. Water scarcity, he predicted, would place limits on the growth of a new civilization in the Southwest.

Prophetically, he remarked at an irrigation conference in 1883: “Gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply the land.”

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