Nature has given us a gift, an extraordinarily wet winter. Yet this short-lived gift of water also dampened the momentum needed to avoid unprecedented water shortages for the 40 million people who depend on the Colorado River.
Last year, water levels at Lake Powell and Lake Mead plunged to historic lows, prompting the Bureau of Reclamation to come to Jesus with its current drought emergency plan, calling for cuts beyond the original proposal. Their goal is to maintain sufficient water and hydroelectricity for the people, agriculture and industry that depend on the river. Seven basin states have been tasked with negotiating a unified plan that would reduce water use from 2 million to 4 million acre feet annually.
Chronic overuse and rising temperatures have dried out the tanks. Basin states, including tribal nations, and Mexico have legal rights to 16.5 million acre feet annually of Colorado River water, and approximately 1.5 million acre feet annually are unaccounted for and evaporate or lose before they reach fields or faucets. Total demand on the river is approximately 18 million acre feet annually.
Over the past 100 years, the river has delivered on average only about 14 million acre feet annually. Since 2000, that number has dropped, even lower, to about 12 million acre feet per year.
Experts say we need to prepare for even less. Pat Mulroy, former water manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), said: “We’re talking about a body of law and a framework that we’ve lived by based on 17-18 million acre-feet and a reality which has 9 to 11 million acre-feet in the river the two don’t intersect.Based on my calculations, balancing supply and demand requires cuts of at least 4 million acre-feet annually.The deficits are staggering.
Developing short- and long-term solutions between stakeholders is critical to avoiding a devastating collapse of the Colorado River system and lengthy legal disputes. Disagreements over what water to cut off and how much will be amplified due to first in time, first in just doctrine that legally hands out water first to those with senior or senior rights, leaving others with lesser rights holding a handful of sand.
Recently, the Lower Basin states (California, Arizona and Nevada) proposed a plan to reduce their collective water use by approximately 1 million feet per acre per year over the next three years. That is far less than the 2-4 million acre feet per year required by the Bureau of Reclamation. Adopting this new plan would just kick the watering can down the road.
Prior to this latest proposal, California had resisted taking responsibility for significant water cuts, prioritizing senior citizens’ rights to the majority of its annual endowment of 4.4 million acre feet, the largest share among the seven states. . A concession came after California faced pushback for disagreeing with a proposal by the other six states to cut water consumption.
In the new proposal, California agreed to more than half of the new round of water cuts.
According to Elizabeth Koebele, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno, much of the debate over the Colorado River lies in the expectation that California will be held accountable for 1.5 million acre-feet a year of water losses. evaporation in the lower basin. .
By championing senior citizens’ water rights and a do-nothing plan, California had hoped to absolve itself of these losses, despite the disruption of its water lifeline, the risk of dead pools on Lake Mead and the power outage. and downstream water.
Evaporative water losses could be mitigated by installing solar panels on water infrastructure such as those along a 370-mile-long aqueduct that stretches from Los Angeles to the Owens River in the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains. This solar/shade project, introduced in November 2022 by the Los Angeles City Council, could reduce evaporation while generating clean renewable energy.
Municipal conservation and reuse systems play a role in water depletion in the Colorado River Basin. Southern Nevada is a testament to these strategies, growing more than 750,000 units since 2002 and reducing water use by 26%. Southern Nevada’s water recycling facilities and turf removal programs are the gold standard and a model for other states.
But conservation, however critical it may be, is often used as an opportunity to support new growth and development. Ultimately, it can perpetuate sprawl, worsen traffic congestion, and increase the very greenhouse gases that are warming the atmosphere and causing water shortages. Conservation must prioritize reducing water use over economic gains.
This may be especially true for agriculture. A report by a multinational team of researchers explains how modern irrigation systems can actually exacerbate water scarcity. Farmers take their water-saving money and invest it back into production, so there are no savings out of the total water use equation, said co-author Adam Loch, an associate professor at the Center for Food and Resources. Globals of the University of Adelaides.
However, water efficiency practices must be implemented to permanently reduce overall water use.
Examples include lining leaky ditches, shading ditches with solar panels, installing drip irrigation systems, or switching to less thirsty crops (alfalfa is a thirsty crop).
Agriculture accounts for almost 80% of water consumption. This is where the most effective water saving solutions will be found. The recent proposal made by Lower Basin states would use $1 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act to cap fields and improve irrigation efficiency.
Paid fallow programs are already paying farmers hundreds of millions of dollars to leave their fields unplanted. It’s our fastest, most forthright water-saving tool available, but it can have serious consequences: Increased dust pollution; damage to local agricultural economies; and the potential to permanently drain Wests’ farmland.
No one wants another bowl of powder, but increased water demand, drier conditions and warmer temperatures are causing significant uncertainty for the ailing river.
In a letter to the Interior Department and Bureau of Reclamation last year, SNWA water manager John Entsminger wrote: The law of mass balance states that the Colorado River cannot provide enough water for the current level of use. The scale of the problem is so great that every single water user in every single sector has to contribute to solving this problem regardless of the priority system. The math is simple, even if the law and politics are not
First in time, first in right doctrine makes it nearly impossible to make the right decisions about water scarcity. The drought contingency plan will expire on December 31, 2026. Nature’s humble gift of water has provided us with an opportunity to revise age-old laws to fit nature’s timeless laws. Protecting the agricultural rights of the elderly should not come at the expense of people’s right to safe drinking water. Nor should lower basin states bear the sole burden of addressing water scarcity. Planning for shortages, prioritizing water allocations, and determining how to conserve municipal and agricultural water use requires collective cooperation.
Linda Stout is the parent of four young adults and a longtime Las Vegas resident. She is a retired educator and climate activist.
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