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The West's water future.

The West's water future

"The most important issue facing Westernstates through the end of this century is water . . ..' That concern was repeated time and again at a meeting of Western governors last summer in Colorado. The issue is real. As the West continues to grow, concerns about water supplies and quality are deepening.

Ready or not, the West is entering a newera of water management. Experts predict that water, like energy in the 1970s, will become increasingly expensive in the 1990s. It will cost more to supply it, to make it drinkable, and to treat it again after it goes down our drains. We will all have to use it more efficiently.

This special report examines the West'swater heritage and the problems--and possible solutions--facing us as we approach the 21st century. Future articles will study and report actions Western homeowners can take to make our homes and gardens more water-efficient.

PROBLEM #1

Most Westerners live in a desert or semidesert climate

Thirty years ago historian Walter PrescottWebb mused: "What is the heart of the West? Where is the center from which the shaping force and power radiate?' His answer: "a desert, unqualified and absolute.'

Aside from a few areas, mainly the narrowcoasts of Washington, Oregon, and northern California and major mountain ranges, the 11 mainland Western states typically receive less than 16 inches of rain annually. For much of the Southwest, it's less than 8 inches.

While the region west of the Colorado/Kansas border receives only a third of the nation's annual rainfall, it now accounts for more than two-thirds of the nation's delivered water consumption.

PROBLEM #2

We must prepare for periods of extreme drought

Drought is another part of our naturalweather cycle. Tree-ring studies show droughts that have lasted for more than 50 years. The lessons of the relatively brief 1976-77 drought in California and more recent dry spells in other states linger in memory. As we went to press, a dry fall and winter were causing concern in California.

It's the certainty that other droughts willoccur that worries most water managers. With nearly half the West's major metropolitan areas plus numerous small towns projecting water supply shortfalls within 25 years or less, prolonged drought anywhere would have crippling effects.

PROBLEM #3

We're rapidly outgrowing our present water supplies

And still the West's population keepsgrowing. A 45 percent increase is expected between 1980 and 2000, much of it occurring in the Southwest.

Growth this phenomenal was inconceivablea century ago--though even then there was concern about the West's water. Major John Wesley Powell, explorer of the Colorado River, gave a prophetic warning at an 1893 conference: "I tell you, gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation, for there is not sufficient water to supply the land.'

PROBLEM #4

The dam-building era is over

Historically the answer has always beento build more dams, more canals. But the engineering miracles of the 20th century are history. Most of the expedient dams have already been built; most of the water is committed.

That effort and that commitment havemostly benefitted agriculture, which uses nearly 90 percent of the West's available water. On its behalf, the Bureau of Reclamation operates more than 700 diversion dams and reservoirs; some 70,000 miles of canals, pipelines and drains; and 50 hydroelectric power plants. In 1984 it supplied 8.3 billion gallons of water to irrigate nearly 10 million acres of land.

In 1985 the BOR opened the spigot of theCAP (Central Arizona Project), delivering water across the desert from the Colorado River to Phoenix. CAP is the last of 18 major dams and diversions on a river that will (once all projects are done) be technically oversubscribed--that is, in an average year, there won't be enough water to supply all existing allocations. Luckily, the last four years have been the wettest on record for the Colorado River Basin.

"The CAP is likely to be the last majorfederal water project of this century--the last of the dinosaurs,' reflects James Cook of the BOR's Washington headquarters. "Our role is changing from water developers to water managers; we're trying to devise plans for the most efficient use of that water. As the marketplace changes, so does our role. Traditional water coalitions are breaking up; water quality is becoming as important as quantity. Agriculture is going to change; some farmers may find it more profitable to sell water than alfalfa.'

PROBLEM #5

We are overdrawing our underground supplies

Ground-water depletion is among theWest's most pressing problems.

Overdrafting (pumping out more waterfrom subterranean aquifers than is replenished) is chronic. Arizona overdrafts some 2.5 million acre-feet a year, and California's San Joaquin Valley alone has an annual overdraft of over a million acre-feet --which could double by 2010.

The resulting drop in water tables (thedepth at which wells reach water) is startling: 400 feet in 50 years near Phoenix, more than 100 feet since 1950 along parts of the California coast, up to 10 feet a year under large areas of the Columbian Plateau in Washington.

PROBLEM #6

The quality of our ground water is deteriorating

The quality of ground water is also worrisome.Toxic wastes are being detected in well-water supplies all over the West. In Colorado, wastes at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal forced the temporary closing of 64 wells. Garbage landfills near Spokane are leaching into drinking supplies. Radioactive mine tailing residues are being detected in New Mexico aquifers. The problem isn't an isolated one: most cities harbor hundreds of old gasoline storage tanks suspected of leaking toxics, with unknown effects.

"Are we sitting on a time bomb?'wonders Edwin Clark of the Conservation Foundation. "It takes years for chemicals to filter through the soil and seep into an aquifer. How will recent careless toxic waste disposal affect ground-water supplies 10 or 20 years from now?'

WHAT ARE THE SOLUTIONS?

While the federal government studies theproblem, a number of Western states and individual water districts are taking innovative action.

Several districts with pollution problemsare developing systems of barrier wells and aeration plants to contain and clean contaminated ground water.

In Orange County, a "water factory' istreating waste water to bring it up to drinking standards and then injecting it back into the acquifer to prevent coastal salt-water intrusion.

Irvine Ranch in Southern Californiastretches drinking water supplies and resolves sewage-discharge limitations by using treated waste water to irrigate residential and public landscaping.

Arizona's landmark 1980 GroundwaterManagement Act goes furthest, requiring a "safe yield' of ground-water use by 2025. Yet the architect of the act, former governor Bruce Babbitt, is still concerned. "Even with the CAP, this act won't be enough. Arizona is the first Western state that is going to have to learn to use water more efficiently.'

The benefits of efficient use. While officialsargue that it is more cost-effective to work with big water users and that homeowners shouldn't be asked to change their lifestyles, some critics feel that it is high time the public got more actively involved in local water conservation.

And a few forward-looking cities are responding.They're finding ways our Western homes can be made more water-efficient, with benefits reaching far beyond conservation.

One major way cities encourage residentialconservation is with pricing. Scottsdale's goal-oriented billing system uses computerized water records to design personalized use goals for homeowners. Other cities are increasing rates on a use more/pay more basis.

Tucson's "Beat the Peak' (no afternoonwatering) and other programs--designed to delay capital outlays for water storage and sewage--resulted in substantial water conservation by homeowners.

To encourage home landscaping withsmaller lawns and planting zones of low-water-use shrubs and ground covers, the Denver Water Department developed its award-winning Xeriscape program--now a successful West-wide movement.

George Britton, water and environmentalresources manager for the City of Phoenix, sees the coming years as an opportunity to build conservation into that city's lifestyle. "Phoenix is the ninth largest city in the U.S. and is about fifth in housing starts. We're requiring low-flow fixtures in all new construction; we're working on making 1 1/2-gallon-flush toilets mandatory in new housing in 1988. Lawn area in new landscaping will be reduced, and new parks and golf courses will have to use recycled waste water.

"We're also asking for $700,000 a year toretrofit (with low-flow fixtures) every house built before 1980. That should save us about 5,800 acre-feet a year--a $5 to $10 million savings over the cost of developing new water supplies at roughly $1,000 per acre-foot.'

Marketing water: sell it, trade it, bank it.Indeed, one of the most promising and least costly new sources of water for cities in the 1990s may be agriculture.

In Arizona, future urban developmentwill take place on acquired agricultural water rights, and cities such as Phoenix, Mesa, Scottsdale, and Tucson have already bought ranches outright, solely for their water. Idaho ranchers along the Snake River have former a water "bank,' where accumulated surplus water is "rented' to other users. And in Colorado, a group of private investors has proposed building a reservoir in the Rockies and selling the water to thirsty San Diego.

But one of the leaders has been the MetropolitanWater District of Southern California. It has been actively negotiating innovative water "marketing' programs with several different irrigation districts. With the Imperial Irrigation District, MWD is offering to spend $10 million a year to line canals, conserving for MWD use some 100,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water (1 acre-foot--326,000 gallons --is about what a family of five uses in a year). Another proposal is to pay Palo Verde Irrigation District farmers not to water 25 percent of their lands in dry years--a savings of 100,000 acre-feet.

And in the San Joaquin Valley, a feasibilitystudy will determine if surplus water could be banked in depleted ground-water basins for use in dry years.

The last drop. What does it all mean forthose of us who live in the West, this arid land with a desert heart?

Water--like energy or timber--is a resourcethat will become more limited and expensive as the West continues to grow. As we mentioned earlier, future issues of Sunset will tell how you can improve water efficiency around your home.

Some of the biggest savings can comefrom our gardens. Research by the California Office of Water Conservation has uncovered ways to cut water use on lawns by up to 50 percent, with a potential 25 percent saving on the home water bill. Several water districts, including those in north Marin, Fresno, and Los Angeles, are instituting local programs, and in other states, universities are working with cities to develop similar approaches. New technology, including electronic sprinkler controls and drip irrigation systems, can also help.

But no amount of efficiency in our homesalone can solve the West's water problems. Western states are at a critical point. Now is the time--before the next drought--for agricultural, environmental, and urban interests to sit down with state and local planners to develop new alternatives for the 21st century.

Photo: The arid West: most of the West gets less than 16 inches of annual rainfall; only darkest areas on map get more. Lightest areas get less than 8 inches
COPYRIGHT 1987 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related article on California's water problem
Publication:Sunset
Date:Mar 1, 1987
Words:1860
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