When it comes to water in the
West, is any idea too crazy?
by Allen Best
Let’s go to the fun stuff first about augmenting water supplies in the Colorado River Basin. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation seemingly blew the dust off of every bar-napkin idea on the shelf late last year in assessing options for matching supply and demand in the next 50 years.
Tow icebergs from Alaska? Pilfer from a tributary of the Yellowstone River in Wyoming? Or, even sneak water from the Snake, boring a 6-mile tunnel from a reservoir near Jackson Hole to the Green River? While it’s sure to make Idaho’s spud farmers cranky, it would help Tucson, Los Angeles and that parched paradigm of calculated risk, Las Vegas.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and everybody else with a megaphone has carefully branded these ideas as improbable or worse. Only slightly more credible is the idea of a pipeline from the Mississippi River. It could originate near Memphis, traverse 1,040 miles and, if reaching Castle Rock, rise 6,000 feet in elevation. Pumping would require a steady 800 megawatts of electricity, or a little more than what the Comanche 3 power plant in Pueblo produces.
In theory, this 600,000-acre feet of muddy Mississippi would replace diversions from the Colorado River headwaters between Grand Lake and Aspen. Those diversions range between 450,000 and 600,000 acre-feet annually. That would leave the creeks and rivers to the whims of gravity and geography, at least until arriving at Las Vegas and other places with growing thirst.
Cheap water? Not exactly: It would cost $2,400 per acre-foot for this Memphis-flavored sludge, assuming the idea isn’t grounded by protests from barge and riverboat operators. (Sometimes they, too, say they need more water.)
Everybody would like more water, but Las Vegas is borderline desperate. The Southern Nevada Water Authority has paid people $183 million to replace lawns with native desert vegetation, gravel, or whatever else that can survive on the 4 inches of natural precipitation. And there, in the already hot Mojave Desert, they do believe it will get hotter, and drier. Whether because of global warming or natural drought sequences, or both, Southern Nevada is boring a new tunnel to enter the bottom of Lake Mead, just in case the nation’s largest reservoir goes dry. The cost: $817 million.
In Vegas, the house is betting on drier times ahead.
“A River No More”
The Colorado River is, as Philip Fradkin’s 1981 book summarized, “A River No More.” Even then, the river only occasionally reached the Pacific Ocean (and it has not reached it at all since the late 1990s). No wonder. The river provides water for a significant portion of the nation’s agriculture production and also 40 million people.
Much of this is outside of the basin itself. Cheyenne, Albuquerque and Salt Lake City all get water from the Colorado. So do Los Angeles and San Diego. Population growth, as speedy as a desert roadrunner, has easily outpaced the national average. The December study by the Bureau of Reclamation assumes many more neighbors by 2060, after growth of between 19 and 91 percent.
Similar to studies done within Colorado, the new federal study identifies gaps between supply and demand on the Colorado River. The river has been carrying an average 15.4 million acre-feet, with nothing left over for the ocean, but the demands are projected to surge to between 18.1 million acre-feet and 20.4 million acre-feet.
But instead of more water, there may well be less. Computer-generated climate-change models of the effect of greenhouse gases remain coarse, and effects are unlikely to be uniform. Northern Colorado and Wyoming may get increased precipitation, mostly as rain, according to some downscaled depictions of computer runs. But in what may be the most exhaustive study yet, the Bureau of Reclamation projects a 9 percent decline in river flows by 2060.
Warmer temperatures have their own repercussions, which were spelled out in a $1 million study commissioned by the Colorado Water Conservation Board several years ago. The model showed that by 2040, temperatures in Delta may rise between 3.3 and 3.7 degrees Fahrenheit, yielding a growing season that will last 15 to 22 days longer. But here’s the kicker: Crops would need 2.6 to 6.7 inches more water per year.
No wonder some people would like to divert the Mississippi River to Colorado.
Inseminating the skies
But if the Mississippi stays in Mississippi, how about animal husbandry applied to the sky? Artificial insemination of clouds is identified by the Colorado River study as one of the cheapest, best-proven techniques for augmenting water supplies. Seeding of cold, wet clouds with silver iodide and other agents has been shown by repeated studies to augment snowfall. What remains unclear is precisely how much additional snow falls and under exactly what conditions the clouds can be fleeced. As every skier knows, not all storms are alike; nor is every mountain alike.
The best bet to resolve these questions lies in work being down along the Wyoming-Colorado border, where Wyoming launched a $14 million experiment in 2006. Ski areas, cities, and water districts in Colorado are already betting nearly $1 million a year that the cloud-seeding process works, at least well enough. Part of that money comes from Los Angeles and other lower-basin organizations, which chip in $450,000 to seed clouds passing over headwater mountains.
Los Angeles estimates it costs $10 to $40 per acre-foot to produce water by seeding clouds. The Colorado River study calculates $30 to $60.
Yet both are small potatoes compared to desalination, where costs range from $600 for groundwater near Yuma, Ariz., to $2,100 for water from the Gulf of California.
If you’re in Las Vegas, all of this seems reasonable to talk about. But the greater band of consensus in the Colorado River Basin lies in the realm of efficiency and its first cousin, conservation, along with the reallocation of existing supplies. In these mundane, tedious strategies lie the greatest opportunities for the future, and the way we’ll bridge the gap between demands and supply that can only be expanded at the margins, if at all.
This is a fundamental shift in the conventional storyline from even 25 years ago, when the first impulse was to build more dams, to further yoke nature, as had been done for a century. Now, most of that yoking has been done. Ahead lies the different challenge of reordering our allocations, recalculating beneficial uses.
“That is, I believe, a remarkable turnaround from where we were 20 years ago,” says Melinda Kassen, a principal at Legal & Policy Consulting.
Farmers feel targeted in this, and understandably so. Across the Colorado River Basin, 70 percent of all water goes to farms and ranches. In Colorado, it’s around 90 percent. Efforts have been underway for decades to transfer water from farms to cities, and the results have sometimes been painful. Ed Smith, a farmer from Blythe, Calif., admitted he was nervous about changes identified in the Colorado River study when he spoke on a panel at a water conference in Las Vegas in December. “The low-hanging fruit (of efficiency) has been picked already,” he said.
The story of the Colorado River may come, as Smith fears, down to land reductions, as has already occurred in Colorado, where hay ranches in South Park were de-watered decades ago for Aurora, and more recently in the Arkansas River Valley. Whether this is all truly terrible is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. Right now, most of our water is used to grow grass or corn, basically to create concentrated protein in the form of cattle, the core of our 500-calorie sandwiches. That makes for beautiful meadows around Steamboat Springs in summer, and also velvet hillsides around Greeley. But can we afford such strong meat-based diets in the next 50 years? Even frontier cowboys ate plenty of beans.
None of this is said in the Colorado River study, “but it is an interpretation that can be drawn from it,” says Dave Kanzer, senior water engineer at the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District.
That $2,400 per acre-foot to divert the Mississippi River to Colorado sounds outlandish, but consider what my local Costco sells. Through Kirkland, the house brand for water, and Arrowhead, we currently import water from California — and at a cost of $344,895 per acre-foot for the cheaper of the two brands. If California can get that much for its water, maybe towing icebergs isn’t so crazy after all.
This article originally appeared in The Denver Post Perspective section on Sunday, March 3.