Tuesday, October 01, 2013
America's Southwest Faces Imminent Water Woes
It supports 40-million people and four million acres of farmland production. It's the Colorado River and it's drying up. Next year the desert states of Nevada and Arizona could see their water allotments cut back.
The decision, triggered by historically low water levels in one of the river’s key reservoirs, Lake Powell in Utah, is unprecedented and significant.
It caps years of excessive water use in an arid region that has seen some of its driest years on record in recent years, especially the past two years where flows to Lake Powell have been the lowest in 100 years.
Despite steadily dropping water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead over the past few years, communities most dependent on this vulnerable resource have taken few steps to reduce their demands on the system. In June, for example, the city of Phoenix blew past its historic water use record, spiking at 420 million gallons of water used on a single day.
This record-breaking water use is almost entirely the result of poor water pricing, which undervalues this precious resource. In Phoenix, residential water users pay the same flat fee year-round, a fee that entitles them to 67 percent more water in the summer months, when most of it is sprayed on lawns. Americans like cheap water, and when it’s cheap they use a lot of it. But as it turns out, low-priced water and resplendent green lawns in 119-degree Phoenix are not viable.
The costs of maintaining unsustainable water use are spiraling out of control. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that our nation’s water systems will need to spend at least $300 billion by 2030 simply to keep our existing drinking water infrastructure reliable. When you add in the cost of developing new water supplies, treatment plants and transmission systems to accommodate growth – whether $20 billion for new reservoirs and pipelines in North Texas or $7 billion for a new 263-mile pipeline for Las Vegas – the numbers become even more startling. The fact that the federal government no longer pays for such projects – as it did decades ago – means there are no deep pockets to subsidize our continued water bonanza.