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May, 2013, Page 24
In the event of water shortages, the natural environment is often the first to be sacrificed, Graham says. It’s the canary in the coal mine that signals trouble for humans is not far behind. “We have a number of cases where there are river systems that have been lost and are not likely to be recovered,” Graham says. “And we have a number of endangered fish species as a result of the use of water. But moving forward, the real focus will be on the economic calamity that would result, and the effects on our quality of life could be substantial if we don’t deal with the water issue. You may see cases where the farmers who are irrigating will not have sufficient water. You may have communities that are running out of groundwater supplies and lack the financial ability to bring water in.”
These threats are leading people to consider some radical water-supplying solutions, including one worthy of a Hollywood cautionary tale.
Imagine surfers and sunbathers frolicking on the Southern California coast. Suddenly they look up and gape at something great and white. It’s not a shark; it’s a huge freshwater iceberg that’s been towed all the way from the Arctic – destined for irrigation, lawn sprinklers, and some seriously supersized Slurpees. Never mind that these are troubling times for icebergs; we’ll just fix that with a little weather modification. Or we could build a 700-mile pipeline from the Missouri River, an investment of, perhaps, $18 billion and 30 years of construction. Problem solved.
Most people agree these potential measures – all mentioned in the study, albeit less colorfully – are on the extreme end of the solution spectrum. On the conservative side is a simple and inexpensive action: Use less water. “Water efficiency, conservation, reuse are very safe bets,” University of Colorado professor Brad Udall said at a January 2013 webinar organized by the Water Efficiency Action Network. “They’re in fact the safest bets we have. They’re the cheapest, and they’re the least environmentally harmful. And conversely, new supplies based on unknown hydrology with climate change are the jokers in the deck. Those supplies are actually the riskiest bet in terms of yield, in terms of cost and in terms of environmental harm.”
Conservation, in its simplest form, begins at home. “This is one of those issues where each of us individually can make a difference,” Graham says. “It’s something that every one of us can have an impact on, and the collective impact of all of us individually will far outweigh what government can do... There are a lot of things you can do that do not diminish your quality of life.” Those include xeriscaping, using water timers and turning yard water off when it’s raining, installing water restrictors in the shower, and using graywater (water left over from activities such as laundry, dishwashing, and bathing) to water your plants.
“Just be mindful of how you use water, and how you use power, because power’s tied to water,” says Sandra Fabritz-Whitney, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. “It’s not just turning off the water when you brush your teeth, it’s [asking yourself], do you really need to be sitting in a 60-degree room when it’s 100 degrees outside?”
But home conservation isn’t as simple as it sounds, she adds. “You can evaluate whether you want grass in the front yard or you want to put in desert landscaping. Those things have a tradeoff, too. Some folks argue that there’s a cooling effect with grass. Without that, it raises the heat island, which means you have to use your air conditioner more, which uses water because of hydropower.”
On the larger scale, creative measures can be employed to increase agricultural efficiency. Graham gives an example of a project the Nature Conservancy is working on with farmers along the Verde River, an important source of water for the Salt River Project in the Valley. “[We’ve] installed automated diversion structures, and what that allows [farmers] to do is better manage the water they’re taking off the river. They like it because it reduces the amount of effort. They can literally monitor it from afar and make changes without having to go out to the site, whereas before they might have to send out two or three people. But it’s a much more efficient system, so they’re getting all the water they need, but they’re not taking more than they need. So in this one section of river, which in the low water season would often go dry, with this change and working together, we’re able to keep water through that section.”
In addition, the Nature Conservancy has employed a project around Sierra Vista to harness storm water runoff. “By capturing that water and recharging it into the ground, we’re able to maintain a buffer between the community and the San Pedro River,” Graham says. “So it’s a very creative way of taking water that otherwise might be lost in the system and capturing it and reusing it in the ground... It makes sense because the water is going to make its way back into the river system anyway; it’s just that rather than going off all at once and being lost in the system, it’s going into the groundwater, and then it feeds into the river over a period of time instead of all flushing down at once.”
There are also less obvious ways the state can save water, such as thinning the forests, which are so thickety they’re prone to mega-wildfires. The Nature Conservancy and other organizations are working to accelerate this expensive and time-consuming process. “Not only does it make for healthier forests, it reduces the amount of water that’s lost through evaporation and transpiration,” Graham says. “So it ends up reaching into the rivers and the reservoir systems, so you have healthier rivers, better and more stable water supply.” Preventing conflagrations also helps prevent post-blaze erosion and flooding, which, he says, can cause a deluge of sediment to clog reservoirs, degrading the water quality.
Unfortunately, conservation alone will not go far enough to reduce the water shortages. “Many folks say we need to do more conservation because it’s cheap and easy, [but] we’ve sort of already done most of that conservation,” Fabritz-Whitney says. “There may be some areas in the state that may or may not be dependent on Colorado River water that can do some additional conservation, but 80 percent of the population resides in active management areas where we already have mandatory conservation requirements, and those have been implemented since 1980.”
Those measures apply to municipal, industrial, and agricultural water users, she says, noting that the state of Arizona has imposed conservation measures on every farm in Central and Southern Arizona. In addition, the Arizona Water Banking Authority is essentially saving water for a dry day: In years when the state’s demand of Colorado River water does not reach our allocation of 2.8 million acre-feet, it stores the excess in aquifers throughout Maricopa, Pinal, and Pima counties. So far, it has about 3.5 million acre-feet in the “bank,” Fabritz-Whitney says.
On top of that, communities can impose additional austerity measures such as drought restrictions, day-of-week watering limits, and fines for excessive water use. All of these efforts, she says, mean that in the event of shortages, “There’s a relatively small impact to the end user. You’re not going to see as large an impact as you would if we didn’t have all those mechanisms in place.”
As important as these measures have been, however, Arizona will still need to do more to increase our supply of water. “The basin study assumed that there would be additional conservation over and above what’s already been done,” Central Arizona Project assistant general manager Tom McCann says. “They didn’t even get to the point of specifically identifying what those conservation measures would be but simply assumed that additional conservation would in fact occur, and that’s baked into those demand numbers. So the point is we can’t get to closing that gap just by doing more conservation and just by reuse. So we do have to have some programs, some projects to augment the supply of water in the river.”
The next step, Fabritz-Whitney says, is maximizing the use of reclaimed water. “As your population grows, you’re going to create more and more reclaimed water, and you can recharge it in the aquifers. You have to clean it to drinking water standards. It’s not like you’re putting potty water in the aquifers.” Right now, she says, it’s socially acceptable to use sewer effluent for turf or golf course watering, but there may come a day when we must put aside our qualms and drink it. “You’re treating it to drinking water standards, so theoretically you could use it as potable water; it’s just not socially acceptable right now. But when you start getting up against those kinds of stresses, you have to start seriously considering [it].”
In addition, the state could bring in water from other sources, for example, desalinizing ocean water or pumping in water from rivers in other parts of the country. But doing so would be extremely expensive. “When you go to large scale desalinization, that’s when the cost starts to go up dramatically,” Fabritz-Whitney says. “The cost of desal… [is] significantly higher than what we’re accustomed to paying for water. There’s a power component to it also. You need power to do the desalinization and to move that water over large distances. The bottom line is: Water’s going to be more expensive.”
The state has already taken numerous measures to buffer the populace from water shortages and price increases, Fabritz-Whitney says. “I think Arizona’s so far ahead of where most states are, so far ahead of where anybody gives us credit for. Every time I do an interview like this and talk about all the great things we’ve done to protect Arizona, that is not the stuff that makes it in the article. It’s ‘You’re running out of water, you’re running out of water.’”
But those very protections have also shielded us from understanding just how connected we are to our rivers. A 1991 National Geographic article, “The Colorado: A River Drained Dry,” describes a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon, a very different journey from the one Powell took in 1869. Today, Glen Canyon Dam’s hydroturbines are turned up when urban power demand surges and turned down when less power is needed, altering the Colorado River’s flow like the moon affects the tides. One morning, the writer and his group awoke to find their boats moored on a sand bank; the river had receded 13 feet in the night. The guide explained: “See, the water is low today because it was cool in Phoenix yesterday and they didn’t want as much air-conditioning. The beaches can’t take this daily up-and-down stuff.”
Most Phoenicians probably never think about how their decision to set the thermostat at 72 degrees verses 75 directly affects the “tides” of the Colorado River, however artificially. They also, understandably, don’t think much about water shortages and monthly utility bill increases decades in the future. But, as the Central Arizona Project’s McCann says, “If we’re looking at a potential imbalance in 2060, for us that says we need to start now. We need to start identifying what those solutions are now and working to make them happen, because they’re not going to happen overnight.”
And let’s face it: Sharing a not-very-big river with 33 million desert-dwellers and not worrying about water is akin to being in a real estate boom when a part-time birthday clown can get a $300,000 home loan and not thinking you’re headed for a fiscal precipice. It’s akin to ignoring John Wesley Powell and numerous scientists as they stand on the riverbanks waving their arms, yelling, “Cliff ahead!” as we row merrily, merrily, merrily down a disappearing stream.
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