Americans are thirsty. We consume more water than in any other country, between 400 and 600 liters a day per person, or 69.3 gallons per household per day. As the number of people in the United States, and in particular the West, continues to rise, that means, even if personal use declines, our overall draw on water resources keeps on increasing.
In the West, water is relatively scarce. Yet our habits are similar to those in places with plenty of water: the ubiquitous American Lifestyle drives consumption despite the limited amount we have to consume. This is because the price of water here is roughly equal to what it is elsewhere in the country, thanks to government subsidies, massive water projects and no real economic market for it.
Water is a peculiar thing in that, even as we use it, we never use it up. It’s just moved and will return to a source through the natural water cycle. But the Rocky Mountain West isn’t in water’s main path along that cycle. Our landscape is an expansive, wide-open, semi-arid desert, broken up by islands of mountains that pull moisture from the sky and ribbons of rivers and streams that carry the water from up high down to the sea. Below the surface, water sits in natural reservoirs vast and small at an array of depths. Though we’ll never “run out,” there isn’t much water to work with, and distributing the water is expensive.
A quick modern history of water in the West begins with the first Mormon pioneers, who, at the end of the 19th Century, decided to stay. Immediately they started tinkering with the available water and geography to maximize the supply. That tinkering grew into massive projects championed by powerful Western lawmakers, who turned water development in the West into national policy.
Thousand-foot-tall dams accompanied by thousand-mile-long systems of pipes began to transform the region, bringing water to places it naturally wasn’t, allowing Phoenix, Denver and Las Vegas to grow as big as cities along the Mississippi, Columbia and Ohio rivers. Deals such as the massive Colorado Water Compact laid out complex sharing plans between Western states. Industry joined the game and built transport systems to move water across divides and pump it from deep wells.
But along the way, we learned that even with these projects there would still never be enough to irrigate and hydrate the entire region.
The lack of available water always has, and will continue to, limit growth — though it may be hard to tell given the number of new developments cropping up along the edges of towns and cities.
There is a marked shift today in the West away from these mega-projects that aim to capture as much water as possible in one spot and then attempt to distribute it widely, cheaply and fairly, and toward systems like The Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act, which Bridget Julian, from the Colorado Institute of Public Policy discusses in another column today on Headwaters News.
These systems are smaller in scale, based on a watershed or section of a basin, and are mostly self-governed by the people who live and work there, and who understand their own unique water needs and supplies. They take the big water projects a step further by incorporating more interests and micro-allocating larger portions of local water (native, imported and pumped from underground). That’s a far cry from a million cubic yards of cement poured into a remote desert canyon.
Up until a few decades ago, urban growth and agricultural development were allies in the quest to develop the West’s water resources. Together they drove the need for those large projects, which provided water for ranch and farm irrigation, water for growing towns and cities and cheap hydro-electricity for all. But then modern times came along.
Western lawmakers lost control of their fiduciary power to implement projects that devolved into pork; the region’s population grew with immigrating Baby Boomers and those interested in the burgeoning outdoor recreation lifestyle; and interest increased in environmental concerns and preservation of the region’s unique, relatively unspoiled natural landscapes.
The 1960s and 1970s brought the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act. Skiing, hiking, boating, climbing were no longer for the vagabond, hedonistic adventurer, but were for the “weekend warrior.” The West’s tall peaks, big skies, thick forests and deep canyons were drawing more and more people, and the water, even what was in the massive reservoirs, wasn’t enough.
Today, water interests include agriculture, urban needs, recreation, industry and environmental concerns, and they’re all competing for their share (doled out by the complex system called the doctrine of prior appropriations). But if we were keeping score, urban needs would be winning and agriculture would be losing. Colorado provides a great example of that. Last summer, farmers in eastern Colorado watched as their crops withered while Denver held claims to the water the farmers had relied on for so long.
The demand set by urban needs has spurred some innovation, though, including the Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act, highlighted by Julian. Another recent innovation includes Colorado’s new water leasing law that allows farmers with water rights to lease that water to urban buyers in years when the farmers don’t need the water.
The practice attracted attention in many Western states, where landowners with water rights don’t want to give up their land or water, but need the short-term cash. But even with these innovations that do help to level the playing field, the water is still flowing from agriculture to urban development.
Besides urban needs, recreation and environmental concerns are competing for water, and in both cases, call for leaving water in the streams — a once heretical idea in the West.
Instream flows allow players to keep playing within the doctrine of prior appropriation, trading, buying and selling water rights (not water) to leave water in rivers and creeks for the benefit of fish, aquatic habitat and boaters. Besides gains to the fish and the floaters, such instream flows have economic benefits as well, drawing fishermen and commercial floating enterprises to the areas. And an increasing number of cities have acquired water rights so they can build whitewater parks within towns. But last summer, Gov. Bill Owens signed a law that imposes limits on such recreational water uses, and these uses may continue to be challenged when limited water must be divvied up between recreational and agricultural users, never mind urban uses.
All of these new agreements between farmers, cities, environmentalists and recreationalists represent the smaller, leaner water deals that will surely dominate the allocation of the West’s limited water for here on out. But is the era of Big Water over?
With the big projects still in operation, and a few more of a smaller scale in the works — including one between Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska regarding the Platte River and another proposal from a Colorado businessman who wants to pull water across the state from the Flaming Gorge reservoir and Green River to the Front Range — the answer is likely no. While we can expect that another Glen Canyon Dam won’t be built, it’s also likely that that one won’t come down anytime soon.
Perhaps, though, the biggest water project is yet to come, or at least, yet to be fully realized. The millions of acres of national forest land (PDF) in the West provide 33 percent of the region’s runoff. A report commissioned by former Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck found that 66 million Americans in 33 states receive their drinking water from 3,400 national forest watersheds at a minimum economic value of $3.7 billion a year. It has always been this agency’s mandate to manage not just for timber and now recreation, but also for water. As the region’s population continues to grow, it’s a sure bet that agency’s role in water will also grow.
This piece also appeared on Headwaters News