When The Well Runs Dry

Posted on September 29, 2010


Lake Mead, present day

Today in The New York Times, Felicity Barringer writes:

LAKE MEAD NATIONAL RECREATION AREA, Nev. — A once-unthinkable day is looming on the Colorado River.

Barring a sudden end to the Southwest’s 11-year drought, the distribution of the river’s dwindling bounty is likely to be reordered as early as next year because the flow of water cannot keep pace with the region’s demands.

For the first time, federal estimates issued in August indicate that Lake Mead, the heart of the lower Colorado basin’s water system — irrigating lettuce, onions and wheat in reclaimed corners of the Sonoran Desert, and lawns and golf courses from Las Vegas to Los Angeles — could drop below a crucial demarcation line of 1,075 feet.

If it does, that will set in motion a temporary distribution plan approved in 2007 by the seven states with claims to the river and by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, and water deliveries to Arizona and Nevada would be reduced.

This could mean more dry lawns, shorter showers and fallow fields in those states, although conservation efforts might help them adjust to the cutbacks. California, which has first call on the Colorado River flows in the lower basin, would not be affected.

But the operating plan also lays out a proposal to prevent Lake Mead from dropping below the trigger point. It allows water managers to send 40 percent more water than usual downstream to Lake Mead from Lake Powell in Utah, the river’s other big reservoir, which now contains about 50 percent more water than Lake Mead.

In that case, the shortage declaration would be avoided and Lake Mead’s levels restored to 1,100 feet or so.

Lake Powell, fed by rain and snowmelt that create the Colorado and tributaries, has risen more than 60 feet from a 2004 low because the upper basin states, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah, do not use their full allocations. The upper basin provides a minimum annual flow of 8.23 million acre feet to Arizona, Nevada and California. (An acre-foot of water is generally considered the amount two families of four use annually.)

In its August report the Bureau of Reclamation said the extra replenishment from Lake Powell was the likeliest outcome. Nonetheless, said Terry Fulp, the bureau’s deputy regional director for the Lower Colorado Region, it is the first time ever that the bureau has judged a critical shortage to be remotely possible in the near future.

“We’re approaching the magical line that would trigger shortage,” Mr. Fulp said. “We have the lowest 11-year average in the 100-year-plus recorded history of flows on the basin.”

The reservoir is now less than 15 inches above the all-time low of 1,083.2 feet set in 1956.

But back then, while the demand from California farmland was similar, if not greater, the population was far smaller. Perhaps 9.5 million people in the three states in the lower Colorado River basin depended on the supply in the late 1950s; today more than 28 million people do.

The impact of the declining water level is visible in the alkaline bathtub rings on the reservoir’s walls and the warning lights for mariners high on its rocky outcroppings. National Park Service employees have repeatedly moved marinas, chasing the receding waterline.

Adding to water managers’ unease, scientists predict that prolonged droughts will be more frequent in decades to come as the Southwest’s climate warms. As Lake Mead’s level drops, Hoover Dam’s capacity to generate electricity, which, like the Colorado River water, is sent around the Southwest, diminishes with it. If Lake Mead levels fall to 1,050 feet, it may be impossible to use the dam’s turbines, and the flow of electricity could cease.

The fretting that dominates today’s discussions about the river contrasts with the old-style optimism about the Colorado’s plenitude that has usually prevailed since Hoover Dam — then called Boulder Dam — was completed 75 years ago, impounding the water from Lake Mead.

The worries have provoked action: cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas have undertaken extensive conservation programs. Between 2000 and 2009, Phoenix’s average per-capita daily household use has dropped almost 20 percent; Las Vegas’s has dropped 21.3 percent.

Nonetheless, “if the river flow continues downward and we can’t build back up supply, Las Vegas is in big trouble,” Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said in an interview.

While Las Vegas is one of the Colorado River’s smaller clients — it consumes 2 percent of the river’s allocated deliveries— the city relies on Lake Mead for 90 percent of its water supply. From 2002 to 2009, the metropolitan area’s population mushroomed by nearly 40 percent, to 1.9 million from 1.37 million.

In response to the population boom and the drought, which began in 1999, the authority began an aggressive effort to encourage water conservation in 2002.

Now it is expanding its options: it is tunneling under the bottom of Lake Mead to install a third intake valve that could continue operating until lake levels dropped below 1,000 feet.

Saddle Island, the construction staging site on the reservoir, looks like an abstract painting, its dusty russet ground covered with interlacing segments of the 2,500 concrete rings that will make up the three-mile-long pipe.

Ms. Mulroy has also pushed aggressively for pipelines to carry distant groundwater to the Las Vegas area; most contentious is a planned 285-mile pipeline that would cross the state diagonally and take groundwater from the Snake Valley, on the Nevada-Utah border, to Las Vegas.

The authority has also spent about $147 million on a program to encourage homeowners and businesses to eliminate their lawns in favor of the rock, grass and cactus landscaping known as xeriscaping. More than 70 percent of household water usage is attributed to outdoor use, Ms. Mulroy said.

Residents can now water their yards only three days a week, before 11 a.m. and after 7 p.m., and the restrictions are to tighten this winter.

Dolores Cormier, 82, who lives on Monterrey Avenue on the southern side of Las Vegas, reconfigured her front and side lawns, installing a rocky cover and drip irrigation. Under a water authority program known as Water Smart Landscapes (colloquially, Cash for Grass), she has received $2,689 in utility subsidies that will offset the $5,600 or so she said the xeriscaping cost her.

She is pleased with the new look but said her average monthly water bill of $45 or so has yet to decline, perhaps because she still tends grass in her small backyard. “I need some lawn,” she confessed.

If the 1,075 level is broken at Lake Mead next year, more drastic conservation measures will be needed, officials warn.

“We have a very finite resource and demand which increases and enlarges every day,” said John A. Zebre, a Wyoming lawyer and the president of the Colorado River Water Users Association.

“The problem is always going to be there,” he said. “Everything is driven by that problem.”

And then I was reminded of something I’d written in my notes almost a year ago:


Apparently, our water is killing us now. We are to join Mexico as a statistical pollutant in the realm of H20. In LA, Silver Lake reservoir, the water was filled with black, plastic balls. Residents complained in spite of the balls being there to block carcinogenic compounds released by sun-activated chemicals. LA abandoned 40% of its municipal wells in one area of the city because they were polluted with toxins. The Safe Drinking Water Act covers regulation of 91 contaminants, but says nothing for the 60,000 chemicals [present]. Smaller concentrations of the contaminants are needed to be harmful than previously thought, yet for many chemicals on the list, standards for regulation have been largely unrevised since the 70s and 80s.

Picture for yourself an assembly of water bottles filled with tan-yellow-orange liquid you would never guess to be water. There are labels in Spanish on them confirming results of lab tests. The tests tell us how mercury, manganese, lead, and sulfur have given the water such a tropical hue. Somewhere in LA, a woman whose congested apartment’s water goes out douses her baby in bottled water, as tap water is too contaminated for her to risk it.

Looks like global warming might have to be knocked down a few levels on the environmental shitlist hierarchy.

So, feeling a bit self-righteous and validated, I ask what is to come for us as a collective in light of these parallels. What lies ahead in a future where amid sprawling efforts to deter terrorism, climate change, a rapidly dissolving oil supply, and nuclear proliferation a swift and slow(1) extinction sits right under our noses as a footnote on the newsreel? Lake Mead is the country’s largest reservoir; one that acts as the primary water source for cities in the Southwest such as Las Vegas, which would be rendered virtually uninhabitable if the well runs dry. Earth 2100, a History Channel special that aired earlier this year, predicts the course we’ll chart in the next hundred years, and no, it ain’t something to look forward to unless mankind can level its head, its greed and its pride, and implement sound, comprehensive preventative measures on a global scale. The documentary echoed The New York Times forecast from two years ago which claimed that Lake Mead “has a 50 percent chance of becoming unusable by 2021” (The show elucidates on a dry-up date by the year 2050).

Leaders and activists the world over are working around the clock to set things right, but for all their ideologies and divergences, we all have one thing in common: without water, any hope for a better tomorrow (or any tomorrow) would be eradicated without a moment’s notice. Right now, Lake Mead operates at less than half its original capacity(2) and before we know it the same clock we’ve been working (or rather, running) around will say goodbye in its final countdown. What will happen when the lake’s dried up and all is said and done? No water for the Southwest. No water for the Southwest, from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. Lacking hydro-power, it’s main power source, Vegas would cease to function.

Projection of statewide water shortages in the year 2050. Credit: the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Think that it doesn’t affect you, cozy and wet on the East Coast? Wrong. No water for the Southwest means no water for the agricultural epicenters located there; responsible for about half of the nation’s agricultural products—meaning less fruits and vegetables, less hay and grain, and thus less farm animals to make meat of. American’s consume more meat than any country on the planet. We’re a carnivorous people and a nice hearty steak is part of our way of life. When there’s less cows and piggies around to chow down, will we see the U.S. change its ways and go vegan? Hell no. We can’t even convince ourselves to cut the gas emissions that are in part responsible for the damn lake drying up in the first place. We’re a notoriously hardheaded people when it comes to what we want, and when we want something, we don’t like to be told “No”. We’d sooner give up booze than our McDonalds. And we’ll eventually end up paying the price for it, both the figurative and the literal. Foundation of capitalist society: supply and demand. Our supply zapped, demand will skyrocket, and as resources dry up out West we’ll see a mass influx of refugees headed East. Gas prices, ever-climbing as they are now, will then be so high that it’s possible by the time this transpires we’ll have exhausted every drop of petroleum on the planet.

What then? Agricultural activities on the East Coast will do their best to increase production to feed an expanding population cramped into half its original living space, but this skeptic, this cynical rogue, doesn’t have much confidence in their success. When our main well of renewable energy is depleted, alternate fuels will be forced too late to take its place and their prices too will climb and climb. A professor I once had was often fond of saying that “people will look back and see the 20th century as the century of cheap energy.” Without plentiful and cheap fuel, farmers and growers won’t be able to produce and transport their goods without what I’d imagine to be vast collaboration(3) with the federal government—and even then, we’d likely see shortages; things would be rationed. It’s not just the people who keep us full and fat. What about the other services we depend on that can’t run without oil? Waste management, law enforcement, emergency medical services and response teams, the U.S. postal service… really, the whole gamut. Everything relies on getting from A to B and getting there demands motorized transport. Some or all of these services would have to be downsized, feeding into the turmoil.

Yet even in the most desperate of times, until people feel a direct threat on their lives the largest group of consumers will certainly keep at their over-consumption. I guess that’s the final stage in this worst case scenario. That “Oh-Shit” moment when it dawns on us that there just isn’t enough food and water for everyone to live harmoniously. The infrastructure we’ve grown accustomed to would wither, eroded by itself. I can’t conceive that the country could ever sustain itself under such circumstances, or that it would be a desirable place to live, or even a livable place to live. Not to mention the repercussions everyone else would incur worldwide as the great modern superpower crumbles.

There’s no way to be sure of what could or would happen. The coulds and woulds of the world don’t matter to those who suffer because of the dids and dones. No one would want the outlined scenario to become reality, but the probability of it occurring isn’t something we should be throwing the dice over. We can live without automobiles, without television, without trains and planes and those other constructs at which we marvel in our own godliness—but we can’t survive without water, the elixir of life. Why gamble with certainty? It’s not an option, and it’s not a 50/50 chance of running out but rather an inevitability if we stay on the path we’re on. When the well runs dry, so too will we.  Like a little, sad sponge.

Lake Mead is just the beginning. The United States and The World at Large have some overdue re-prioritization to sort out, sooner rather than later, or we’re all done for, slowly but surely. Call it an overreaction. Call it leftist tree-hugger propaganda sounding the false alarm. Doesn’t make a difference what you call it. This isn’t about partisanship and it’s not about being Green. It’s about basic needs and their fulfillment to ensure that the plentiful still have plenty—one of the precepts that make America what it is. Its a responsibility we can afford to take head-on, and a requirement we cannot afford to push to the side. Let’s all do what we can to conserve our precious water so future generations can enjoy the nourishment we take for granted. And, you know, live to advance the human species.

(1) No paradox. Swiftly running out of life-juice and slowly dying off by the numbers as water becomes harder to procure and distribute.

(2) Source: Arizona Game and Fish Department

(3) This thing they call  “government takeover.”