Water Woes: The Southwest's Supply Dwindles; China's Behemoth Plumbing Project Goes On

By Andrew Moseman | September 29, 2010 2:22 pm

Lake_mead_july_2009Worrying about water (and fighting over it, and creatively diverting it) is a way of life in the arid American West. However, according to reports out this week, the ever-precarious water level is nearing a breaking point where the states of the West might have to put emergency plans into place.

Lake Mead, the giant reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam near Las Vegas Nevada, is fast approaching its all-time low level of 1,083 feet set more than half a century ago. Should the level dip below 1,075, things will get serious.

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. [The New York Times]

The fact that the reservoir still contains more than 1,000 feet of water might make the situation sound less dire, but remember that Lake Mead and Hoover Dam provide the Southwest with not just water, but also power. At a water level below 1,050 feet, Hoover’s electricity-producing turbines may not work.

According to the Times, there is a plan B. Up the Colorado River in Utah, Lake Powell‘s water level is growing, and water managers could choose to send more downstream to replenish Mead and stave off water restrictions—at least for now.

Thirty miles from the Hoover Dam, the city of Las Vegas is preparing for a shortage. “I know it’s a very real possibility. I know the Southwest will face it at some point, it’s just a question of when,” says Pat Mulroy, Southern Nevada Water Authority general manager. [CNBC]

While the American West juggles its water to avoid disaster, the Los Angeles Times reports from the $60 billion South-North Water Diversion, a monumental water-moving project under way China to rejigger the entire country’s water supply and reroute more of it to populated areas like Beijing.

China is plagued by extreme weather. Vast river deltas in the south are inundated each year by deadly flooding, while the steppes of the north are swept by sandstorms. To remedy this, the engineers are creating a vast, hydra-like network of canals, tunnels and aqueducts that will extend thousands of miles across the country. [Los Angeles Times]

It would take China decades to complete the country-spanning project, a sort of Great Wall of water that bears an estimated cost twice that of the Three Gorges Dam. The design relies on gravity to do the lion’s share of the work, moving water from high elevation to low. But the system might require lots of dampers to keep the flow of water at a safe speed, and the water itself could be too polluted for agricultural use by the time it completes its journey.

Re-engineering a country also means moving people out of the way. Last month the Chinese government relocated the first of what will eventually be one-third of a million people forced to move to make way.

Related Content:
DISCOVER: How Big Is Your Water Footprint?
DISCOVER: Dams, From Hoover to Three Gorges to the Crumbling Ones
80beats: Dams May Degrade One of China’s Remaining Healthy Rivers
80beats: Green Group Declares the Future Leader in Clean Energy Is… China?

Image: Wikimedia Commons (Lake Mead, showing where the water line used to be.)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology
  • http://Untitledvanityproject.blogspot.com Rhacodactylus

    It seems to be a pretty simple formula to me, reduce our usage or find a way to increase availability.


  • ChH

    A simple solution as well – a water market where customers are charged for the true value of water at their location. Adjust the price until demand matches supply.

  • djanes1

    Why are there lawns and golf courses in the Southwest in the first place? A market solution would unfairly gouge the poor. Residents need to consider what desires are sustainable, so that actual necessities can be covered.

  • ChH

    Market solutions deliver a better life to “the poor” than any other form of rationing that’s ever been tried.

    Also, please define “gouge”.

  • ChH

    djanes1 – I just realized I missed the point of your first question. There are many lawns and golf courses in the desert southwest because the price of water is being held artificially low.

    Come to think of it – this would be similar to cap & trade … you set a target level for your reservoirs, and keep raising the price of water (on an annual basis) if they are too low, and lower the price if they are too high and/or water is running through the system underutilized.

    In most systems, small residential users are charged a much higher rate for water than larger users. This makes some sense because the distribution networks (pipes, fireplugs, tanks, pumps, telemetry etc) has to be maintained regardless of how much water is used – but the kind of market I’m talking about would largely level that effect, making the larger users of water pay rates more similar to what houses already pay.

    There would still be lawns and golf courses – just not nearly as many.

  • Rabidmob

    We need more fresh water and I know just where to get it…

  • http://www.arizonaic.org MyAIC

    Is Arizona’s Water Crisis Headed Toward Catastrophe?

    Every so often and we get frenzied about the water crisis, vowing to reduce our water consumption, increase water reclamation, and search for other sustainable supplies. Then we turn our attention somewhere else and forget all about changing our water use habits. If we keep doing the same thing, it is inevitable that the crisis will become a catastrophe. That’s when we’ll really pay attention, but by then our options will be far less attractive than they are today.

    Many of Arizona’s counties already face gaps between supply and demand (meaning that they’re importing water, drawing groundwater at unsustainable levels, or both). In the three-county area (where some 85 percent of Arizonans live), there will be a water shortfall beginning well before the mid-century.

    And that’s the best-case scenario: it doesn’t assume any changes in the amount of water Arizona gets from the Colorado River (which accounts for well over 40 percent of the state’s water supply). Yet the New York Times reported Monday that “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.” That would reduce the amount of water Arizona gets from the Colorado River and bring the three-county area’s “day of reckoning” home much sooner.



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