Monday, May 18, 2009

Lake Mead Is Drying Up



The combination of a changing climate and a strong demand for the lake’s remaining water has resulted in 100 foot drop since 2000. While that’s just 10 percent under the lake’s high water mark in 1983, Lake Mead is like a martini glass—wide at the top and narrow at the bottom. That 10 percent dip represents a loss of half Lake Mead’s water supply in nine years, from 96 percent capacity to 43 percent.

Anyone who’s gone on a diet knows this simple equation: if you burn fewer calories than you eat, you’ll gain weight. But like a cheating dieter in Superman’s Bizarro world, the Western United States has been sucking more water out of Lake Mead than the dwindling Colorado River can provide to replace it. When output is greater than input, the reservoir shrinks.

And it continues to shrink. Lake Mead’s water level fell 14 feet last year, and the Bureau of Reclamation has projected the level will drop 14 more feet this summer. That will bring it perilously close to 1,075 feet, the point at which the federal government can step in and declare a drought condition, forcing a reduction of 400,000 acre-feet drawn from Lake Mead per year. A typical Las Vegas home uses a half acre-foot of water per year, so such a reduction would be equal toturning the tap off for 800,000 households.

In 2008, the Scripps Institute of Oceanography issued a paper titled “When will Lake Mead go dry?” which set the odds of Lake Mead drying up by 2021 at 50-50. No more water, no more electricity, no more pumping power.

“Today, we are at or beyond the sustainable limit of the Colorado system,” concluded the paper’s authors. “The alternative to reasoned solutions to this coming water crisis is a major societal and economic disruption in the desert southwest; something that will affect each of us living in the region.”

Conservation efforts are helping (Southern Nevada has significantly reduced its draw from 325,000 acre-feet a year in 2000 to 265,000 acre-feet today) but the Colorado River remains “oversubscribed.” Millions of acre-feet are sent to California, Nevada, and Mexico annually, draining Lake Mead and neighboring Lake Powell faster than they can be replenished. Conservation solutions include “grass buyback” programs to encourage people to install drought-tolerant landscaping, tax incentives for pool-covers, and inevitable rate hikes.

Frustratingly, Las Vegas residents tried to pass a bill that would allow homeowners to install graywater systems but the Southern Nevada Water Authority blocked it, offering up a piece of fuzzy math as a defense. Las Vegas Valley is alloted 300,000 acre-feet of water per year from the reservoir. The water that goes down drainpipes in Las Vegas gets pumped 12 miles back to a reclamation plant near Lake Mead. This returned water counts as a credit toward getting more fresh water from the lake. The Water Authority says if people start using graywater to water their lawns and gardens rather than using drinking-quality water, their lowered water bills will dissuade them from conserving water. In other words, the Water Authority believes that legalizing graywater will cause people to use more fresh water and return less dirty water to the reclamation plant.

One of the more radical proposals involves pumping water from the eastern United States (where many regions are suffering the consequences of flooded rivers) over the Rockies to the West. In a Las Vegas Sun interview on May 1, Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said, “We’ve taken water from the West now for a hundred years, maybe it’s time to start taking water from the East, rather than from the West.” Another speculative proposal lies beyond the shores of California, where there’s an ocean of water available for desalinization. In April, the California Coastal Commission approved the West Basin Municipal Water District’s plan to build a desalination system in Redondo Beach that can desalt 100,000 gallons of seawater per day.

The power requirement for either proposal—desalting seawater or transporting water over great distance—is enormous. But if the only other alternative is a mass evacuation from the western United States, what other choice do we have?
Here you have it. Look long and hard, because this is our future if our moral will is superceded by status quo business as usual behavior. In order to not only save our water but ourselves a paradigm shift is now in order. It will require a new behavior brought about by a totally new mindset in line with a moral will to do what is right for the future instead of only thinking of the present and wanting what you want when you want it. It will involve the human species finally coming to maturity. The question is, is that possible now? Because if not the three alternatives listed in this article which are the reality of it are only bandaids on a moral wound that will then never heal.

What is happening to Lake Mead is a direct result of human greed and apathy. We have no one to blame but ourselves. The first step in mitigating this crisis is to admit that, and from there we can work on solving the problem. Unfortunately, human pride dictates that we always find another source for the blame to absolve ourselves from our selfish wasteful behavior. In doing so it gives us license to continue said behavior safe in the knowledge that we can still have what we want when we want it... until the well runs dry. But of course, then we will just find another source to ravage to get what we want, and then another, and another... not thinking that sooner or later that too will run dry.

In writing about the global water crisis over these years I have seen that this is about more than even political will, bills, and budgets. This goes to the very core of what we are as humans. This is political, yes, but it is also moral, spiritual, and ethical, and unless we reconcile to that the political will not follow. How can we continue to degrade the very resources that give us life with such abandon? How will we ever look our children in the eye and say to them that we knew that our wasteful behavior would bring us here but we just didn't care because we thought someone else would fix it?

Well, as we see here we are finding that the only ones who can fix this are those who have made it. Therefore, how is this fixed? Moving water from the Great Lakes to be wasted? Absurd and expensive and sure to start a regional conflict. Desalination? Carbon intensive, expensive, not guaranteed for long periods of time, threat to marinelife, and another excuse to keep wasting.... especially with a report just released showing the great damage to the ocean off the West Coast by humans already. Mass migration from the West Coast? I can't even begin to process that. Conservation? What's that you say? Actually CONSERVING the water left? Wow, what a concept. Not building golf courses and communities in the desert? Not wasting water in irrigation? Water restrictions that are adhered to? Truly ADEQUATE GHG emission targets instead of ones that appease industry? Actually planning for the future? But gee, we can't do that. It's just so much easier to keep doing what we are doing denying the results and thinking all will be well.

Only thing though, it isn't. Denial ain't just a river in Egypt, and even that river is running dry.


Maker of Stuff said...

At 55 I was only today shown blue gold. I found your blog after a bit of a search. Thanks for being here. I am still reeling.

waterworld said...

The writer suggests that the cost of desalting or transporting water to those who chose to live in the desert is a cost that must be born to prevent mass exodus.

This is absurd and it ignores the reality that it takes exponentially more water to support life in the desert than it does outside the desert. It is socially irresponsible to continue to live in the desert and to allow any further building there. A mass exodus from the desert is exactly what is needed.

While people insanely leave the Great Lakes Region, there will be a day, according to numerous scientists, that life can only be supported there and in Canada. By using up all of the water and soaking the earth dry as the desert dwellers have, that day will only come earlier. Think of our children and the future rather than yourselves.

Jan said...

Thank you. I couldn't agree more.

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