America’s Water Future: Where Will We Find New Water for Newcomers Moving to the West? (Part 2)

Tom Cech, Director, One World One Water (OWOW) Center for Urban Water Education and Stewardship at the Metropolitan State University of Denver in ColoradoTom Cech, Director, One World One Water (OWOW) Center for Urban Water Education and Stewardship at the Metropolitan State University of Denver in Colorado This is the second in a series of guest posts Tom Cech, the director of the One World One Water (OWOW) Center for Urban Water Education and Stewardship at Metropolitan State University of Denver in Colorado. Born and raised on a farm in Nebraska, Tom graduated from Kearney State College with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Math Education and later received a Master’s Degree in Community and Regional Planning from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He was Executive Director of the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District in Greeley and taught undergraduate and graduate level water resources courses at the University of Northern Colorado and Colorado State University before becoming the OWOW Center Director. Tom is the author of Principles of Water Resources: History, Development, Management and Policy, co-author with Dr. Karrie Pennington of Introduction to Water Resources and Environmental Issues  and co-author with P. Andrew Jones of Colorado Water Law for Non-Lawyers.

Today, over 75 million people reside in the western United States, an increase of more than 3 million people since 2010 (U.S. Census Bureau 2015). The nation’s largest county is in California (Los Angeles County, with a population of over 10 million), and in the next 20 years, an estimated 3 million people or more will move to Colorado—a 60 percent increase over its current population of five million. In total, nearly one quarter of the U.S. population lives in the West—even though the West as a whole is an area of relatively scarce water resources.  With new residents comes greater water demands and water resources issues.

California experienced its worst drought in decades during 2013-2015, and food production is encountering watering restrictions to protect endangered species from low river flows. Irrigation restrictions could force 500,000 acres in the state to remain fallow (not planted into a crop).

“Two-thirds of California’s 38 million people and most of its $45 billion farm products depend on snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountain watersheds, imported via thousands of miles of pipelines, canals, and the Colorado River.” Bloomberg reported in 2014. The shutdown of the California State Water Project could be an indicator of future water management challenges caused by climate change, endangered species, and population growth in the Golden State.

Arizona and Nevada face similar water resource challenges caused primarily by population growth climate change—though some point to climate change as well. Arizona was the second fastest growing state in the United States from 2000 to 2006, and projections by the Arizona Department of Commerce and Councils of Government show the area population doubling by 2030 - to over 9.1 million people. The State’s Assured Water Supply (AWS) program, created as part of the 1980 Groundwater Management Code, was developed to preserve groundwater resources and promote long-term water supply planning in the Agricultural Management Areas (AMAs). The Colorado River will continue to be a primary source of water for the region (Arizona Department of Water Resources 2014).  

In Nevada, Lake Mead has been shrinking since the current drought began in 2000, and the white line along its shores is a stark reminder of the dry years of the past decade. The 20 million people who rely on water from Lake Mead in southern Nevada, southern California and Arizona will face severe water challenges. In particular, Las Vegas will be hit hard since 90 percent of the area’s water comes from Lake Mead. One of the city's two water intake pipes could soon be above water and too high to provide water to users. A third intake is being constructed at a lower elevation to avert a water supply disaster. A three-mile-long tunnel will be finished at a cost of US$817 million.

Las Vegas currently reuses 93 percent of its water, and has paid homeowners a total of $200 million to rip up their thirsty bluegrass lawns. The city added 400,000 people last decade, but cut its water use by 33 percent. Even this progress may not be enough, however. Water providers are currently eyeing groundwater supplies in other parts of Nevada, according to a 2014 report from CBS News.

Not surprisingly, groundwater is also a focal point of conflict in the West. In 2005, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled in Spear T Ranch Inc. v. Melvin G. Knaub (Spear T. Ranch Inc. v. Melvin G. Knaub et al 2005) that tributary groundwater pumping from Pumpkin Creek in western Nebraska caused injury to senior water users. There are approximately 500 tributary wells along Pumpkin Creek, and a moratorium was implemented on new well drilling by the local natural resources district. The State of Nebraska planned to utilize funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to retire (take out of production) 40,500 hectares (100,000 acres) of irrigated land to mitigate the negative effects of tributary groundwater pumping on surface water users.

In neighboring Kansas, upstream tributary groundwater pumping in Nebraska is negatively impacting streamflows of the Republican River. These depletions, in turn, have caused the State of Nebraska to not meet its Republican River Compact requirements to the downstream state of Kansas. Since this interstate compact apportions only surface water, the issue of upstream tributary groundwater pumping depletions (and the resulting negative effects on downstream surface water supplies) is a significant source of interstate water tension in many areas.

There are no easy answers to these looming questions, but the search for solutions is sure to be a vital part of America's Water Future.

Related: America’s Water Future: Where Will We Find New Water for Newcomers Moving to the West? (Part 1)


Americas Water Future

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