Myth: If Water Runs Low Here, We Can Get Just More Elsewhere

A Tale of Two Regions: The Thirsty Old West and the Great Lakes

While parched California’s dreamin’ all about rain, in the Great Lakes, the jaw-stopping chill that was the Polar Vortex is actually helping increase the region’s long-term water supply. It’s a striking difference, with the West languishing in drought, and the Great Lakes as seemingly water-rich as ever.

So what can we do to even the playing field between water-rich and thirsty states? At first glance, the possibilities might seem limitless, from piping in water from elsewhere to desalinating what’s already nearby to simply conserving what we’ve got. We set out to solve the problem of water shortage…but remembering we are mere mortals, contented ourselves with burrowing into the rabbit hole of water policy to give you a basic picture of different opportunities.

To help navigate the waters, we turned to experts across the country: Drew Beckwith, M.S., water policy manager at Western Resource Advocates, Luke Hunt, Ph.D, director of headlands conservation with American Rivers, and Jared Teutsch, J.D., water policy advocate at Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Where in the Dickens Do We Get Our Drinking Water, Anyway?

Perhaps you know that roughly 80 percent of the country’s water comes from surface water (i.e., rivers, streams, and lakes), according to the USGS. But do you know which ones supply yours? If yes, congratulations—you are amongst the mighty few who do. If not, don’t beat yourself up—77 percent of Americans polled by the Nature Conservancy couldn’t accurately identify the natural source of water used in their homes. (To help turn that stat around, check out NC’s interactive map.)

For the purposes of our investigation, let’s first take a quick peek into the water sourcing for both the West and the Great Lakes.

Hard evidence of drought: Folsom Lake, a VIP Northern California reservoir, sunk to 17 percent capacity in January. (CA Dept of Water Resources)
Hard evidence of drought: Folsom Lake, a VIP Northern California reservoir, sunk to 17 percent capacity in January. (CA Dept of Water Resources)

Despite its image as a star-studded respite from cold weather, much of California water depends on snowfall. In fact, Hunt explains, snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada mountains is the primary source of water for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which serves as the hub of the state’s water supply, providing drinking water for 22 million people and 600,000 acres of farmland. That it falls as snow and not rain also means it constitutes the largest water storage mechanism for the state—it directly supplies 60 percent of the state’s water, melting into streams and reservoirs in spring and early summer, just in time for the peak irrigation and growing season.

Hunt-timing-quoteThis year, however, the snow just hasn’t come. As of February 24, the state’s Department of Water Resources indicated that water content in the statewide snowpack was only 23 percent of normal for the date. (For real-time proof of just how little is in these reservoirs, refer to the state’s Department of Water graph.)

Yes, it’s a gloomy state of affairs. But it’s not just California, and it’s not just an of-the-moment situation. Much of the West is currently engulfed in drought that is likely to persist or intensify, according to the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center.

Meanwhile in the Great Lakes region, the water outlook is considerably brighter. Here, 40 million people rely on the world’s largest surface freshwater system according to the Alliance for the Great Lakes. While the water may be there, it’s important to note it is not renewable. It was, as the Alliance puts it, “a one-time gift from the glaciers.” Lake levels also vary from year to year, depending on ice levels, explains Teutsch. More ice coverage means less evaporation, so this year’s 80 percent ice coverage is actually a good thing for lake levels.

But will lake levels ever again reach the record highs scientists measured in the ’80s and ’90s? Teutsch believes climate change means they won’t. But for some thirsty westerners, it can still be tough to grasp that the soggy region might not actually have enough to go around. After all, why couldn’t we just add some more channels and pipes, and share from basin to basin already?

Hard Times for Fans of Diverting Water

Diversions, or building pipelines to move water outside the basin, are dinner table conversation in some Great Lakes states, recalls Teutsch, who grew up in Michigan. “I remember my grandpa banging his fist on the table, saying ‘they can’t have our water!’” There, he says, it’s an “impeachable offense” to support a diversion.

In fact, Teutsch says the number one driver of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact (an agreement between eight U.S. and Canadian states that are together home to the Great Lakes) is to ban diversions, aka, to keep states outside the basin from building pipelines to get the water, as well as to prevent giant tankers from coming in and sucking up ships-full of Great Lakes water and taking it back to Asia.

Sound improbable? Not so. In the early 2000s, Teutsch explains, Ontario agreed to sell freshwater to a Chinese company—and the resulting controversy between other Great Lakes states wanting to keep the water local helped create the momentum to form the Compact.

The eight-state water management pact is a bold international effort to manage vital waters, but some argue it could be made stronger. The Alliance for the Great Lakes investigates ways to strengthen it.
The eight-state water management pact is a bold international effort to manage vital waters, but some argue it could be made stronger. The Alliance for the Great Lakes investigates ways to strengthen it. (Lloyd DeGrane/A4GL)

Now the Compact expressly prohibits water transport out of the watershed—to the degree that even thirsty “straddling” cities within counties that are part of the watershed, like Waukesha, Wisconsin, may have a hard time making the case to access water located just a few miles away. Still, there are loopholes in compacts like this that he cautions could be problematic, especially as the growing threat of drought increases the probability that other states and countries will be looking for any way to access Great Lakes’ water.

Last year, for example, Texas took Oklahoma to the Supreme Court over a dispute over their water compact. (Oklahoma won—preventing Texas from breaking the Compact and accessing more water, FYI). The case illustrated that people will continue to try to find ways to divert water from protected sources.

One thought-provoking case in point: Teutsch notes that since the start of the Compact, Ontario, Canada has sold lots of agricultural land to China. “China couldn’t get the water by shipping it; instead it is growing crops and using Great Lakes water to do it, then shipping crops back to China…it can end up using just as much water.” (For more on the resilience of the Compact, check out the Alliance’s full report on the subject.)

Why the strong stance? Aside from sheer sense of ownership over one of their region’s great natural treasures, simply put, redirecting water to alter its natural flow can have unforeseen repercussions. More specifically, the act of diverting water to run outside watershed boundaries, or to otherwise transport from one non-renewable source to another, can pose serious ecological and economic risks. The draining of the Aral Sea in Asia is a case in point. (For more on this big topic, check out Peter Annin’s The Great Lakes Water Wars.)

“They go hand-in-hand really,” explains Teutsch. “The ecological cost would be significant, especially within the coastal zones, where most of the flora and fauna reside. And the economic risk of transferring Great Lakes water outside the basin would be felt in the tourism and recreation industry, as a loss of water without any return flow would undoubtedly affect lake levels and have a negative effect on the fishery.”

Cautionary tales abound, though you have to put on your Google News hound hat to find them (or, just keep reading).

Not so Artfully Dodging the Risks

California’s Klamath River is a devastating example of the perils of diversion, according to Hunt. According to the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife report, at least 34,000 (and possibly double that), adult fish like Chinook salmon died in the river in September 2002. Disease was the culprit—but the environment for disease was caused by low flow, which was, you guessed it, triggered by diversion.

The not-so-mysterious background, as Hunt tells it, is that a few years earlier, farmers had successfully won a debate against fisheries to divert water that normally fed Klamath fisheries downstream. Four years later, when the salmon that should have been spawned that first year weren’t born, it was fairly clear that the diversion was the death knell for what had long been a prosperous salmon fishery economy. “It was a cultural and economic disaster,” Hunt says, and was declared a federal disaster, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

There is, however, perhaps no more cautionary tale than that of the Colorado River, which topped American Rivers’ 2013 list of the year’s most endangered rivers. Once the nation’s mightiest river, the iconic emblem of the West is now studded with a series of dams and reservoirs along the way that have so dramatically altered the flow that it no longer reaches the ocean.

The Colorado River and its tributaries are drying up -- putting it first on American Rivers' list of endangered rivers. (Pete McBride/AR)
Note the excess dry area along the banks of the Green River, a major Colorado River tributary (Pete McBride/American Rivers)

“The Colorado River, in almost all of its reaches, is a shell of what it once used to be,” declares Beckwith, who analyzes Colorado River policy for a living. “The largest river in the American West hasn’t reached the ocean in 25 years.”

Ecological problems? There are a’plenty. Part of the issue is all of the water that gets removed from the Colorado along the way; the Fraser River, for example, is a tributary of the Colorado, but 75 percent of its natural flow is diverted out of the river and back to the Front Range, where it is used to irrigate lawns and provide drinking water.

Another problem: The water is gradually becoming shallower, meaning temperatures are rising, which in turn means that the fish species and invertebrates struggle. In the Upper Colorado River Basin alone, four species of fish that can only be found in these waters are listed as endangered, while on the Lower Colorado, efforts are underway to protect 26 threatened species of fish and other wildlife.

Basically from Lake Powell—at the border between Utah and Arizona—all the way through Arizona, Nevada, and down to California, the once mighty river is now merely a series of dams and trickles, Beckwith says, with eight reservoirs to hold, then periodically release, water in that section alone. And that, gentle reader, is why the water doesn’t even make it to the ocean anymore.

Adding new diversions, moreover, open yet another can of worms in Beckwith’s book: “To build a new project is tremendously expensive,” explains Beckwith, primarily because all the good dam sites and good places to put water storage are already taken. “Those have been built long ago, and what we are left with is to build off the scraps of what’s left over…and those places are much farther away and harder to access.” Translation: Money, money, money.

You could argue that the need could trump the economics—considering the Bureau of Land Reclamation has projected annual streamflow to decline by 9 percent by 2060, it doesn’t sound unappealing to add some H2O to the driest streams, right? That desire to replenish the Colorado prompted the controversial idea to build a 500-mile pipeline to pump 80 billion gallons of water per year out of the Green River. But he likens the pipeline to robbing Peter to pay Paul—expensively so, with the Colorado Water Board citing a price tag of $9 billion by some estimates.

As Beckwith points out, small cities running out of water don’t have that kind of money—and why spend when we can just use less? A simple question in theory, but while turning off the faucet while you brush may well be a good place to start, the question of value is becoming just as important.

No Room for Scrooges in Measuring the Value of Water

There’s no getting around the fact that a leaky faucet is a waste. You can literally see it dripping away down the drain. Still, how many of us have avoided fixing said faucet because it seems prohibitively pricey? As with so many things, it’s often not until you weigh the whole impact of the leak that you can measure the value of fixing it.

Even with a monthly water bill, it can be tricky for many Americans to quantify the value of water—partly because it’s seemingly ubiquitous, but also because water is typically undervalued as a resource in public policy that, generally speaking, doesn’t promote spending to update infrastructure. Like the pesky leaky faucet, the question of improving water infrastructure is often answered with a shrug and a mumble about budget.

FYI, more rainfall and less use don't necessarily mean lower bills. Click the pic for more deets. (Circle of Blue)
FYI, more rainfall and less use don’t necessarily mean lower bills. Click the pic for more deets. (Circle of Blue)

It may, therefore, not come as much of a surprise to know that a ridiculous amount of waste is due to the simple fact that we have 50- to 100-year-old infrastructures in cities nationwide. Our collective understanding of cost doesn’t take into account operations maintenance of water lines—and the older they are, the more likely they are to lose water as it’s being pumped. “When you think about the real price of water and how much we’re losing, it’s actually money that municipalities are losing,” says Teutsch.

Most municipalities don’t want to tackle these costly changes. “We keep kicking the can down the road. But the buck has to stop somewhere,” he says. “Piece-mealing a ruptured line doesn’t solve the problem that 30 percent of our water is disappearing into the ground.” For its part, Chicago has what Teutsch considers a fairly ambitious plan to replace 90 miles of main per year over the next 10 years. It won’t be free, but unlike an inter-basin diversion, it contributes to the bottom line in the long run.

It’s exactly this kind of forward-looking strategy that turns the question of cost on its head: Rather than seeing costs as losses on a balance sheet, it’s considering the long-term value of a more sustainable water supply.

Of course there’s more to investing in our water resources than straight-up bankrolling basic infrastructure improvement.

To find out what we can do, including One Green Thing, read Part 2: Now What?! of our epic water supply myth.