High good, low bad: Mead in June 2012

Posted on | July 1, 2012 | No Comments

“Pipe Dreams: Water Supply Pipeline Projects in the West” by Barry Nelson of the Natural Resources Defense Council and Denise Fort of the University of New Mexico Law School looks at the demand posed by projects in watersheds already stressed by runaway development. Click on the graphic to be taken to the June 2012 report.

Lake Mead, the Colorado River storage reservoir serving California, the Southwest and Mexico, lost nearly four feet in June, 2012, a month in which a research team from the Natural Resources Defense Council and University of New Mexico published a report that finds five new projects aiming big straws at the river.

Pipe Dreams” estimates the draw of the new projects at more than 690,000 acre feet per year, a drain that would come on top of what the Bureau of Reclamation already describes as structurally embedded “over-allocation” of the Colorado River. Allowing for northern states and river tribes to realize their full allocations, and after factoring in climate change, the bureau estimates that the Colorado could be facing a 3.5m acre feet per year deficit by mid-century. To put that in perspective, that is roughly one-fifth of  its traditionally estimated 17m acre feet annual flow, a seasonal yield that is expected to diminish as long-term estimates are revised and the region warms with climate change. The Colorado River supplies roughly one-third of Southern California’s residential water, along with all of the irrigation for Imperial Valley’s farming operations.

The NRDC / University of New Mexico report also looks at regional groundwater projects, at least two of which (the Vegas pipe and Cadiz) plan to tap groundwater in the Colorado River watershed. However, their potential impact on the river remains largely unstudied. Magical thinking within Reclamation and the larger water community traditionally treats “surface water” and “ground water” as independent from one another.

While “Pipe Dreams” recommends conservation, scrutiny of energy demands of various conveyance projects, better federal oversight and stakeholder participation, some of the multi-billion dollar funnels described in the report are too far gone for these suggestions to be much more than political theater. For example, the report comes laughably late for the Vegas pipe planned for the Great Basin, which was developed unprotested by the NRDC for more than two decades. However, a late cavalry is better than no cavalry. “Pipe Dreams” is a useful tool to study the sheer sweep of claims on diminishing resources and to begin hammering out a more sane policy, if indeed we are collectively capable of doing that. A big if.

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