SocraticGadfly: Lake Mead water cuts invite Aridzona to face climate change reality; will it actually do so?

August 17, 2021

Lake Mead water cuts invite Aridzona to face climate change reality; will it actually do so?

The question, of course, is, will it?

Yesterday, the feds announced that Lake Mead had fallen below the level to trigger the first round of water usage cuts next year. Within the three Lower Basin states (Google, and/or click the Wiki link, if you don't understand the Colorado River Compact), for a variety of reasons, the cuts hit Aridzona much more than Nevada. They don't hit California at all, though the next round, if triggered (the story is almost certainly correct that the next round WILL be triggered in just two more year), will hit all three states. 

(Update: Early predictions for US winter weather confirm that drought will remain and that the lower half of the West will also have dry weather. Those 2023 cuts WILL happen.)

(Update: As this piece at The Conversation reminds, canyons like the Black Canyon that holds Lake Mead, or the Glen Canyon of Lake Powell, narrow more and more as you get lower and lower, meaning that each additional foot of drop in elevation cuts water more than if you just had vertical square sides.)

The cuts on the lower Colorado start Jan. 1, 2022. Nevada must cut 7 percent, though it says it's already prepared. Aridzona must cut 18 percent. YES, you read that right.

Most of it will come out of the hide of agriculture, which makes the expansion of mega-dairies in Aridzona yet more problematic. Depleting groundwater for dairy cows and/or their alfalfa feed is beyond stupid.

But, what about urban water? The Aridzona Lege, several years ago, required new residential developments to prove they had a 30-year sustainable water supply. But, the language is loophole-ridden and is as much Jell-O as the Paris climate accords (which were similarly deliberately made so by Dear Leader and Xi Jinping). But, what about water banking? Well, Nevada (I think) is claiming that it's OK in part due to water banking. But, what if, in reality, such an account is already overdrawn. This is not like the federal government budget deficit, where you ignore it, or print more simollians if you have to. There is no more water to "print."

In addition, as of a couple of years ago, at least, it seems Aridzona did not have any withdrawal structure for water banked from the CAP. Since some of that water was banked for the state of Nevada? Erm, see above! In addition, per this piece, water banking was started for two reasons: one, as is true with most things Aridzona and water, as a reaction to those damned water-greedy Californians. Second, it was foisted as an idea for interstate water-banking and resale, as in, "we'll give those water-greedy Californians water if they pay us enough." But, it's hard to do that one, too, if you don't have a good mechanism for withdrawing water from the bank. See above! (The Wiki link also has thumbnail information on Aridzona's history of water animosity toward California.)
 
Robert Glennon, the University of Arizona prof who wrote the Conversation piece, agrees with me that cities and developers likely aren't yet going to smell the coffee.

Being ignored in this is how this affects hydroelectric generation. Mead has had new lower-elevation turbines installed in its penstocks which PARTIALLY alleviate the reduction in generation from a lower, lighter, lesser water load. But, it can't totally address that, and that's a one-time fix; if the lake falls to 950 feet elevation, it's near enough to "dead pool" to be a write-off. Per Glennon, the shape of canyons on water loss is a hydroelectric as well as a water issue, of course.

In essence, all of this above is part of Aridzonans wanting to continue to live in a "Cadillac Desert."

And, yes, I'm referencing Marc Reisner's book, which I own and have read cover to cover half a dozen times. (Reisner was good, as part of this, at tackling the socialism [no other word for it] that is the reality on Western water, and other thing, behind the myth of Western "rugged individualists.") As well as Donald Worster's "Rivers of Empire," which was able to pick up the climate change portion of the ball from where Reisner left it after his untimely death. And, the most recent installation in this on my shelves is James Powell's "Dead Pool," speaking of that subject. (Meanwhile, commenters at Glennon's piece are a mix of uninformed and delusional, mentioning things like pumping water from the Mississippi that Reisner already discussed 30-plus years ago, largely as wet dreams of hydrologist engineers with no connection to fiscal reality.)

And, with that, Glen Canyon Institute's proposal to reverse an atrocity, to "fill Mead first" and let Lake Powell essentially go away, seems to make sense. That said, what if water drops below outlet level there? How much does it cost to blow a hole in the dam, or the lesser option of "blowing multiple holes" in it by creation of new outlet tunnels? What about silt removal? (Powell did some initial looks at that.)
 
Related to that, Glennon reminds us of one other thing. Upper Basin states are required, by the Compact, to provide X acre-feet per year (on a 10-year rolling average, to be precise) to the lower basin. So dams of tributaries above Powell, like Flaming Gorge Reservoir, will be opening their penstocks wider and wider in the future.

And, this is only scratching the surface. Reisner discussed one other issue that has plagued irrigation-based civilizations throughout history — salinization. Especially if the rivers one uses for irrigation projects run through land with high salinity levels, also especially if irrigation canals are not carefully engineered with precise and even "drops," as in, say, 1/4 inch per foot, soil salinity builds up. Leaching is one tool to "flush" salinity from soil, when used with drainage, but ... it requires extra water beyond normal irrigation. Oops, that's not so available.

It's why, before Columbian, or Coronadan, contact, the Hohokam abandoned their canals in the Valley of the Sun. It's why a massive desal plant was built near the junction of the Colorado and Gila rivers. It's why clay 

We end with, what else? Two quotes from Cactus Ed Abbey:

"The desert always wins."

And:

"Growth for growth's sake is the theology of the cancer cell." 

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