Resolving Chronic Water Scarcity – ‘Waste Not, Want Not?’

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By Leon Kolankiewicz

Leon is an Advisory Board Member and Senior Writing Fellow with CAPS. A wildlife biologist, and environmental scientist and planner, Leon is the author of Where Salmon Come to Die: An Autumn on Alaska's Raincoast, the essay “Overpopulation versus Biodiversity” in Environment and Society: A Reader and was a contributing writer to Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation.

In a career that spans three decades, three countries and more than 30 states, Leon has managed environmental impact statements for many federal agencies on projects ranging from dams and reservoirs to coal-fired power plants, power lines, flood control projects, road expansions, management of Civil War battlefields, NASA's Kennedy Space Center operations and a proposed uranium mine on a national forest. He also has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop comprehensive conservation plans at more than 40 national wildlife refuges from the Caribbean to Alaska.

The writer's views are his own.

July 1, 2015

When it comes to solving chronic and intensifying water shortages in the Southwest, including California, many politicians, journalists and even environmentalists apparently subscribe to the old adage of “Waste Not, Want Not.”

And there is certainly an ounce of wisdom in this old saw, in everything from managing one’s own finances to managing public forests. Using a resource judiciously – be it money, or timber, or water – is crucial to ensuring that it will not run out.

It is tempting to believe that if homeowners only stopped watering their lawns in the sizzling mid-day, embraced low-flush toilets and low-flow showerheads, and if farmers only stopped growing water-guzzling crops and employed efficient drip irrigation technology on the water-sipping crops they do cultivate, then our persistent and worsening water woes would vanish.

Farms next to the Colorado River
Irrigated farmland beside the Colorado River.

Then we could get back to business as usual, and pursue with reckless abandon the American Dream of unlimited growth in perpetuity. More and more people and more and more prosperity (i.e., stuff) decade in and decade out, ad infinitum.

But it is a delusion to believe that techno-fixes and innovative thinking can permit perpetual growth on a finite planet with overexploited and dwindling resources.

A recent article, “Use It or Lose It,” by Abrahm Lustgarten in a series called “Killing the Colorado” at the ProPublica website illustrates these issues nicely. The overstressed Colorado River provides water to the homes of nearly 40 million residents of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado. It also irrigates about 15 percent of the nation’s food crops.

The ProPublica article describes antiquated 19th-century water laws developed during the Gold Rush era that favor “using it or losing it” when it comes to water. They abide by the principle of prior appropriation, a.k.a. “first-come, first-served” or “first in time, first in line.” Whoever got there first gets first dibs on the limited water resource, often with no incentive to conserve and every incentive to use in a wasteful manner.

“Killing the Colorado” cites the case of a 750-acre ranch near the Upper Gunnison River, a tributary of the Colorado River in the state of Colorado. The ranch grows a mixture of meadow foxtail, timothy, wheat grasses and alfalfa, all irrigated with Gunnison/Colorado water transported through leaky dirt ditches. These grasses and the alfalfa are baled and trucked to feedlots, where they fatten livestock to be slaughtered for beef.

The farm’s manager, who has a college degree in biology and natural resources management, knows these crops could still flourish with much less water. But the property owners have the legal right to take large amounts of water, and it is poured onto fields in generous quantities whether or not it is actually needed. Use it, or lose it.

As the article explains:

A vestige of 139-year-old water law pushes ranchers to use as much water as they possibly can, even during a drought. “Use it or lose it” clauses, as they are known, are common in state laws throughout the Colorado River basin and give the farmers, ranchers and governments holding water rights a powerful incentive to use more water than they need. Under the provisions of these measures, people who use less water than they are legally entitled to risk seeing their allotment slashed.

Past and projected population growth in California, Nevada,
Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.

And the last thing water rights holders can afford is to risk seeing their coveted water allotments slashed.

But under a withering drought and the fear that climate change is going to dry out this arid region even more, push has come to shove.

The Colorado River is now in dire straits, and as Lustgarten points out, obsolete water laws are one major cause. Water rights and state allocations have been issued that exceed the amount of water the river carries in many years. This at a time when the Colorado’s annual flow is actually in steady long-term decline.

Thus, in recent years, the federal government and the affected states have tried to stretch the Colorado’s shrinking water supplies ever further, in part by convincing agricultural interests – who have the largest water rights and use 85 percent of the river’s water – to conserve it.

One thing the federal government – under both Republican and Democratic administrations – has emphatically not done is address another major root of the water scarcity problem: rampant, unending population growth in the Southwestern states, largely fueled by historically high levels of legal and illegal immigration to the U.S.

While the ProPublica article doesn’t directly address this root of the water scarcity problem (typical for the media), some of its readers, and even one of the ranchers interviewed, certainly do.

Bill Trampe, 68, grows alfalfa on a 6,000-acre ranch established by his grandfather near Crested Butte, Colorado. Trampe sits on the boards of both the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the state’s Interbasin Compact Committee.

Colorado farmer and irrigation water user Bill Trampe –
“Why should I suffer for their sprawl?”

“The cities continue to grow and grow and grow … and they expect me – or us as an industry – to give up water,” Trampe told ProPublica. “Why should I suffer for their sprawl?”

CAPS board member Ben Zuckerman penned one of several comments below the article. He emphasized that federal immigration policies – not high birth rates – are now driving the population growth that inevitably increases demand for water:

The vast majority of our species is incapable of thinking long-term. Regarding long-term water shortages, the gorilla in the closet is endless and rapid population growth that is encouraged and increased by immigration policies favored by both major parties, but especially by the Democrats. A majority of U.S. population growth is due to immigration and the U.S. born children of immigrants. Essentially all of California’s rapid population growth is due to this cause.

While addressing antiquated water rights laws, implementing water-saving technology and promoting individual conservation efforts are all indispensable parts of the solution to our endless water woes, so is stopping population growth. And that can only happen if immigration rates are cut, something which our short-sighted, bought-and-paid-for politicians will not do without a substantial increase in public pressure.
 

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