North America Water Issues

January 12, 2013 (New York Times)

As Texas Bakes in a Long Drought, Water Becomes a Focus for Legislators



AUSTIN, Tex. — There is usually no shortage of controversial and politically divisive issues for lawmakers to address in the opening days of a state legislative session, from abortion to immigration to gun rights.


But throughout the opening of the 83rd Texas Legislature last week, one of the most frequently discussed topics had bipartisan support: improving the state’s water infrastructure as the population booms and a devastating two-year drought drags on.


Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and other Republicans proposed tapping an emergency fund that is fed by taxes on oil production to finance the building of new reservoirs and other projects identified in the state’s 50-year water plan, an unusual move in a state where fiscal conservatives usually push to streamline government and limit spending.


Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, and the House speaker, Joe Straus III, a Republican from San Antonio, both mentioned the state’s water needs in their opening-day speeches to legislators on Tuesday, despite the rainfall that soaked Austin as they spoke.


In 2011, the last time the Legislature convened for one of its biennial sessions, Representative Allan Ritter, a Republican and the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, was unsuccessful in getting lawmakers to approve legislation imposing an annual fee on water users like homeowners and businesses to help finance projects in the state water plan.


But on Thursday, Mr. Ritter proposed bills that would draw $2 billion from the state’s emergency Rainy Day Fund to establish a water infrastructure bank that would lend money for the projects. This time, his proposals received support from Republican leaders and groups that are often on the opposite sides of issues, including the Sierra Club’s Texas chapter, the Texas Association of Business and other industry groups. At least 20 percent of the money available in the fund would be used for conservation and reuse efforts.


“There were people who were trying to talk about water last time, and there wasn’t any money, and there wasn’t the critical mass,” said James Henson, the director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, Austin. “Elite opinion begins to coalesce after a little while, and it takes people a while to get the issue out there, and I think that’s part of what’s happened with water.”


Another reason for the shift, and why some are calling this Legislature the “water session,” has to do with the sense of urgency over the drought.


Texas is in the grip of a record-breaking drought that began in the fall of 2010 and continues to affect many parts of the state. So far, it is the third-worst drought in Texas since at least 1895, when statewide weather records begin, with the multiyear drought in the 1950s being the worst, said John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist.


The drought has cost farmers billions of dollars and has forced hundreds of communities to limit water usage. Eighteen public water systems were projected to run out of water in 180 days or fewer as of Tuesday, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which monitors and assists those systems.


Meanwhile, the levels of many lakes and reservoirs, a crucial part of the water supply, have steadily decreased with the lack of rainfall.


Without additional water supplies, Texas will be short 8.3 million acre-feet of water by 2060, according to the Texas Water Development Board. It is a nearly unimaginable amount: one million gallons of water equals just 3.07 acre-feet. The board also estimates that failure to meet water needs in times of drought in 2060 could cost Texas businesses and workers up to $116 billion.


But advocates for other causes worry that water may overshadow the state’s other needs and divert attention from restoring the money to social services, parks, education and other programs that was cut during the last legislative session. Thousands of state employees were laid off. School districts have reported eliminating thousands of jobs, increasing class sizes and reducing library services and other programs.


In 2011, when education advocates and Democratic lawmakers called on Mr. Perry and other Republicans to tap the Rainy Day Fund to offset some of the cuts to education, the governor and others refused, saying that doing so would leave the state ill prepared for emergencies.


But last week, some of those same leaders, including Republicans who opposed tapping the fund two years ago for recurring expenses, said they would support using the fund to pay for water projects, through Mr. Ritter’s bills or other proposals.


“I think it’s all ideological,” said Bob Sanborn, the president of Children at Risk, a nonprofit research and advocacy group in Houston.


“In the end, people don’t really have strong principles about a rainy-day fund,” he said. “They want to fund the things that they want to fund. And if something is seemingly not part of your ideology, and public education doesn’t seem to be of high concern to a lot of our Texas leaders, it falls by the wayside.”


Mr. Ritter said there were several priorities for lawmakers to focus on, but that water was a building block of society.


“I’m not saying this is a higher priority than education,” Mr. Ritter said. “We’ve got to have a great education system, but we’ve got to have water to nourish our people and our economy. What comes first, the chicken or the egg? Do we have educated people, and then water comes? Or do we have water and have a reason for people to be here to go to school?”



December 9, 2012 (New York Times)

Ideas for Colorado River Include a Feeder Pipeline



The federal government has come up with dozens of ways to enhance the diminishing flow of the Colorado River, which has long struggled to keep seven states and roughly 25 million people hydrated.


Among the proposals in a report by the Bureau of Reclamation, parts of which leaked out in advance of its expected release this week, are traditional solutions to water shortages, like decreasing demand through conservation and increasing supply through reuse or desalination projects.


But also in the mix, and expected to remain in the final draft of the report, is a more extreme and contentious approach. It calls for building a pipeline from the Missouri River to Denver, nearly 600 miles to the west. Water would be doled out as needed along the route in Kansas, with the rest ultimately stored in reservoirs in the Denver area.


Experts say the plan is reminiscent of those proposed in the middle of the last century, when grand and exorbitant federal water projects were commonplace — and not, with the benefit of hindsight, always advisable.


The fact that the Missouri River pipeline idea made the final draft, water experts say, shows how serious the problem has become for the states of the Colorado River basin. “I pooh-poohed this kind of stuff back in the 1960s,” said Chuck Howe, a water policy expert and emeritus professor of economics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “But it’s no longer totally unrealistic. Currently, one can say ‘It’s worth a careful look.’ ”


The pipeline would provide the Colorado River basin with 600,000 acre-feet of water annually, which could serve roughly a million single-family homes. But the loss of so much water from the Missouri and Mississippi River systems, which require flows high enough to sustain large vessel navigation, would most likely face strong political opposition.


“If this gets any traction at all, people in the flyover states of the Missouri River basin probably will scream,” said Burke W. Griggs, the counsel for the Kansas Agriculture Department’s division of water resources. But, he added, the proposal “shows you the degree to which water-short entities in the Colorado River basin are willing to go to get water” from elsewhere, rather than fight each other over dwindling supplies, as they have intermittently for about a century.


The new report addresses the adequacy of water supplies over the next 50 years in the Colorado basin, which includes the central and southern Rocky Mountains, the deserts of the Southwest and Southern California. The study, the officials said, will serve as a road map for future federal action in collaboration with the Colorado River basin states.


The Denver Post described the pipeline option in an article last week.


As far as future water supplies go, the outlook is not good. Most Colorado River water is currently used for agriculture, but that is beginning to shift as the cities of the Southwest continue to grow.


The effects of climate change could result in less precipitation over the Rockies, further stressing the supply.


Existing agreements among the states that depend on the river oblige those in the upper basin (including Colorado, Utah and Wyoming) to provide a specified amount of flow downstream. The fear, Professor Howe said, is that there will not be enough Colorado water for all, and that downstream states like Arizona and California will nonetheless call for their usual deliveries from the upstream states, renewing old water wars.


To avert that, new sources of supply or a sharp reduction in demand would be required.


Rose Davis, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation, said that during the course of the study, the analysis done on climate change and historical data led the agency “to an acknowledged gap” between future demand and future supply as early as the middle of this century.


That is when they put out a call for broader thinking to solve the water problem. “When we did have that wake-up call, we threw open the doors and said, ‘Bring it on,’ ” she said. “Nothing is too silly.”


Jason Bane of Western Resource Advocates, a conservation organization based in Boulder, Colo., described the Missouri pipeline option as “fundamentally 20th-century water-policy thinking that doesn’t work in the 21st century.” He added, “We clearly need to conserve and be more efficient with the water we have.”


It is unclear how much such a pipeline project would cost, though estimates run into the billions of dollars. That does not include the cost of the new electric power that would be needed (along with the construction of new generating capacity) to pump the water uphill from Leavenworth, Kan., to the front range reservoirs serving Denver, about a mile above sea level, according to Sharlene Leurig, an expert on water-project financing at Ceres, a nonprofit group based in Boston that works with investors to promote sustainability.


If the Denver area had this new source of water to draw on, it could reduce the supplies that come from the Colorado River basin on the other side of the Continental Divide.


But Mr. Griggs and some federal officials said that the approval of such a huge water project remained highly unlikely.


Ms. Leurig noted that local taxpayers and utility customers would be shouldering most of the expense of such a venture through their tax and water bills, which would make conservation a more palatable alternative.


September 22, 2012 (AP)

Desalination no panacea for Calif. water woes

By ALICIA CHANG and JASON DEAREN | Associated Press – Sat, Sep 22, 2012


MARINA, Calif. (AP) — In the Central California coastal town of Marina, a $7 million desalination plant that can turn salty ocean waves into fresh drinking water sits idle behind rusty, locked doors, shuttered by water officials because rising energy costs made the plant too expensive.


Far to the north in well-heeled Marin County, plans were scrapped for a desalination facility despite two decades of planning and millions of dollars spent on a pilot plant.


Squeezing salt from the ocean to make clean drinking water is a worldwide phenomenon that has been embraced in thirsty California, with its cycles of drought and growing population. There are currently 17 desalination proposals in the state, concentrated along the Pacific where people are plentiful and fresh water is not.


But many projects have been stymied by skyrocketing construction costs, huge energy requirements for running plants, regulatory delays and legal challenges over environmental impacts on marine life. Only one small plant along Monterey Bay is pumping out any drinking water.


From Marin County to San Diego, some water districts are asking themselves: How much are we willing to pay for this new water?


“We found that our demand for water had dropped so much since the time we started exploring desalination, we didn’t need the water,” said Libby Pischel, a spokeswoman for the Marin Municipal Water District. “Right now, conservation costs less than desalination.”


Desalination plants can take water from the ocean or drill down and grab the less salty, brackish water from seaside aquifers. Because of their potential impacts to marine life, the California Coastal Commission reviews each project case-by-case.


There was great fanfare in 2009 when the last regulatory hurdle was cleared to build the Western Hemisphere’s largest desalination plant in Carlsbad, north of San Diego.


At the time, it was proposed that the $320 million project would suck in 100 million gallons of seawater and be capable of producing 50 million gallons of drinking water a day. It was expected to come online by this year.


Since then, the plant owner, Poseidon Resources LLC, has been negotiating a water purchase agreement and is close to clinching a 30-year deal with the San Diego County Water Authority, a wholesaler to cities and agencies that provide water to 3.1 million people.


The compact is essential for Poseidon to obtain financing to build what has become a $900 million project, which includes the seaside plant and a 10-mile pipeline. The San Diego agency hopes the plant opens in 2016 and anticipates desalination will account for 7 percent of the region’s supply in 2020. It estimates the cost is comparable to other new, local sources of drinking water, such as treated toilet water or briny groundwater.


Interest is still high, but “people are realizing that desalination isn’t a magic fix to the state’s water issues,” said coastal commission water expert Tom Luster.


Water can be de-salted in different ways. Poseidon’s project will use reverse osmosis. Other plants shoot ocean or brackish water at high pressure through salt-removing membrane filters. Because pumps must be used constantly to move massive amounts of water through filters, these facilities are extremely energy intensive.


Also, in many cases, desalinated water is pricier than importing water the old-fashioned way — through pipes and tunnels. And it is cheaper to focus on conservation when possible: new technologies like low-flow toilets and stricter zoning laws that require less water-intensive landscaping have helped curb demand in communities throughout the state.


Desalination has been around for years in Saudi Arabia, other Arab Gulf states and Israel, which last year approved the construction of a fifth desalination plant. The hope is that the five plants together will supply 75 percent of the country’s drinking water by 2013.


The process also has helped ease thirst in places such as Australia, Spain and Singapore. Experts say it has been slower to catch on in the United States, mainly because companies face tougher rules on where they can build plants and must endure longer environmental reviews. Poseidon, for example, is facing opposition by environmental groups over its proposed plans to build another facility in Huntington Beach. The company has received several permits for the Orange County project, but still needs approval from the coastal commission.


About six miles south of the ghost desalination plant in Marina, the mechanical whir coming from a nondescript cinderblock building in a Sand City industrial park is the only evidence that the state’s sole operating municipal desalination plant is at work.


The $14 million facility has the ability to produce up to 600,000 gallons a day of drinkable water for the town of about 340 people. Sand City’s plant now produces half that amount each day; a third is used by the city with the rest sent elsewhere in Monterey County.


City leaders hoped to develop the former military town into an artsy, Bohemian beachside destination. With no other possible water options, they turned to desalination. “We’re just like Saudi Arabia. There’s nowhere else to get water and we want to develop,” said Richard Simonitch, the city’s civil engineer.


It’s not that easy in Monterey Peninsula, where regional water use from development has exceeded its yearly rainfall replenishment and desalination is one of the only options available.


Proposals have been fraught with mistakes, political infighting and scandal, and have cost Monterey area ratepayers tens of millions of dollars.


Earlier this year, state utilities regulators rejected Monterey County’s desalination plan, citing problems with environmental review. The plan was also mired in alleged corruption by a county water official, who now faces criminal charges.


Still, desalination will be an important part of the Central Coast’s future: the state ordered water suppliers to stop drawing from the Carmel River, its main source of the precious resource, starting in 2017. Even officials in Marina, with its shuttered plant, see a future in which demand will require their current desalination plant to resume operation and are planning another, larger plant to help make up for the expected water loss.


“Water politics in Monterey County is a blood sport,” said Jim Heitzman, general manager of the Marina Coast Water District.


Photo caption: In this photo taken Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012, city engineer Richard Simonitch looks over rows of membranes that filter water at a desalination plant in Sand City, Calif. Not long ago, the idea of squeezing salt from the ocean to make clean drinking water was embraced warmly in thirsty California with its cycles of drought and growing population. But it has not panned out the way many hoped. Desalination plants are costing more to build; they’re huge energy suckers and lingering concerns about the impact to marine life have spurred myriad lawsuits. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)


Chang reported from Los Angeles; Elliott Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report. Jason Dearen can be reached on Twitter at


September 23, 2012 (Gainesville Sun)

Editorial: Florida’s water bill


Floridians can pay a little more now or a lot more later.


That was the message delivered to Gov. Rick Scott this week in a letter signed by 20 former water management district board members from across the state. The letter urged the governor to restore $240 million in funding he stripped from the five water district budgets last year.


The letter writers — including former Suwannee District member David Flagg, of Gainesville — played to Scott’s business sense, pointing out, correctly, that investing in Florida’s long-term water well-being is not only environmentally wise but economically beneficial as well.


“Protecting and restoring Florida’s treasured ecosystems drive our economy,” they wrote. “For example, a recent study showed that for every dollar invested in Everglades restoration, approximately four dollars of economic benefits are generated.


The letter points out that Florida is divided into five water districts based on the aquaculture of each region, and therefore water issues are most effectively managed on a regional — not a statewide — basis.


Moreover, they told Scott that as “the possibility of climate change contributes to more weather extremes such as drought and sea-level rise” that threaten our water supply, “it is all the more urgent to invest now in solutions so that the people and new businesses coming to Florida can be assured of a clean water supply.”


Water quality and quantity do depend on adequate and well-maintained watersheds. Water districts not only monitor water supply, but manage flooding, pollution and “treasured ecosystems.” And to do these effectively, they need adequate funding.


But it is on our future water supply that the letter’s authors are most focused.


“As our limited resources are strained by a growing population in the coming years, adequately funding water supply development through water storage projects, alternative water supplies, greater conservation and reclaimed water projects is vital for a sustainable future,” they wrote.


Florida taxpayers need to know that failing to adequately undertake water solutions for the future will cost them far more later.


“We think the average Floridian would rather pay a little more for water management solutions today than have to pay for much more expensive projects later,” the letter argued.


Let’s hope Gov. Scott is listening.


August 16, 2012 (New York Times)

Don’t Waste The Drought



WE’RE in the worst drought in the United States since the 1950s, and we’re wasting it.


Though the drought has devastated corn crops and disrupted commerce on the Mississippi River, it also represents an opportunity to tackle long-ignored water problems and to reimagine how we manage, use and even think about water.


For decades, Americans have typically handled drought the same way. We are asked to limit lawn-watering and car-washing, to fully load dishwashers and washing machines before running them, to turn off the tap while brushing our teeth. When the rain comes, we all go back to our old water habits.


But just as the oil crisis of the 1970s spurred advances in fuel efficiency, so should the Drought of 2012 inspire efforts to reduce water consumption.


Our nation’s water system is a mess, from cities to rural communities, for farmers and for factories. To take just one example: Water utilities go to the trouble to find water, clean it and pump it into water mains for delivery, but before it gets to any home or business, leaky pipes send 16 percent — about one in six gallons — back into the ground. So even in the midst of the drought, our utilities lose enough water every six days to supply the nation for a day. You can take a shorter shower, but it won’t make up for that.


The good news: There are a number of steps that together can change, gradually but permanently, how we use water and how we value it. Some can be taken right now.


The average American uses 99 gallons of water at home each day. In the summer, half of that water goes to our lawns, way more than needed. There’s no reason to water in the middle of the day — when the sun steals so much of the water — or to water every day. The lawn-watering restrictions that cities impose during early drought should be made permanent, as Las Vegas and Fresno, Calif., have done.


Plumbing fixtures need to be smarter, and more fun. How come I can’t buy a toilet that reports how much water it has used today, this month, this year? How come I can’t buy a spigot that tells me how much water my daughter’s shower took? If we saw the amount we were using, we’d turn off the tap.


Building codes should be updated to require a new generation of buildings that use less water, in everything from toilets to air-conditioning systems. Zoning rules should be altered to require that all new buildings harvest the rainwater that falls on their land and roofs. The rainwater can be stored for use or returned to the ground. If a city with as primitive a water management system as New Delhi can require rainwater harvesting, so can we.


The nation’s 55,000 water utilities need to redesign incomprehensible water bills with iPad-style graphics that clearly show how many gallons each customer used this month; how that amount compares to last month, and the same month last year; and how it compares to average use by families in the neighborhood. Americans are naturally competitive: customers who know how much water they consume, compared with their neighbors, typically cut their use.


Golf courses are huge, often careless users of water. In the last decade, Las Vegas strictly limited the water its golf courses could use, and while the texture of the courses has changed, the golfing hasn’t. Other cities should follow Las Vegas’s example.


We also need to rethink where we grow crops. Rice farmers in Texas have howled about having their irrigation water cut off. Rice farming? In Texas? Based on rainfall patterns and projections, we need to be brutally realistic about what kind of crops we should be growing, and where.


Fixing leaky water mains should be a priority of every urban water utility. There are typically thousands of leaks in a municipal water system, but new digital technology can help utilities identify the biggest ones. Congress should approve a proposed infrastructure bank that would give municipalities low-interest loans to finance capital improvements for water management.


Finally, we must get over our aversion to recycled water. Dirty water can be made as clean as you want it, and for most communities, the water they’ve already got in their pipes — storm water, wastewater — is the easiest, cheapest source of “new” water. San Antonio recycles almost all of its water, but it’s an exception — only 7 percent of water in the United States is reused. Water recycling should be as routine as every other kind of recycling.


The pain of this drought, a slow-motion disaster, is very real. Drought can lead to paralysis and pessimism — or it can inspire us to fundamentally change how we use water. Water doesn’t respond to wishful thinking. If it did, prayer services and rain dances would be all we’d need.


Charles Fishman is the author, most recently, of “The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water.”


April 23, 2012 (New York Times)

Fees and Anger Rise in California Water War



SAN DIEGO — There are accusations of conspiracies, illegal secret meetings and double-dealing. Embarrassing documents and e-mails have been posted on an official Web site emblazoned with the words “Fact vs. Fiction.” Animosities have grown so deep that the players have resorted to exchanging lengthy, caustic letters, packed with charges of lying and distortion.


And it is all about water.


Water is a perennial source of conflict and anxiety throughout the arid West, but it has a particular resonance here in the deserts of Southern California. This is a place where major thoroughfares are named after water engineers (Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles) and literary essays (“Holy Water” by Joan Didion, for instance) and films (“Chinatown”) have been devoted to its power and mystique.


Yet in the nearly 80 years since the Arizona National Guard was called out to defend state waters against dam-building Californians, there has been little to rival the feud now under way between San Diego’s water agency and the consortium of municipalities that provides water to 19 million customers in Southern California. This contentious and convoluted battle seems more akin to a tough political campaign than a fight between bureaucrats, albeit one with costly consequences.


At issue is San Diego’s longstanding contention that it has been bullied by a gang of its neighbors in the consortium, able by virtue of their number to force the county to pay exorbitant fees for water. The consortium two weeks ago imposed two back-to-back 5 percent annual water rate increases on San Diego — scaled down, after strong protests, from what were originally set to be back-to-back increases of 7.5 percent a year.


The battle is being fought in the courts — a judge in San Francisco is struggling to untangle a welter of conflicting claims from the two sides — but also on the Internet. San Diego officials have created a sleek Web site to carry their argument to the public, posting 500 pages of documents they obtained through public records requests to discredit the other side.


And they might have struck oil, as it were, unearthing documents and e-mails replete with references to the “anti-San Diego coalition” and “a Secret Society,” and no matter that the purported conspirators contend that they were just being jocular.


“There is a lot of frustration,” said Jerry Sanders, the mayor of San Diego, who has watched from the sidelines as the independent San Diego Water Authority waged its wars. “It’s been building over the years.”


Asked about the tactics, Mr. Sanders demurred. “Whether they are effective or not, I’ll leave that to other people to judge.”


If nothing else, the fight is an entertaining diversion from the kind of bland bureaucratic infighting that usually characterizes these kinds of disputes.


Dennis A. Cushman, the assistant general manager of the San Diego authority, said it posted the documents — and asked a judge to force the disclosure of a ream of other private e-mails and documents — so beleaguered water consumers “could see how the business of water in California is actually done.”


“We had suspicions about what was going on,” Mr. Cushman said. “We were shocked by the depth and scope and the level of sophistication of what was going on.”


“It’s not done in public,” he said. “It’s done out of public view. The meetings aren’t open. They are designed to expressly exclude the agency they are discriminating against.”


Jeffrey Kightlinger, the general manager of the regional water consortium, described the charges as “nonsense,” saying that the meetings that Mr. Cushman had deemed illegal did not fall under the state’s open meetings laws. He described the campaign against his organization — the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, also known by the acronym M.W.D. — as unlike anything he had seen.


“It sounds like a political campaign, and hiring political consultants to run it for them strikes me as a new level of activity I haven’t seen before in public service,” he said.


“It just seems to me to have a different tenor and tone than before,” he said. “The idea of bandying about secret-society issues, talking about ‘the truth about M.W.D.’ strikes me as unprofessional and does a disservice to the public.”


Kevin P. Hunt, the general manager of the water district of Orange County, said he was taken aback at the suggestion that some kind of plot was afoot. “It would be funny if it hadn’t created such a furor,” he said. “It was a bunch of guys and gals getting together to do their work. It’s all in the spin you put on it — calling it a ‘secret society’ and making it sound like a cabal. I didn’t even know what a cabal was.”


The case ultimately will be determined in a state court in San Francisco. At issue is how much the district should be charging San Diego to use the district’s pipes to transport water the county bought elsewhere. (San Diego officials have made a concerted effort to expand the sources of their water over the years — including a long-contested, substantial transfer of Colorado River water from inland farmers — so they are not as reliant on the district as they once were).


San Diego has four seats on the district’s 37-member board, and there is little incentive for other communities to entertain San Diego’s argument: When San Diego pays less, everyone else pays more.


Mr. Cushman said that the district had come to view San Diego as “its golden egg.”


Still, even supporters of San Diego’s actions suggest that all accusations may ultimately be little more than a sideshow.


“It just doesn’t feel right,” said Lani Lutar, the president of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. “They are already pursuing the lawsuit. Those are ratepayer dollars being spent and all of the advertising. Is that necessary? The lawsuit is going to resolve the matter. The P.R. stunt has taken it too far.”


San Diego is the eighth-largest city in the country, and this part of California gets 10 inches of rain a year, on average. And this city is at the end of two long water transport systems.


“We’ve always had end-of-pipeline paranoia,” said Lester Snow, the executive director of the California Water Foundation and a former head of both the San Diego and state water agencies. “It is often just physical — the pipeline crosses earthquake faults and anything that happens bad anywhere can affect us.”


The long history has left San Diego with what seems to be a permanent sense of grievance. But Mr. Snow said that this represented a new level of animosity. “The current dispute has gone way beyond a rate-increase dispute,” he said.



February 25, 2012 (New York Times)

If Conservation Fails, Industry May Try Groundwater



Last summer, near the height of the most intense drought in recorded Texas history, ConocoPhillips officials grew concerned. The company operates an oil refinery near the southeastern town of Sweeny, and its major water source, the San Bernard River, was getting drier.


So ConocoPhillips applied for a permit to tap a well on company land and pipe the water three miles to the plant. Conservation measures at the Sweeny refinery would “not make up for the diminished surface water availability” resulting from the drought, Cynthia Jordy, a ConocoPhillips official, wrote in September to the Coastal Plains Groundwater Conservation District. The district granted the permit last month.


ConocoPhillips was hardly the only industrial plant scrambling to secure more water because of the drought, which still covers more than 90 percent of Texas and has caused many plants to focus more on conservation.


As the drought continued along the coast in Point Comfort, a Formosa Plastics plant had its water allocation from Lake Texana cut by as much as 20 percent at one point. The plant paid $1 million to the city of Corpus Christi for additional water during several months last fall, said Gustavo Gonzalez, the city’s water operations director. The City Council is considering another short-term water contract for the plant, Mr. Gonzalez said.


Formosa Plastics examined its operations to eliminate unnecessary water use, and Bill Harvey, a plant spokesman, said it had never reduced production. Because of rain, Lake Texana cutbacks have ended, but Formosa says it “will continue to implement water conservation measures currently in effect.”


The Sweeny refinery never reduced production either, and the San Bernard River is restored to normal levels, said Rich Johnson, a ConocoPhillips spokesman. “The recent drought reinforced the need to conserve water and diversify water sources for the Sweeny Refinery,” he added in an e-mail.


Gregory Ellis, a lawyer based in League City and a groundwater expert, said industrial plants should make reducing water use a top priority — and prepare to pay more for future supplies. “The era of cheap water is probably coming to an end,” he said.


New plants may face extra challenges. In a prominent case last year, a proposed coal-fired power plant in Matagorda County, the White Stallion Energy Center, failed to get a water contract from the Lower Colorado River Authority after an outcry from other river users. But Randy Bird, a plant official, said White Stallion had signed contracts with turf grass growers that should supply enough water for the plant.


Another proposed coal power plant, which would be built near Odessa by the Summit Power Group using a cleaner type of coal technology, has also struggled to secure water. This year, however, the company signed a contract to buy brackish groundwater from a landowner and is obtaining desalination prices, said Laura Miller, Summit’s director of Texas projects.


Plants wanting more water now must look to wells, not rivers, because surface water rights are essentially fully allocated, said Charles R. Porter Jr., assistant professor at St. Edward’s University and author of a book on San Antonio’s water history. Now, he said, “your only source is groundwater.”


Groundwater is exactly where many big plants are looking — and regulators may have more difficulty limiting the amount of water that can be withdrawn from wells, thanks to a Texas Supreme Court ruling on Friday.


When Lake Limestone dipped below 50 percent full last year, NRG Energy wanted to make sure it had enough water for its Limestone County coal plant, which relies on the lake.


“We looked at it, and we thought, O.K., what are our options?” said Dave Knox, an NRG spokesman. “And really the only option we had was groundwater to supplement it.”


The urgency has passed. Lake Limestone is 92 percent full, and the supply will last into 2013 at least, Mr. Knox said. But the company has been in talks with the Mid-East Texas Groundwater Conservation District about groundwater permits.



November 30, 2011 (New York Times)

Running Dry on the Great Plains



Longmont, Colo.

IMAGINE you are a farmer in the center of the country, where it seldom rains enough. Now imagine that a well driller came to your farm and told you that he could bore a hole deep into the ground, and that forever after you could pump out as much water as you needed to grow your crops. That is exactly what happened on the Great Plains in the mid-20th century. The wondrous resource containing all that water was the Ogallala Aquifer.


The Ogallala underlies portions of eight large states — 174,000 square miles of crop and range land all the way from South Dakota to Texas. Over the last several months, it became about as famous as a geologic formation can get. With the nation’s environmentalists at their side, Nebraska landowners battled ferociously against the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have carried oil extracted from Canadian tar sands through the environmentally sensitive Nebraska Sand Hills. If the pipeline leaked, they argued, chemicals and oil would seep down into the aquifer, contaminating a precious resource responsible for 27 percent of the nation’s irrigated agriculture.


They won — for now. President Obama agreed last month to reconsider the pipeline’s route. So is the Ogallala now safe? Not quite. Regardless of whether the pipeline was a good or bad idea, it was never the real danger. The true threat is posed by agriculture as it’s currently practiced on the Great Plains by the farmers themselves, many of whom opposed the pipeline vehemently. The aquifer is being wasted and polluted. Wasted, that is, on corn, a thirsty crop that requires over 20 inches of irrigation water in parts of the Plains. And polluted with pesticides and nitrogen fertilizers.


It’s not that I don’t empathize with the Nebraska farmers. I grew up on a Kansas farm. Like them, we called our Ogallala water “precious” and bragged that it was the best in the world. But the aquifer’s only natural recharge comes from rain and snow. In our Kansas district, less than half an inch of that reached the aquifer in a given year. We were allowed to pump out over 30 times that amount.


When I expressed concern, my father assured me that the government would step in to stop us someday. Until then, he liked to tease, “I got mine!” But the government has not stepped in. Controls imposed by local water districts — run by irrigators themselves — and by state legislators dependent on the farm vote have been minimal at best.


As a result, in some areas of Kansas and Texas, farmers can no longer pump enough to water their crops. If current withdrawal rates continue, usable water in most areas will be gone by the end of this century.


The aquifer in the Nebraska Sand Hills gets more recharge than elsewhere, because rain and snowmelt seep quickly through sand. Opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline argued that this characteristic made that part of the aquifer particularly susceptible to contamination. They were right. But contaminants are already there. According to a report by the United States Geological Survey in 2009, 90 percent of samples taken from shallow groundwater in Nebraska portions of the Ogallala contained nitrate from fertilizers.


The Ogallala is a geologic formation, not an underground lake that can be widely contaminated by a localized spill. Water fills the spaces between sandstone, gravel, clay and other sediments, which slow the water’s lateral travel. A pipeline leak would have been minor compared to the damage that chemically dependent agriculture causes.


Chemicals trickle inexorably downward with each rainfall or application of irrigation water, creating a situation that the Geological Survey has referred to as “creeping normalcy.” Over the coming decades, it warned, contaminants will continue to creep down into the aquifer, and more wells will exceed federal safety levels.


Already, 14 percent of all Ogallala irrigation wells tested contained one pesticide or more. Most common was Atrazine. This herbicide, used ubiquitously in cornfields, is a known hormone disruptor and is suspected of, among other things, retarding fetal development. Five percent of the irrigation wells contained nitrate levels equal to or in excess of safety standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. Excess nitrate levels in drinking water can impair the blood’s ability to deliver oxygen in infants, causing “blue baby syndrome.”


Why haven’t viable environmental groups formed to protect the Ogallala? Because corn contributes so much to the economy that its reign is seldom questioned. Federal subsidy payments to corn growers and the federal mandate to produce ethanol underwrite the waste and pollution.


These subsidies should end. When the farm bill comes up for reauthorization next year, Congress should instead pay farmers to reduce their dependence on irrigation and chemicals. The eastern Nebraska climate is moist enough to grow corn without irrigation. That is how the University of Nebraska football team came to be the Cornhuskers. And the more arid High Plains to the west are known as the nation’s breadbasket because wheat, a drought-tolerant crop, thrives there.


The Keystone XL pipeline posed a potential threat to a limited region. But agricultural waste and pollution are damaging the entire Ogallala Aquifer right now. In an era of growing population and advancing drought, we cannot afford complacency in the face of “creeping normalcy.”


Julene Bair, the author of “One Degree West: Reflections of a Plainsdaughter,” is at work on a memoir.



September 9, 2011 (AP)

Too wacky? Moving water from flood to drought

By SETH BORENSTEIN – AP Science Writer | AP – Fri, Sep 9, 2011


FILE – In this Aug. 28, 2011 file photo, a person searches for anyone who may be …


FILE – In this Sunday Aug. 7, 2011 file photo, Eddie Ray Roberts, superintendent …



WASHINGTON (AP) — As the soggy East tries to dry out from flooding and Texas prays for rain that doesn’t come, you might ask: Isn’t there some way to ship all that water from here to there?


It’s an idea that has tempted some, but reality gets in the way.


A Texas oilman once envisioned long pipelines carrying water to drought-stricken Texas cities, just one of several untested fantasies of moving water vast distances. Parched Las Vegas still wants to indirectly siphon off excess water from the overflowing Mississippi River. French engineers have simulated hauling an iceberg to barren Africa. There are even mega-trash bags to move heavy loads of water.


There’s certainly plenty of rainwater available. Tropical Storm Lee dumped enough on the already saturated Mid-Atlantic, Northeast and Gulf Coast to bring 9.6 inches of rain across the entire state of Texas, according to calculations by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and The Associated Press.


“One man’s flood control is another man’s water supply,” said Patricia Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. “Doesn’t it make you want to think about a larger distribution that helps both? That’s the crazy part of this. It’s a win-win. There’s no loser.”


But moving vast quantities of water is not simple or cheap, and thus not realistic, experts say. Mostly, it’s too costly and political.


However, these dreamed-up concepts show that a quiet water crisis is getting more desperate.


“We will go to any lengths to avoid confronting the reality of water shortages,” said University of Arizona law professor Robert Glennon, author of the book “Unquenchable.”


“What all those zany ideas suggest are the traditional beliefs that we can control nature and there must be some oasis out there where we can go to, to import water.”


But those are mirages, he said — tempting, but not realistic.


Mike Halpert, deputy director of the NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, knows the temptation. He’s about to fly from Washington, which has had 7 inches since Monday, to Houston, which got about that amount of rain for the entire spring and summer. All that D.C. rain would be enough water for every person in Houston for 10 days.


He jested that he would love to carry water in his suitcases. He said colleagues have been “joking that we’ll send Texas our water. Will they send us their oil? But I don’t think that’s going to fly.”


The trouble with water is “there’s enough quantity but it is not always in the right places,” said G. Tracy Mehan, who was chief water regulator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration during the George W. Bush Administration.


So how about moving it?


“The short answer … is that it costs too much. It’s not a technical problem,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Studies Institute and a MacArthur genius grant recipient for his work on water.


Las Vegas’ grand proposal is to take water from the mighty Mississippi in a series of smaller pipeline-like exchanges among states just west of the Mississippi to refill the overused Colorado River. There are no official cost estimates, but it likely would be in the hundreds of billions dollars. Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens abandoned his plans for a massive water pipeline stretching across Texas to just moving water around the Texas Panhandle.


Water weighs a lot — about 8.3 pounds per gallon — so moving massive amounts, often up mountains, costs a lot, Glennon said. Gleick notes that conservation and efficiency are cheaper.


Building a pipeline to pump water from flooded areas is foolish because each year it is somewhere different that gets drenched, so you can’t build something permanent based on a couple of years’ unusual rainy weather, NOAA’s Halpert said.


For purely moving water, Gleick likes a smaller-scale concept: the trash bag. A California firm has designed Spragg Bags “with the world’s strongest zippers” that haul millions of gallons of drinking water from one place to another over the ocean, said inventor Terry Spragg. It’s been used in Greece.


When asked the cost to haul excess water by bag from the flooded Northeast to Texas, Spragg declined to say. “It just wouldn’t be practical. It’s just too distant… Forget about taking it from New Jersey or Pennsylvania, there are sources that are closer.”


If you want to go high-tech for water, desalination — taking salt out of ocean water — and reusing wastewater for drinking water are cheaper and more realistic, said Gleick, author of the book “Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water.”


In Big Spring, Texas, they are looking at reusing wastewater by treating it and then adding it to the fresh water supply. Orange County, Calif., has a state-of-the-art water recycling program. And on the International Space Station astronauts use a system that turns their urine into drinkable water. Tampa has a new $158 million water desalination plant that can produce as much as 25 million gallons of water a day from the sea.


While those who need more water say the challenge is just a matter of balancing out too much and too little, other experts say there is a bigger problem: 1 billion people on Earth don’t have clean drinking water.


“Absolutely there’s a water crisis, but it means different things in different places,” Gleick said. “In Africa, it’s people dying because they don’t have safe drinking water. In Texas, it means people at risk and property being damaged because there’s a natural drought. In some places, it might mean not enough water to make semiconductors and grow food.


“Nature always distributes water unevenly — that’s just the way it goes,” Gleick said.


In the 20th century in the United States, the answer to water shortages was to drill another well, tap another aquifer, build more dams, divert more rivers and build pipelines, Gleick said. But now “we’re running into limits.”


Politics is almost as big a barrier as price. Legal battles over water run rampant in U.S. history, especially out West. But now they have gone nationwide, along with shortages. North Carolina has sued South Carolina, Florida has sued Georgia and Alabama, and the Great Lakes states have banded together to fend off water diversions, Glennon said. The Great Lakes region has been in and out of court over water rights for about a century.


“People are concerned about water rights. Even in eastern water-rich states, you don’t want to be giving it away,” said Robert Holmes, who deals with the problem of too much water. He is the national flood hazard coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey.


University of Colorado natural hazards professor Kathleen Tierney put it more bluntly: “As we say in Colorado, whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over.”



Peter Gleick:

Robert Glennon:

Southern Nevada Water Authority:

Spragg Bags:


July 26, 2011 (New York Times)

Storing Water for a Dry Day Leads to Suits



BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Peter Key knew something was strange when the water levels in his tropical fish tank began to go down last summer. Then the washing machine took 40 minutes to fill, and the toilets would not flush.


But even as Mr. Key and neighbors spent $14,000 to deepen their community well here, they had identified a likely culprit.


They blamed water banking, a system in which water-rights holders — mostly in the rural West — store water in underground reservoirs either for their own future use or for leasing to fast-growing urban areas.


So the neighbors’ small local water utility has gone to state court to challenge the wealthy farming interests that dominate two of the country’s largest water banks.


Viewed as test cases for the size and scope of water-banking operations, the lawsuits claim that enormous withdrawals of water by the banks lowered the water table, causing geological damage, service disruptions and costly repairs.


Water managers and the farmers they serve have long been major political players here in Kern County, a center of conservative political power. But even inside these tight circles, there is increasing friction as governments, businesses — especially agriculture — and a population that has swelled by 26 percent in a decade all compete for water. Even a trendy fruit, the pomegranate, plays a role in these water wars.


A memorandum of understanding between the small local utility that brought the suit, Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District, which serves 20,000 customers, and the Kern County Water Agency, which operates one of the water banks, stipulated that any problems resulting from its bank would be the agency’s responsibility.


But the agency said it was not to blame, and made no effort to cover costs.


“For two years, we asked them to do it and they didn’t,” said Eric Averett, general manager of the district.


Instead, the smaller districts and the City of Bakersfield had to pay to deepen wells. The two water-banking operations, one public and one quasi public, have denied responsibility.


Water remains a contentious subject. Everyone’s complaining, said Mr. Key, a horse trainer, who had to borrow from his neighbor to water the horses he boards.


Water banking has been widely embraced as a tool for making water supplies reliable, sustainable and marketable. Groups traditionally at odds — environmentalists seeking full rivers for fish and farmers tending pistachio or pomegranate trees — agree that water banking is a useful strategy for managing a vital resource. A consulting group based in Idaho, WestWater Research, estimates there are up to 30 working water banks in the West.


As climate change produces earlier snowmelts, sending too much of the water into reservoirs in the spring and too little in summer, the need for storage grows.


“Water banking is a way of dealing with the volatility,” said Bruce Aylward, an expert in water economics who founded Ecosystem Economics in Oregon.


The economic concept is simple. Farmers, through the water districts that they control, have acquired land entitling them to use water, or have contracted for water supplies flowing to their region. Municipal and industrial water users also have rights.


While some districts limit sales to distant urban areas, others allow them. One Kern County district, Berrenda Mesa, sold part of its state entitlement for a one-shot payment of $3,000 an acre-foot — about 90 percent higher than its costs. The buyers were water districts supplying homes and golf courses in Palm Springs.


The value in banking lies in the certainty that water will be available when it is needed. In wet years, excess water recharges the depleted aquifer, a hedge against a prolonged drought.


The porous soil below the gravel and sand here, which are carried here from the Sierra Nevada by the Kern River, is ideal for the purpose. “It’s a huge bucket,” said Florn Core, the former water resources manager for the City of Bakersfield, which is located in a natural desert where rainfall averages 5.7 inches annually.


Yet with its local supplies and water deliveries from the state and federal governments, Kern County is an agricultural paradise of carrots, citrus, pomegranates and pistachios.


Changes in the agricultural economy over the last 15 years, including the rising popularity of pomegranates and pistachios, prompted many farmers to switch to permanent crops, taking away the option of letting fields lie fallow in dry years. So water banking expanded.


Since 1978, when water banking started here, 5.7 million acre-feet — about a third of the annual flow of the Colorado River — has been stored in the two largest banks, said James M. Beck, the general manager of the Kern County Water Agency, which regulates local use. The two banks’ combined storage capacity is about 2 million acre feet.


Pumping out huge amounts of stored water in dry years was thought to have little impact on the underground geology — at least until Mr. Key’s shower head sputtered. Now engineers believe it reversed the area’s underground hydraulic gradient, turning a hill-shaped water table, accessible by shallow wells, into a valley. The trigger for the huge withdrawals was a drought that began in 2007. Kern County’s allocation of water from Northern California was cut. Then, in the 40 months beginning in March 2007, roughly half the banks’ capacity was pumped out to keep fruit and nut trees alive.


“I don’t think anyone fully appreciated the magnitude of the impact they would have,” said Mr. Averett of the Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District.


POM Wonderful, part of the fruit-drink empire owned by Stewart and Lynda Resnick, makes its profits from pomegranate trees kept green by the Kern Water Bank Authority. The authority, technically a public agency, is controlled by the Paramount Farming Company, which like POM, is a subsidiary of Roll Global, a company owned by the billionaire Resnicks.


Ernest Conant, a lawyer for the Kern Water Bank, disagrees with the lawsuit’s main contentions — that the rapid pumping caused the well problems in west Bakersfield and that environmental reviews, in failing to anticipate the problem, were inadequate.


“You have the right to bank water and take it out, but you have to do it in a manner that does not cause significant harm to others,” Mr. Conant said. “We think our program accomplishes that.”


Mr. Beck, whose agency manages the Pioneer Water Bank and who is the defendant in the other suit, said, “We haven’t seen enough data to indicate that our operations are the cause of the decline.”


Because so much is at stake, many people expect a settlement before a judge can decide the issues. The water problems have eased, and some contend the aquifer healed itself — although Mr. Averett said the water tables were still lower than before. A separate suit filed by environmentalists a year ago challenges the 1990s deal that transferred the Kern Water Bank from the state to a group of water suppliers controlled by the Resnicks.


All three lawsuits could have broad consequences.


“Everybody wants to bank and sell. Everybody,” Mr. Core said. “If a lawsuit like Rosedale-Rio Bravo’s is successful, someone may be working on a banking project and it could come to a screeching halt — after they’ve started counting the money.”



May 30, 2011 (New York Times)

Groundwater Depletion Is Detected From Space



IRVINE, Calif. — Scientists have been using small variations in the Earth’s gravity to identify trouble spots around the globe where people are making unsustainable demands on groundwater, one of the planet’s main sources of fresh water.


They found problems in places as disparate as North Africa, northern India, northeastern China and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley in California, heartland of that state’s $30 billion agricultural industry.


Jay S. Famiglietti, director of the University of California’s Center for Hydrologic Modeling here, said the center’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, known as Grace, relies on the interplay of two nine-year-old twin satellites that monitor each other while orbiting the Earth, thereby producing some of the most precise data ever on the planet’s gravitational variations. The results are redefining the field of hydrology, which itself has grown more critical as climate change and population growth draw down the world’s fresh water supplies.


Grace sees “all of the change in ice, all of the change in snow and water storage, all of the surface water, all of the soil moisture, all of the groundwater,” Dr. Famiglietti explained.


Yet even as the data signal looming shortages, policy makers have been relatively wary of embracing the findings. California water managers, for example, have been somewhat skeptical of a recent finding by Dr. Famiglietti that from October 2003 to March 2010, aquifers under the state’s Central Valley were drawn down by 25 million acre-feet — almost enough to fill Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir.


Greg Zlotnick, a board member of the Association of California Water Agencies, said that the managers feared that the data could be marshaled to someone else’s advantage in California’s tug of war over scarce water supplies.


“There’s a lot of paranoia about policy wonks saying, ‘We’ve got to regulate the heck out of you,’ ” he said.


There are other sensitivities in arid regions around the world where groundwater basins are often shared by unfriendly neighbors — India and Pakistan, Tunisia and Libya or Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian territories — that are prone to suspecting one another of excessive use of this shared resource.


Water politics was hardly on Dr. Famiglietti’s mind when he first heard about Grace. In 1992, applying for a job at the University of Texas, he was interviewed by Clark R. Wilson, a geophysicist there who described a planned experiment to measure variations in Earth’s gravitational field.


“I walked into his office and he pulled out a piece of paper saying: I’m trying to figure out how distribution of water makes the Earth wobble,” said Dr. Famiglietti. “This was 1992. I was blown away. I instantly fell in love with the guy. I said, ‘This is unbelievable, this is amazing, it opens up this whole area.’ ”


Back then the Grace experiment was still waiting in a queue of NASA projects. But he and Matt Rodell, a Ph.D. candidate under his supervision, threw themselves into investigating whether Grace would work, a so-called “proof of concept” exercise which turned out to show that Grace data were reliable and could support groundwater studies.


“It was a wide-open field we came into,” said Dr. Modell, now a researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “We were like kids in a candy store. There was so much to be done.”


When Grace was conceived by a group of scientists led by Byron D. Tapley, the director of the Center for Space Research at the University of Texas, it was the darling of geodesists, who study variations in the Earth’s size, shape and rotational axis. Climate scientists also were keenly interested in using it to study melting of ice sheets, but hydrologists paid scant attention at first.


But, Dr. Wilson recalled, “Jay jumped on the problem.”


Ten years later, the two satellites were launched from the Russian space facility at Plesetsk on the back of a used intercontinental ballistic missile in a collaboration between NASA and the German Aerospace Center and began streaming the gravity data back to Earth.


Acquiring the data for general research purposes would have been impossible before the end of the cold war because maps indicating the normal wiggles in Earth’s gravitational field were used for targeting long-range missiles and were therefore classified.


For decades, groundwater measurements in the United States had been made from points on the Earth’s surface — by taking real-time soundings at 1,383 of the United States Geological Survey’s observation wells and daily readings at 5,908 others. Those readings are supplemented by measuring water levels in hundreds of thousands of other wells, trenches and excavations.


The two satellites, each the size of a small car, travel in polar orbits about 135 miles apart. Each bombards the other with microwaves calibrating the distance between them down to intervals of less than the width of a human hair.


If the mass below the path of the leading satellite increases — because, say, the lower Mississippi basin is waterlogged — that satellite speeds up, and the distance between the two grows. Then the mass tugs on both, and the distance shortens. It increases again as the forward satellite moves out of range while the trailing satellite is held back.


The measurements of the distance between the craft translate to a measurement of surface mass in any given region. The data is beautifully simple, Dr. Famiglietti said. From one moment to the next, “it gives you just one number,” he said. “It’s like getting on a scale.”


Separating groundwater from other kinds of moisture affecting gravity requires a little calculation and the inclusion of information on precipitation and surface runoff obtained from surface studies or computer models.


Grace data, like the information in a corresponding visual image, has its limits. Gravitational data gets sparser as the area examined gets smaller, and in areas smaller than 75,000 square miles it gets more difficult to reach conclusions about groundwater supplies. Most aquifers are far smaller than that — California’s 22,000-square-mile Central Valley overlies several different groundwater basins, for example.


Dr. Famiglietti was able to calculate the overall drawdown of groundwater and to indicate that the problem was most severe in the southern region around the city of Tulare, for example, but the data was far too sparse to make statements about, say, the Kings River Water Conservation District, which measures about 1,875 square miles.


Grace “gives a large picture,” said Felix Landerer, a hydrologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, whereas a water manager has a couple of wells to monitor in a given district. “It’s difficult and not intuitive and not straightforward to bring these things together.”


In other areas of the world, like northern India, the novelty of the gravitational measurements — and perhaps the story they tell — has led to pushback, scientists say.


“It is odd, if you’re a hydrologist, especially a traditional hydrologist, to imagine a satellite up in the air that determines groundwater” supply levels, said John Wahr, a geophysicist at the University of Colorado.


Like Dr. Famiglietti and Dr. Modell, Dr. Wahr and his colleague Sean Swenson faced opposition for a study on aquifer depletion in northern India. As Dr. Swenson explained, “When in a place like India you say, ‘We’re doing something that is unsustainable and needs to change,’ well, people resist change. Change is expensive.”


While Dr. Famiglietti says he wants no part of water politics, he acknowledged that this might be hard to avoid, given that his role is to make sure the best data about groundwater is available, harvesting and disseminating all of the information he can about the Earth’s water supply as aquifers dry up and shortages loom.


“Look, water has been a resource that has been plentiful,” he said. “But now we’ve got climate change, we’ve got population growth, we’ve got widespread groundwater contamination, we’ve got satellites showing us we are depleting some of this stuff.


“I think we’ve taken it for granted, and we are probably not able to do that any more.”




September 27, 2010 (New York Times)

Water Use in Southwest Heads for a Day of Reckoning



LAKE MEAD NATIONAL RECREATION AREA, Nev. — A once-unthinkable day is looming on the Colorado River.


Barring a sudden end to the Southwest’s 11-year drought, the distribution of the river’s dwindling bounty is likely to be reordered as early as next year because the flow of water cannot keep pace with the region’s demands.


For the first time, federal estimates issued in August indicate that Lake Mead, the heart of the lower Colorado basin’s water system — irrigating lettuce, onions and wheat in reclaimed corners of the Sonoran Desert, and lawns and golf courses from Las Vegas to Los Angeles — could drop below a crucial demarcation line of 1,075 feet.


If it does, that will set in motion a temporary distribution plan approved in 2007 by the seven states with claims to the river and by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, and water deliveries to Arizona and Nevada would be reduced.


This could mean more dry lawns, shorter showers and fallow fields in those states, although conservation efforts might help them adjust to the cutbacks. California, which has first call on the Colorado River flows in the lower basin, would not be affected.


But the operating plan also lays out a proposal to prevent Lake Mead from dropping below the trigger point. It allows water managers to send 40 percent more water than usual downstream to Lake Mead from Lake Powell in Utah, the river’s other big reservoir, which now contains about 50 percent more water than Lake Mead.


In that case, the shortage declaration would be avoided and Lake Mead’s levels restored to 1,100 feet or so.


Lake Powell, fed by rain and snowmelt that create the Colorado and tributaries, has risen more than 60 feet from a 2004 low because the upper basin states, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah, do not use their full allocations. The upper basin provides a minimum annual flow of 8.23 million acre feet to Arizona, Nevada and California. (An acre-foot of water is generally considered the amount two families of four use annually.)


In its August report the Bureau of Reclamation said the extra replenishment from Lake Powell was the likeliest outcome. Nonetheless, said Terry Fulp, the bureau’s deputy regional director for the Lower Colorado Region, it is the first time ever that the bureau has judged a critical shortage to be remotely possible in the near future.


“We’re approaching the magical line that would trigger shortage,” Mr. Fulp said. “We have the lowest 11-year average in the 100-year-plus recorded history of flows on the basin.”


The reservoir is now less than 15 inches above the all-time low of 1,083.2 feet set in 1956.


But back then, while the demand from California farmland was similar, if not greater, the population was far smaller. Perhaps 9.5 million people in the three states in the lower Colorado River basin depended on the supply in the late 1950s; today more than 28 million people do.


The impact of the declining water level is visible in the alkaline bathtub rings on the reservoir’s walls and the warning lights for mariners high on its rocky outcroppings. National Park Service employees have repeatedly moved marinas, chasing the receding waterline.


Adding to water managers’ unease, scientists predict that prolonged droughts will be more frequent in decades to come as the Southwest’s climate warms. As Lake Mead’s level drops, Hoover Dam’s capacity to generate electricity, which, like the Colorado River water, is sent around the Southwest, diminishes with it. If Lake Mead levels fall to 1,050 feet, it may be impossible to use the dam’s turbines, and the flow of electricity could cease.


The fretting that dominates today’s discussions about the river contrasts with the old-style optimism about the Colorado’s plenitude that has usually prevailed since Hoover Dam — then called Boulder Dam — was completed 75 years ago, impounding the water from Lake Mead.


The worries have provoked action: cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas have undertaken extensive conservation programs. Between 2000 and 2009, Phoenix’s average per-capita daily household use has dropped almost 20 percent; Las Vegas’s has dropped 21.3 percent.


Nonetheless, “if the river flow continues downward and we can’t build back up supply, Las Vegas is in big trouble,” Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said in an interview.


While Las Vegas is one of the Colorado River’s smaller clients — it consumes 2 percent of the river’s allocated deliveries— the city relies on Lake Mead for 90 percent of its water supply. From 2002 to 2009, the metropolitan area’s population mushroomed by nearly 40 percent, to 1.9 million from 1.37 million.


In response to the population boom and the drought, which began in 1999, the authority began an aggressive effort to encourage water conservation in 2002.


Now it is expanding its options: it is tunneling under the bottom of Lake Mead to install a third intake valve that could continue operating until lake levels dropped below 1,000 feet.


Saddle Island, the construction staging site on the reservoir, looks like an abstract painting, its dusty russet ground covered with interlacing segments of the 2,500 concrete rings that will make up the three-mile-long pipe.


Ms. Mulroy has also pushed aggressively for pipelines to carry distant groundwater to the Las Vegas area; most contentious is a planned 285-mile pipeline that would cross the state diagonally and take groundwater from the Snake Valley, on the Nevada-Utah border, to Las Vegas.


The authority has also spent about $147 million on a program to encourage homeowners and businesses to eliminate their lawns in favor of the rock, grass and cactus landscaping known as xeriscaping. More than 70 percent of household water usage is attributed to outdoor use, Ms. Mulroy said.


Residents can now water their yards only three days a week, before 11 a.m. and after 7 p.m., and the restrictions are to tighten this winter.


Dolores Cormier, 82, who lives on Monterrey Avenue on the southern side of Las Vegas, reconfigured her front and side lawns, installing a rocky cover and drip irrigation. Under a water authority program known as Water Smart Landscapes (colloquially, Cash for Grass), she has received $2,689 in utility subsidies that will offset the $5,600 or so she said the xeriscaping cost her.


She is pleased with the new look but said her average monthly water bill of $45 or so has yet to decline, perhaps because she still tends grass in her small backyard. “I need some lawn,” she confessed.


If the 1,075 level is broken at Lake Mead next year, more drastic conservation measures will be needed, officials warn.


“We have a very finite resource and demand which increases and enlarges every day,” said John A. Zebre, a Wyoming lawyer and the president of the Colorado River Water Users Association.


“The problem is always going to be there,” he said. “Everything is driven by that problem.”




July 26, 2009 (AP)

In Texas, drought means conserving every last drop

By JOHN McFARLAND, Associated Press Writer


DALLAS – Off-duty police officers are patrolling streets, looking for people illegally watering their lawns and gardens. Residents are encouraged to stealthily rat out water scofflaws on a 24-hour hot line. One Texas lake has dipped so low that stolen cars dumped years ago are peeking up through the waterline.


The nation’s most drought-stricken state is deep-frying under relentless 100-degree days and waterways are drying up, especially in the hardest-hit area covering about 350 miles across south-central Texas. That’s making folks worried about the water supply — and how long it might last.


“The water table’s fallin’ and fallin’ and fallin,’ like a whole lot of other people around here,” said Wendell McLeod, general manager of Liberty Hill Water Supply Corp. and a 60-year resident of the town northwest of Austin. “This is the worst I can recall seeing it. I tell you, it’s just pretty bleak.”


There are 230 Texas public water systems under mandatory water restrictions, including those in and near San Antonio, Dallas, Houston and Austin. Another 60 or so have asked for voluntary cutbacks. Water levels are down significantly in lakes, rivers and wells around Texas.


Liberty Hill’s Web site urges its 1,400 or so residents in all-red letters to stop using unnecessary water with this plea: “If we follow these strict guidelines, we may have drinking water.” The town’s shortage eased some with the arrival this week of 35,000 gallons a day from a nearby water system, but residents are still worried.


According to drought statistics released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 77 of Texas’ 254 counties are in extreme or exceptional drought, the most severe categories. No other state in the continental U.S. has even one area in those categories. John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist at Texas A&M University, said he expects harsh drought conditions to last at least another month.


In the bone-dry San Antonio-Austin area, the conditions that started in 2007 are being compared to the devastating drought of the 1950s. There have been 36 days of 100 degrees or more this year in an area where it’s usually closer to 12.


Among the most obvious problems are the lack of water in Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan near Austin, two massive reservoirs along the Colorado River that provide drinking water for more than 1 million people and also are popular boating and swimming spots. Streams and tributaries that feed the lakes have “all but dried up,” according to the Lower Colorado River Authority.


Lake Travis is more empty than full, down 54 percent. All but one of the 12 boating ramps are closed because they no longer reach the water, and the last may go soon. The receding waters have even revealed old stolen cars shoved into the lake years ago, authorities said.


There’s no threat to the area’s drinking water supply, Bob Rose said, but there are increased boating hazards from the “sometimes islands” that pop up when the water’s low, increased risk of wildfires, and more interactions between humans and wildlife.


“We’re seeing deer and armadillo and other animals in places we don’t typically see them,” he said. “They’re starving for water and food.”


At the Oasis, a popular restaurant with a deck overlooking Lake Travis, the islands are even starting to grow heavy vegetation.


“You can see all the white on the rocks where the waterline used to be,” said Becca Torbert, a server at the restaurant who says the boat traffic is down, but the water’s down even more.


San Antonio, which relies on the Edwards Aquifer for its water, is enduring its driest 23-month period since weather data was recorded starting in 1885, according to the National Weather Service. The aquifer’s been hovering just above 640 feet deep, and if it dips below that the city will issue its harshest watering restrictions yet.


The city’s not just sitting around, though. A total of 30 off-duty officers and other employees are working overtime to patrol the city looking for people illegally watering. Since April, about 1,500 people have been cited and ordered to pay fines ranging from $50 to over $1,000. Residents also are encouraged to rat out water scofflaws on the 24-hour Water Waste Hot Line.


“We don’t go out in a car with sirens blazing or anything like that, but we do take the report and send out a letter saying ‘You’ve been reported for not following water rules,'” said Anne Hayden, spokeswoman for the San Antonio Water System.


There have been smatterings of light rain in the area this week, but not enough to make much difference. But hopefully, the end is in sight. Victor Murphy, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said an El Nino system is developing in the Pacific Ocean. That phenomenon is usually followed by increased rainfall in Texas in the fall.


McLeod, from Liberty City, hopes his little town can hang on till then.


“I don’t know how we can,” he said. “I try not to look too far ahead.”


On the Web: U.S. Department of Agriculture drought map of Texas:


Copyright © 2009 Yahoo! Inc. All rights reserved.



November 18, 2008 (New York Times)

Drip Irrigation May Not Save Water, Analysis Finds



In an effort to make irrigation more efficient — to obtain more “crop per drop” — farmers have adopted alternatives to flooding and other conventional methods. Among these is drip irrigation, shown above, in which water flows only to the roots. Drip systems are costly, but they save much water.


Or do they? A hydrologic and economic analysis of the Upper Rio Grande basin in the Southwest, published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that subsidies and other policies that encourage conservation methods like drip irrigation can actually increase water consumption.


“The take-home message is that you’d better take a pretty careful look at drip irrigation before you spend a bunch of money on subsidizing it,” said Frank A. Ward, a resource economist at New Mexico State University and author of the study with Manuel Pulido-Velázquez of the Polytechnic University of Valencia in Spain.


With flood irrigation, much of the water is not used by the plants and seeps back to the source, an aquifer or a river. Drip irrigation draws less water, but almost all of it is taken up by the plants, so very little is returned. “Those aquifers are not going to get recharged,” Dr. Ward said.


Drip irrigation also generally increases crop yields, which encourages farmers to expand acreage and request the right to take even more water, thus depleting even more of it. “The indirect effect is very possibly to undermine policy attempts to reduce water consumption,” Dr. Ward said.


Policymakers, he added, must balance the need for more food and for farmers to make a living with water needs. “It’s fair to say that subsidies are very good for food security and very good for farmer income,” Dr. Ward said. “But they may be taking water away from other people.”


Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company



February 25, 2008 (New York Times)

L.I. Duck Farms Struggle With Water Regulation



MORICHES, N.Y. — Long coops, each housing ducks of a different age, hug the ground and form a courtyard at the entrance to the Jurgielewicz family property — believed to be the only major free-range duck farm in the United States.


Inside, on fresh straw bedding, ducks eat organic feed and sip fresh water from automated reservoirs. They breathe fresh air circulating through large windows and waddle outside, where they preen their feathers, shake their tails and splash in man-made puddles with a chorus of quacks.


This 47-acre swath of land in the coastal pine barrens of eastern Long Island, where the Jurgielewicz family has been raising ducks since 1919, is home to thousands of white Pekin ducks that roam the banks of a dammed mill pond. The plastic wrapper of a white Pekin duck raised on the Jurgielewicz farm boasts “Genuine Long Island duckling, South Shore brand, free range.”


In the 1960s, this region, wedged between the Peconic and Moriches Bays, was home to more than 60 farms that produced more than 60 percent of the nation’s ducks. That number has been whittled to two: the Jurgielewicz farm, operated by brothers Paul and Tom, and Crescent Duck Farm, operated by the Corwin family.


Together, they employ about 200 people, generating $25 million a year in revenue and producing about 10 percent of the nation’s ducks.


Now the two remaining duck farms say they are facing hardship.


The State Health Department says nitrogen levels downstream in the Forge River, a tributary of Moriches Bay, exceed the agency’s standards, a condition the state attributes partially to the duck farming industry upstream.


In spring, an overgrowth of seaweed chokes the water. In summer, blue crabs, eels and juvenile flounder — all bottom fish — rise to the surface, eventually suffocating in oxygen-depleted waters.


“It’s the worst case of anoxia I have seen,” said Larry Swanson, a coastal oceanographer from the Marine Science Research Center at Stony Brook University, who has studied the problem.


In 2006, the Jurgielewiczes put in a new wastewater clarification system after the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation forced them to remove decades of bottom residue from West Mill Pond, which the ducks use. But the family objected months later when the agency drafted strict new wastewater regulations for their farm, requiring the installation of another costly wastewater treatment system by this spring.


Jonathan Sinnreich, a lawyer for the farm, raised objections to the new regulations and requested a hearing. In a letter to the environmental agency, Mr. Sinnreich requested proof that the conditions in the heavily populated Mastic Peninsula of the Forge River are caused by duck farm activities.


Paul and Tom Jurgielewicz declined several requests for comment. But Doug Corwin, the other duck farmer on Long Island, said, “We’re duck farmers, not wastewater specialists.”


Mr. Corwin, who recently installed a $4 million wastewater treatment system at his farm in Aquebogue, 14 miles from here, said that rather than comply with costly wastewater regulations, “most duck farmers over the last 30 or 40 years have found it easier and more economical to sell off their farmland to real estate developers.”


In the case of the Jurgielewicz farm, the brothers sold development rights for their farm to Suffolk County and the town of Brookhaven for $5.6 million last May. Under the terms of the agreement, they still own the farm and can raise their ducks, but can never sell or subdivide the land for real estate development.


Their product, the Long Island duck, is a delicacy for chefs around the world.


“Long Island Pekin duck is mild and tender meat; it’s just perfect,” says Guy Reuge, the owner of the restaurant Mirabelle in St. James. “We serve Long Island duckling as a specialty prepared with two recipes served over two courses. We render the duck fat to prepare duck confit using only organic ducks from Jurgielewicz. I have personally visited the farm and the cleanliness is impeccable.”


Those who live downstream from the farm are less impressed.


“The D.E.C. regulations are a step in the right direction, but we need all problems addressed — we need municipal sewers,” said Ron Lupski, who first reported dead fish and rotten-egg smells on the river in 2005. Mr. Lupski, a carpenter, is the head of Save the Forge River, a campaign sponsored by more than 250 local businesses and residents.


As Harry Wallace, chief of the Unkechaug Indian tribe, whose land, now a reservation, has been situated along the Forge River since precolonial times, put it, “Our livelihood depends on the health of this river.”


For environmentalists and some residents of the region, there is another culprit: leaching residential cesspools.


“The sheer volume of groundwater that feeds the Forge River and its tributaries, especially in high-density areas, delivers a tremendous nitrogen load, likely far more than, say, a concentrated amount from a point-source discharge,” said Robert Waters, supervisor of the Suffolk County Department of Health Services’ Bureau of Marine Resources.


“It’s not too complicated to understand,” said Albert Langhorn, who represents the tribe for the Save the Forge River campaign. “Every 50 feet is a home, each with a cesspool. Sewage has been leaching into the groundwater from these homes for 30 to 40 years now.”


But without federal funding, which is not available, municipal sewage treatment projects are not an option, officials said.


Long Island’s groundwater has been studied extensively since the 1940s, when wells in densely populated areas of Nassau County were abandoned because of contamination, primarily from residential cesspools. A 1972 study by the federal Environmental Protection Agency stated that sewage treatment was vital to protect water quality on Long Island, but after disclosures of public corruption surrounding the building of a plant at Bergen Point in Babylon, plans for a facility for the Mastic area were dropped.


“They’re always blaming the ducks,” said Burt Culver, a fifth-generation duck farmer, whose family helped to establish the industry on Long Island in 1858. “They tried blaming red tide on the ducks. That wasn’t true. They tried blaming the shellfish die-off on the ducks, and that problem got worse after most of the duck farms left.”


Faced with a growing number of complaints and accusations, in 1960 the Culver family — along with truckloads of white Pekin ducks — moved from Westhampton to Indiana, where most of the nation’s ducks are produced today.


“Like my 82-year-old father always says: ‘What are people going to eat after they’ve run all the farmers out of business, tofu?’ Farmers grow that, too, you know.”


Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company


January 16, 2008 (New York Times)

Deal on Dams on Klamath Advances



Bitter opponents over the future of the Klamath River unveiled a formal agreement on Tuesday to pave the way for removal of four aging hydroelectric dams that re-engineered the watershed and sharply decreased fish stocks.


The decades-old disputes between advocates for fish and the farmers who are their historic adversaries appeared to dissolve as almost all of 26 user groups, tribes and governments involved backed a plan to allocate the waters of a dam-free river.


But the agreement lacks one vital link: a decision by the dams’ owner, PacifiCorp Power, to agree to their removal. That decision, a company spokesman said, will not be made unless the financial interests of the company’s customers are safeguarded.


If the dams came down, more than 300 miles of the Klamath, in northern California and southern Oregon, would be open to fish for the first time in more than 90 years.


The removal of the four dams and the restoration efforts would constitute one of the most far-reaching efforts ever to reverse the harm done by human intervention on a river while safeguarding the viability of the towns, industry and agriculture along it.


The agreement envisions “one of the most amazing restoration projects in the world,” said Steve Thompson, a regional director of the federal Fish and Wildlife Service based in Sacramento.


The deal would cost nearly $1 billion over the next decade, federal officials said, but more than half of that could come from money already being spent to mitigate the impact of the dams, which provide enough electricity for about 70,000 households. Arguments remain over who should bear the $120-million cost of taking the dams down — the utility and its 1.6 million customers in six states, or state and federal agencies, or some other entity.


The president of the Klamath Water Users Association, which represents farmers on 220,000 acres in the Klamath Basin, said the agreement met the farmers’ three primary objectives. These, the president, Luther Horsley, said, include having a reliable primary source of water, affordable power for irrigation and insurance that farmers’ planting plans will not be disrupted by unexpected new federal wildlife regulations.


The agreement comes as federal energy regulators are considering PacifiCorp Power’s application for a new 50-year license to operate the dams. The license may not be granted unless the requirements of wildlife protection agencies are met, and the National Marine Fisheries Service, which protects the sharply reduced salmon populations, has said it will agree to the relicensing only if the company builds fish ladders to allow salmon to reach the waters above the dam.


By two separate estimates, removing the four Klamath dams would be cheaper than modifying them. The company, which disputes these estimates, is negotiating separately with the various interest groups over the fate of the dams.


Paul Vogel, a spokesman for PacifiCorp Power, said, “Fulfilling everyone else’s interests doesn’t protect our customers.”


“What we would not allow,” Mr. Vogel said, “is for the cost of removal and the cost of replacement power to be totally borne by our customers.”


PacifiCorp Power is a subsidiary of Mid-American Energy Holdings Company, which is owned by Berkshire Hathaway.


The agreement sets out how water will be allocated in wet and dry years (generally the needs of fish take priority) and how those users with lower priority during droughts (largely farmers) may be given additional supplies and new storage capacity in subsequent years.


Negotiators for the Hupa Indian tribe and for a second group of farmers have not acceded to the plan. Oregon Wild, an environmental group that was not involved, issued a news release condemning the deal as a $1 billion boondoggle.


Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company


October 21, 2007 (New York Times Magazine)

The Future Is Drying Up



Scientists sometimes refer to the effect a hotter world will have on this country’s fresh water as the other water problem, because global warming more commonly evokes the specter of rising oceans submerging our great coastal cities. By comparison, the steady decrease in mountain snowpack — the loss of the deep accumulation of high-altitude winter snow that melts each spring to provide the American West with most of its water — seems to be a more modest worry. But not all researchers agree with this ranking of dangers. Last May, for instance, Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate and the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, one of the United States government’s pre-eminent research facilities, remarked that diminished supplies of fresh water might prove a far more serious problem than slowly rising seas. When I met with Chu last summer in Berkeley, the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, which provides most of the water for Northern California, was at its lowest level in 20 years. Chu noted that even the most optimistic climate models for the second half of this century suggest that 30 to 70 percent of the snowpack will disappear. “There’s a two-thirds chance there will be a disaster,” Chu said, “and that’s in the best scenario.”


In the Southwest this past summer, the outlook was equally sobering. A catastrophic reduction in the flow of the Colorado River — which mostly consists of snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains — has always served as a kind of thought experiment for water engineers, a risk situation from the outer edge of their practical imaginations. Some 30 million people depend on that water. A greatly reduced river would wreak chaos in seven states: Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California. An almost unfathomable legal morass might well result, with farmers suing the federal government; cities suing cities; states suing states; Indian nations suing state officials; and foreign nations (by treaty, Mexico has a small claim on the river) bringing international law to bear on the United States government. In addition, a lesser Colorado River would almost certainly lead to a considerable amount of economic havoc, as the future water supplies for the West’s industries, agriculture and growing municipalities are threatened. As one prominent Western water official described the possible future to me, if some of the Southwest’s largest reservoirs empty out, the region would experience an apocalypse, “an Armageddon.”


One day last June, an environmental engineer named Bradley Udall appeared before a Senate subcommittee that was seeking to understand how severe the country’s fresh-water problems might become in an era of global warming. As far as Washington hearings go, the testimony was an obscure affair, which was perhaps fitting: Udall is the head of an obscure organization, the Western Water Assessment. The bureau is located in the Boulder, Colo., offices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the government agency that collects obscure data about the sky and seas. Still, Udall has a name that commands some attention, at least within the Beltway. His father was Morris Udall, the congressman and onetime presidential candidate, and his uncle was Stewart Udall, the secretary of the interior under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Bradley Udall’s great-great-grandfather, John D. Lee, moreover, was the founder of Lee’s Ferry, a flyspeck spot in northern Arizona that means nothing to most Americans but holds near-mythic status to those who work with water for a living. Near Lee’s Ferry is where the annual flow of the Colorado River is measured in order to divvy up its water among the seven states that depend on it. To many politicians, economists and climatologists, there are few things more important than what has happened at Lee’s Ferry in the past, just as there are few things more important than what will happen at Lee’s Ferry in the future.


The importance of the water there was essentially what Udall came to talk about. A report by the National Academies on the Colorado River basin had recently concluded that the combination of limited Colorado River water supplies, increasing demands, warmer temperatures and the prospect of recurrent droughts “point to a future in which the potential for conflict” among those who use the river will be ever-present. Over the past few decades, the driest states in the United States have become some of our fastest-growing; meanwhile, an ongoing drought has brought the flow of the Colorado to its lowest levels since measurements at Lee’s Ferry began 85 years ago. At the Senate hearing, Udall stated that the Colorado River basin is already two degrees warmer than it was in 1976 and that it is foolhardy to imagine that the next 50 years will resemble the last 50. Lake Mead, the enormous reservoir in Arizona and Nevada that supplies nearly all the water for Las Vegas, is half-empty, and statistical models indicate that it will never be full again. “As we move forward,” Udall told his audience, “all water-management actions based on ‘normal’ as defined by the 20th century will increasingly turn out to be bad bets.”


A few weeks after his testimony, I flew to Boulder to meet with Udall, and we spent a day driving switchback roads high in the Rockies in his old Subaru. It had been a wet season on the east slope of the Rockies, but the farther west we went, the drier it became. Udall wanted to show me some of the local reservoirs and water systems that were built over the past century, so I could get a sense of their complexity as well as their vulnerability. As he put it, he wants to connect the disparate members of the water economy in a way that has never really been done before, so that utility executives, scientists, environmentalists, business leaders, farmers and politicians can begin discussing how to cope with the inevitable shortages of fresh water. In the American West, whose huge economy and political power derive from the ability of 20th-century engineers to conquer rivers like the Colorado and establish a reliable water supply, the prospect that there will be less water in the future, rather than the same amount, is unnerving. “We have a very short period of time here to get people educated on what this means,” Udall told me as we drove through the mountains. “Then once that occurs, perhaps we can start talking about how do we deal with it.”


Udall suggested that I meet a water manager named Peter Binney, who works for Aurora, Colo., a city — the 60th-largest in the United States — that sprawls over an enormous swath of flat, postagricultural land south of the Denver airport. It may be difficult for residents of the East Coast to understand the political celebrity of some Western water managers, but in a place like Aurora, where water, not available land, limits economic growth, Binney has enormous responsibilities. In effect, the city’s viability depends on his wherewithal to conjure new sources of water or increase the output of old ones. As Binney told me when we first spoke, “We have to find a new way of meeting the needs of all this population that’s turning up and still satisfy all of our recreational and environmental demands.” Aurora has a population of 310,000 now, Binney said, but that figure is projected to surpass 500,000 by 2035.


I asked if he had enough water for that many people. “Oh, no,” he replied. He seemed surprised that someone could even presume that he might. In fact, he explained, his job is to figure out how to find more water in a region where every drop is already spoken for and at a moment when there is little possibility that any more will ever be discovered.


Binney and I got together outside Dillon, a village in the Colorado Rockies 75 miles from Aurora and just a few miles west of the Continental Divide. We met in a small parking lot beside Dillon Reservoir, which sits at the bottom of a bowl of snow-capped mountains. Binney, a thickset 54-year-old with dark red hair and a fair complexion, had driven up in a large S.U.V. He still carries a strong accent from his native New Zealand, and in conversation he comes across as less a utility manager than a polymath with the combined savvy of an engineer, an economist and a politician. As we moved to a picnic table, Binney told me that we were looking at Denver’s water, not Aurora’s, and that it would eventually travel 70 miles through tunnels under the mountains to Denver’s taps. He admitted that he would love to have this water, which is pure snowmelt. To people in his job, snowmelt is the best source of water because it requires little chemical treatment to bring it up to federal drinking standards. But this water wasn’t available. Denver got here before him. And in Colorado, like most Western states, the rights to water follow a bloodline back to whoever got to it first.


One way to view the history of the American West is as a series of important moments in exploration or migration; another is to consider it, as Binney does, in terms of its water. In the 20th century, for example, all of our great dams and reservoirs were built — “heroic man-over-nature” achievements, in Binney’s words, that control floods, store water for droughts, generate vast amounts of hydroelectric power and enable agriculture to flourish in a region where the low annual rainfall otherwise makes it difficult. And in constructing projects like the Glen Canyon Dam — which backs up water to create Lake Powell, the vast reservoir in Arizona and Utah that feeds Lake Mead — the builders went beyond the needs of the moment. “They gave us about 40 to 50 years of excess capacity,” Binney says. “Now we’ve gotten to the end of that era.” At this point, every available gallon of the Colorado River has been appropriated by farmers, industries and municipalities. And yet, he pointed out, the region’s population is expected to keep booming. California’s Department of Finance recently predicted that there will be 60 million Californians by midcentury, up from 36 million today. “In Colorado, we’re sitting at a little under five million people now, on our way to eight million people,” Binney said. Western settlers, who apportioned the region’s water long ago, never could have foreseen the thirst of its cities. Nor, he said, could they have anticipated our environmental mandates to keep water “in stream” for the benefit of fish and wildlife, as well as for rafters and kayakers.


The West’s predicament, though, isn’t just a matter of limited capacity, bigger populations and environmental regulations. It’s also a distributional one. Seventy-five years ago, cities like Denver made claims on — and from the state of Colorado received rights to — water in the mountains; those cities in turn built reservoirs for their water. As a result, older cities have access to more surface water (that is, water that comes from rivers and streams) than newer cities like Aurora, which have been forced to purchase existing water rights from farmers and mining companies. Towns that rely on groundwater (water pumped from deep underground) face an even bigger disadvantage. Water tables all over the United States have been dropping, sometimes drastically, from overuse. In the Denver area, some cities that use only groundwater will almost certainly exhaust their accessible supplies by 2050.


The biggest issue is that agriculture consumes most of the water, as much as 90 percent of it, in a state like Colorado. “The West has gone from a fur-trapping, to a mining, to an agricultural, to a manufacturing, to an urban-centric economy,” Binney explained. As the region evolved, however, its water ownership for the most part did not. “There’s no magical locked box of water that we can turn to,” Binney says of cities like Aurora, “so it’s going to have to come from an existing use.” Because the supply of water in the West can’t really change, water managers spend their time looking for ways to adjust its allocation in their favor.


Binney knew all this back in 2002, when he took the job in Aurora after a long career at an engineering firm. Over the course of a century, the city had established a reasonable water supply. About a quarter of its water is piped in from the Colorado River basin about 70 miles away; another quarter is taken from reservoirs in the Arkansas River basin far to the south. The rest comes from the South Platte, a lazy, meandering river that runs north through Aurora on its way toward Nebraska. Binney says he believes that a city like his needs at least five years of water in storage in case of drought; his first year there turned out to be one of the worst years for water managers in recorded history, and the town’s reservoirs dropped to 26 percent of capacity, meaning Aurora had at most nine months of reserves and could not endure another dry spring. During the summer and fall, Binney focused on both supply and demand. He negotiated with neighboring towns to buy water and accelerated a program to pay local farmers to fallow their fields so the city could lease their water rights. Meanwhile, the town asked residents to limit their showers and had water cops enforce new rules against lawn sprinklers. (“It’s interesting how many people were watering lawns in the middle of the night,” Binney said.)


Water use in the United States varies widely by region, influenced by climate, neighborhood density and landscaping, among other things. In the West, Los Angelenos use about 125 gallons per person per day in their homes, compared with 114 for Tucson residents. Binney’s customers generally use about 160 gallons per person per day. “In the depths of the drought,” he said, “we got down to about 123 gallons.”


Part of the cruelty of a Western drought is that a water manager never knows if it will last 1 year or 10. In 2002, Binney was at the earliest stages of what has since become a nearly continuous dry spell. Though he couldn’t see that at the time, he realized Aurora faced a permanent state of emergency if it didn’t boost its water supplies. But how? One option was to try to buy water rights in the mountains (most likely from farmers who were looking to quit agriculture), then build a new reservoir and a long supply line to Aurora. Obvious hurdles included environmental and political resistance, as well as an engineering difficulty: water is heavy, far heavier than oil, and incompressible; a system to move it long distances (especially if it involves tunneling through mountains or pumping water over them) can cost billions. Binney figured that without the help of the federal government, which has largely gotten out of the Western dam-and-reservoir-building business, Aurora would be unwise to pursue such a project. Even if the money could be raised, building a system would take decades. Aurora needed a solution within five years.


Another practice, sometimes used in Europe, is to drill wells alongside a river and pull river water up though them, using the gravel of the riverbank as a natural filter — sort of like digging a hole in the sand near the ocean’s edge as it fills from below. Half of Aurora’s water rights were on the South Platte already; the city also pours its treated wastewater back into the river, as do other cities in the Denver metro area. This gives the South Platte a steady, dependable flow. Binney and the township reasoned that they could conceivably, and legally, go some 20 or 30 miles downstream on the South Platte, buy agricultural land near the river, install wells there and retrieve their wastewater. Thus they could create a system whereby Aurora would use South Platte water; send it to a treatment plant that would discharge it back into the river; go downstream to recapture water from the same river; then pump it back to the city for purification and further use. The process would repeat, ad infinitum. Aurora would use its share of South Platte water “to extinction,” in the argot of water managers. A drop of the South Platte used by an Aurora resident would find its way back to the city’s taps as a half-drop in 45 to 60 days, a quarter-drop 45 to 60 days after that and so on. For every drop the town used from the South Platte, over time it would almost — as all the fractional drops added up — get another.


Many towns have a supply that includes previously treated water. The water from the Mississippi River, for instance, is reused many times by municipalities as it flows southward. But as far as Binney knew, no municipality in the United States had built the kind of closed loop that Aurora envisioned. Water from wells in the South Platte would taste different, because of its mineral and organic content, so Binney’s engineers would have to make it mimic mountain snowmelt. More delicate challenges involved selling local taxpayers on authorizing a project, marketed to them as “Prairie Waters,” that would capitalize on their own wastewater. The system, which meant building a 34-mile-long pipeline from the downstream South Platte riverbanks to a treatment facility in Aurora, would cost three-quarters of a billion dollars, making it one of the most expensive municipal infrastructure projects in the country.


When Binney and I chatted at the reservoir outside Dillon, he had already finished discussions with Moody’s and Fitch, the bond-rating agencies whose evaluations would help the town finance the project. Groundbreaking, which would be the next occasion we would see each other, was still a month away. “What we’re doing now is trading high levels of treatment and purification for building tunnels and chasing whatever remaining snowmelt there is in the hills, which I think isn’t a wise investment for the city,” he told me. “I would expect that what we’re going to do is the blueprint for a lot of cities in California, Arizona, Nevada — even the Carolinas and the Gulf states. They’re all going to be doing this in the future.”


Water managers in the West tend to think in terms of “acre-feet.” One acre-foot, equal to about 326,000 gallons, is enough to serve two typical Colorado families for one year. When measurements of the Colorado River began near Lee’s Ferry in the early 1920s, the region happened to be in the midst of an extremely wet series of years, and the river was famously misjudged to have an average flow of 17 million acre-feet per year — when in fact its average flow would often prove to be significantly less. Part of the legacy of that misjudgment is that the seven states that divided the water in the 1920s entered into a legal partnership that created unrealistic expectations about the river’s capacity. But there is another, lesser-known legacy too. As the 20th century progressed, many water managers came to believe that the 1950s, which included the most severe drought years since measurement of the river began, were the marker for a worst-case situation.


But recent studies of tree rings, in which academics drill core samples from the oldest Ponderosa pines or Douglas firs they can find in order to determine moisture levels hundreds of years ago, indicate that the dry times of the 1950s were mild and brief compared with other historical droughts. The latest research effort, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters in late May, identified the existence of an epochal Southwestern megadrought that, if it recurred, would prove calamitous.


When Binney and I met at Dillon Reservoir, he brought graphs of Colorado River flows that go back nearly a thousand years. “There was this one in the 1150s,” he said, tracing a jagged line downward with his finger. “They think that’s when the Anasazi Indians were forced out. We see drought cycles here that can go up to 60 years of below-average precipitation.” What that would mean today, he said, is that states would have to make a sudden choice between agriculture and people, which would lead to bruising political debates and an unavoidable blow to the former. Binney says that as much as he believes that some farmers’ water is ultimately destined for the cities anyway, a big jolt like this would be tragic. “You hope you never get to that point,” he told me, “where you force those kinds of discussions, because they will change for hundreds of years the way that people live in the Western U.S. If you have to switch off agriculture, it’s not like you can get back into it readily. It took decades for the agricultural industry to establish itself. It may never come back.”


An even darker possibility is that a Western drought caused by climatic variation and a drought caused by global warming could arrive at the same time. Or perhaps they already have. This coming spring, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will issue a report identifying areas of the world most at risk of droughts and floods as the earth warms. Fresh-water shortages are already a global concern, especially in China, India and Africa. But the I.P.C.C., which along with Al Gore received the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize earlier this month for its work on global-warming issues, will note that many problem zones are located within the United States, including California (where the Sierra Nevada snowpack is threatened) and the Colorado River basin. These assessments follow on the heels of a number of recent studies that analyze mountain snowpack and future Colorado River flows. Almost without exception, recent climate models envision reductions that range from the modest to the catastrophic by the second half of this century. One study in particular, by Martin Hoerling and Jon Eischeid, suggests the region is already “past peak water,” a milestone that means the river’s water supply will now forever trend downward.


Climatologists seem to agree that global warming means the earth will, on average, get wetter. According to Richard Seager, a scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory who published a study on the Southwest last spring, more rain and snow will fall in those regions closer to the poles and more precipitation is likely to fall during sporadic, intense storms rather than from smaller, more frequent storms. But many subtropical regions closer to the equator will dry out. The models analyzed by Seager, which focus on regional climate rather than Colorado River flows, show that the Southwest will ultimately be subject to significant atmospheric and weather alterations. More alarming, perhaps, is that the models do not only concern the coming decades; they also address the present. “You know, it’s like, O.K., there’s trouble in the future, but how near in the future does it set in?” he told me. “In this case, it appears that it’s happening right now.” When I asked if the drought in his models would be permanent, he pondered the question for a moment, then replied: “You can’t call it a drought anymore, because it’s going over to a drier climate. No one says the Sahara is in drought.”


Climate models tend to be more accurate at predicting temperature than precipitation. Still, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that “something is happening,” as Peter Binney gently puts it. Everyone I spoke with in the West has noticed — less snow, earlier spring melts, warmer nights. Los Angeles this year went 150 days without a measurable rainfall. One afternoon in Boulder, I spent some time with Roger Pulwarty, a highly regarded climatologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Pulwarty, who has spent the past few years assessing adaptive solutions to a long drought, has a light sense of humor and an air of optimism about him, but he acknowledged that the big picture is worrisome. Even if the precipitation in the West does not decrease, higher temperatures by themselves create huge complications. Snowmelt runoff decreases. The immense reservoirs lose far more water to evaporation. Meanwhile, demand increases because crops are thirstier. Yet importing water from other river basins becomes more difficult, because those basins may face shortages, too.


“You don’t need to know all the numbers of the future exactly,” Pulwarty told me over lunch in a local Vietnamese restaurant. “You just need to know that we’re drying. And so the argument over whether it’s 15 percent drier or 20 percent drier? It’s irrelevant. Because in the long run, that decrease, accumulated over time, is going to dry out the system.” Pulwarty asked if I knew the projections for what it would take to refill Lake Powell, which is at about 50 percent of capacity. Twenty years of average flow on the Colorado River, he told me. “Good luck,” he said. “Even in normal conditions we don’t get 20 years of average flow. People are calling for more storage on the system, but if you can’t fill the reservoirs you have, I don’t know how more storage, or more dams, is going to help you. One has to ask if the normal strategies that we have are actually viable anymore.”


Pulwarty is convinced that the economic impacts could be profound. The worst outcome, he suggested, would be mass migrations out of the region, along with bitter interstate court battles over the dwindling water supplies. But well before that, if too much water is siphoned from agriculture, farm towns and ranch towns will wither. Meanwhile, Colorado’s largest industry, tourism, might collapse if river flows became a trickle during summertime. Already, warmer temperatures have brought on an outbreak of pine beetles that are destroying pine forests; Pulwarty wonders how many tourists will want to visit a state full of dead trees. “A crisis is an interesting thing,” he said. In his view, a crisis is a point in a story, a moment in a narrative, that presents an opportunity for characters to think their way through a problem. A catastrophe, on the other hand, is something different: it is one of several possible outcomes that follow from a crisis. “We’re at the point of crisis on the Colorado,” Pulwarty concluded. “And it’s at this point that we decide, O.K., which way are we going to go?”


It is all but imposible to look into the future of the Western states without calling on Pat Mulroy, the head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Mulroy has no real counterpart on the East Coast; her nearest analog might be Robert Moses, the notorious New York City planner who built massive infrastructure projects and who almost always found a way around institutional obstructions and financing constraints. She is arguably the most influential and outspoken water manager in the country — a “woman without fear,” as Pulwarty describes her. Pulwarty and Peter Binney respect her willingness to challenge historical water-sharing agreements that, in Mulroy’s view, no longer suit the modern West (meaning they don’t suit Las Vegas). According to Binney, however, Nevada’s scant resources give Mulroy little choice. She has to keep her city from drying out. That makes hers the most difficult job in the water business, he told me.


Las Vegas is almost certainly more vulnerable to water shortages than any metro area in the country. Partly that’s a result of the city’s explosive growth. But the state of Nevada has the historical misfortune of receiving a smaller share of Colorado River water (300,000 acre-feet annually) than the other six states with which it signed a water-sharing compact in the 1920s. That modest share, stored in Lake Mead along with water destined for Southern California, Arizona and northern Mexico, now means everything to Las Vegas. I traveled to Lake Mead on a 99-degree day last June. The narrow, 110-mile-long lake, which at full capacity holds 28 million acre-feet of water (making it the largest reservoir in the United States), was at 49 percent of capacity. When riding into the valley and glimpsing it from afar — an astonishing slash of blue in the desert — my guide for the day, Bronson Mack of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, remarked that he had never seen it so low. The white bathtub ring on the sides of the canyon that marks the level of full capacity was visible about 100 feet above the water. “I have a photograph of my mother on her honeymoon, standing in front of the lake,” Mack, a Las Vegas native, said. That was in 1970. “It was almost that low, but not quite.”


Over the past year, it has become conceivable that the lake could eventually drop below the level of the water authority’s intake pipes, the straws that suck the water out for the Las Vegas Valley. The authority recently hired an engineering firm to drill through several miles of rock and create a deeper intake pipe near the bottom of the lake. To say the project is being fast-tracked is an understatement. The day after visiting Lake Mead, I met with Mulroy in her Las Vegas office. “We have everything in line to get it running by 2012,” she said of the new intake. But she added that she is looking to cut as much time off construction as possible. Building the new intake is a race against the clock, or rather a race against a lake that keeps going down, down, down.


Mulroy is not gambling the entire future of Las Vegas on this project. One catchphrase of the water trade is that water flows uphill toward money, which is another way of saying that a city with ample funds can, at least theoretically, augment its supplies indefinitely. In a tight water market like that of the West, this isn’t an absolute truth, but in many instances money can move rivers. The trade-off is that new water tends to be of lower quality (requiring more expensive purification) or far away (requiring more expensive transport). Thanks to Las Vegas’s growth — the metro area is now at 1.8 million people — cost is currently no object. The city’s cash reserves have made it possible for Mulroy to pay Arizona $330 million for water she can use in emergencies and to plan a controversial multibillion-dollar pipeline to east-central Nevada, where the water authority has identified groundwater it wants to extract and transport. Wealth allows for the additional possibility of a sophisticated trading scheme whereby Las Vegas might pay for a desalination plant on the Pacific Coast that would transform seawater into potable water for use in California and Mexico. In exchange, Nevada could get a portion of their Colorado River water in Lake Mead.


So money does make a kind of sustainability possible for Las Vegas. On the other hand, buying water is quite unlike buying anything else. At the moment, water doesn’t really function like a private good; its value, which Peter Binney calls “infinite,” is often only vaguely related to its price, which can vary from 50 cents an acre-foot (what Mulroy pays to take water from Lake Mead) to $12,000 an acre-foot (the most Binney has paid farmers in Colorado for their rights). Moreover, water is so necessary to human life, and hence so heavily subsidized and regulated, that it can’t really be bought and sold freely across state lines. (Enron tried to start a water market called Azurix in the late 1990s, only to see it fail spectacularly.) The more successful water markets have instead been local, like one in the late 1980s in California, where farmers agreed to reduce their water use and sell the savings to a state water bank. Mulroy and Binney each told me they think a true free-market water exchange would create too many winners and losers. “What you would have is affluent communities being able to buy the lifeblood right out from under those that are less well heeled,” Mulroy said. More practical, in her mind, would be a regional market that gives states, cities and farmers greater freedom to strike mutually beneficial agreements, but with protections so that municipalities aren’t pitted against one another.


More-efficient water markets might ease shortages, but they can’t replace a big city’s principal source. What if, I asked Mulroy, Lake Mead drained nearly to the bottom? Even if drought conditions ease over the next year or two, several people I spoke with think the odds are greater that Lake Powell, the 27-million-acre-foot reservoir that supplies Lake Mead, will drop to unusable levels before it ever fills again. Mulroy didn’t immediately dismiss the possibility; she is certain that the reduced circumstances of the two big Western reservoirs are tied to global warming and that Las Vegas is this country’s first victim of climate change. An empty Lake Mead, she began, would mean there is nothing in Lake Powell.


“It’s well outside probabilities,” she said — but it could happen. “In that case, it’s not just a Las Vegas problem. You have three entire states wiped out: Arizona, California and Nevada. Because you can’t replace those volumes with desalted ocean water.” What seems more likely, she said, is that the legal framework governing the Colorado River would preclude such a dire turn of events. Recently, the states that use the Colorado reached a tentative agreement that guarantees Lake Mead will remain partly full under current conditions, even if upstream users have to cut back their withdrawals as a result. The deal supplements a more fundamental understanding that dates to the 1920s. If the river is failing to carry a certain, guaranteed volume of water to Lee’s Ferry, which is just below Lake Powell, the river’s lower-basin states (Nevada, Arizona and California) can legally force the upper-basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah) to reduce or stop their water withdrawals. This contingency, known as a “compact call,” sets the lower-basin states against the upper, but it has never occurred; it is deeply feared by many water managers, because it would ravage the fragile relationship among states and almost certainly lead to a scrum of lawsuits. Yet, last year water managers in Colorado began meeting for the first time to discuss the possibility. In our conversations, Mulroy denied that there would be a compact call, but she pointed out that Las Vegas’s groundwater and desalination plans were going ahead anyway for precautionary reasons.


I asked if limiting the growth of the Las Vegas metro area wouldn’t help. Mulroy bristled. “This country is going to have 100 million additional people in it in the next 25 to 30 years,” she replied. “Tell me where they’re supposed to go. Seriously. Every community says, ‘Not here,’ ‘No growth here,’ ‘There’s too many people here already.’ For a large urban area that is the core economic hub of any particular area, to even attempt to throw up walls? I’m not sure it can be done.” Besides, she added, the problem isn’t growth alone: “We have an exploding human population, and we have a shrinking clean-water supply. Those are on colliding paths. This is not just a Las Vegas issue. This is a microcosm of a much larger issue.” Americans, she went on to say, are the most voracious users of natural resources in the world. Maybe we need to talk about that as well. “The people who move to the West today need to realize they’re moving into a desert,” Mulroy said. “If they want to live in a desert, they have to adapt to a desert lifestyle.” That means a shift from the mindset of the 1930s, when the federal government encouraged people to settle in the West, plant water-intensive crops and make it look like the East Coast. It means landscapes of parched dirt. It means mesquite bushes and palo verde trees for vegetation. It means recycled water. It means gravel lawns. It is the West’s new deal, she seemed to be saying, and I got the feeling that for Mulroy it means that every blade of grass in her state would soon be gone.


The first impulse when confronted with the West’s water problems may be to wonder how, as scarcity becomes more acute, the region will engineer its way back to health. What can be built, what can technology accomplish, to ease any shortages? Yet this is almost certainly the wrong way to think about the situation. To be sure, construction projects like a pipeline from east-central Nevada could help Las Vegas. But the larger difficulty facing Pat Mulroy and Peter Binney, as they describe it, is re-engineering the culture and conventions of the West before it becomes too late. Whether or not there is enough water in the region for, say, the next 30 or 50 years isn’t necessarily a question with a yes-or-no answer. The water managers I spoke with believe the total volume of available water could be great enough to sustain the cities, many farms and perhaps the natural flow of the area’s rivers. But it’s not unreasonable to assume that if things continue as they have — with so much water going to agriculture; with conservation only beginning to take hold among residents, industry and farmers; with supplies diminishing slowly but steadily as the Earth warms; with the population growing faster than anywhere else in the United States; and with some of our most economically vital states constricted by antique water agreements — the region will become a topography of crisis and perhaps catastrophe. This is an old prophecy, dating back more than a century to one of the original American explorers of the West, John Wesley Powell, who doubted the territory could support large populations and intense development. (Powell presciently argued that river basins, not arbitrary mapmakers, should determine the boundaries of the Western states, in order to avoid inevitable conflicts over water.) An earlier explorer, J. C. Ives, visited the present location of Hoover Dam, between Arizona and Nevada, in 1857. The desiccated landscape was “valueless,” Ives reported. “There is nothing there to do but leave.”


Roger Pulwarty, for his part, rejects the notion of environmental determinism. Nature, in other words, isn’t inexorably pushing the region into a grim, suffering century. Things can be done. Redoubling efforts to prevent further climate change, Pulwarty says, is one place to start; another is getting the states that share the Colorado River to reach cooperative arrangements, as they have begun to discuss, for coping with long-term droughts. Other parts of the solution are less obvious. To Peter Gleick, head of the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit based in Oakland, Calif., that focuses on global water issues, whether we can adapt to a drier future depends on whether we can rethink the functions, and value, of fresh water. Can we can do the same things using less of it? How we use our water, Gleick believes, is considerably more complex than it appears. First of all, there are consumptive and nonconsumptive uses of water. Consumptive use, roughly speaking, refers to water taken from a reservoir that cannot be recovered. “It’s embedded in a product like a liter of Coca-Cola, or it’s contaminated so badly we can’t reuse it,” Gleick says. In agriculture, the vast majority of water use is also consumptive, because it evaporates or transpires from crops into the atmosphere. Evaporated water may fall as rain 1,000 miles away — that’s how Earth’s water cycle works — but it is gone locally. A similar consumptive process characterizes the water we put on our lawns or gardens: it mostly disappears. Meanwhile, most of the water used by metropolitan areas is nonconsumptive. It goes down the drain and empties into nearby rivers, like Colorado’s South Platte, as treated wastewater.


Gleick calls the Colorado River “the most complicated water system in the world,” and he isn’t convinced it will be easy, or practical, to change the laws that govern its usage. “But I think it’s less hard to change how we use water,” he says. He accepts that climate change is confronting the West with serious problems. (He was also one of the country’s first scientists, in the mid-1980s, to point out that reductions in mountain snowpack could present huge challenges.) He makes a persuasive case, however, that there are immense opportunities — even in cities like Las Vegas, which has made strides in conservation — to reduce both consumptive and nonconsumptive demand for water. These include installing more low-flow home appliances and adopting more efficient irrigation methods. And they include economic tools too: for example, many municipalities have reduced consumption by making water more expensive (the more you use, the higher your per-gallon rate). The United States uses less water than it did 25 years ago, Gleick points out: “We haven’t even paid too much attention to it, and we’ve accomplished this.” To go further, he says he believes we could alter not only demand but also supply. “Treated wastewater isn’t a liability, it’s an asset,” he says. We don’t need potable water to flush our toilets or water our lawns. “One might say that’s a ridiculous use of potable water. In fact, I might say that. But that’s the way we’ve set it up. And that’s going to change, that’s got to change, in this century.”


Among Colorado’s water managers, Peter Binney’s Prairie Waters project is considered both innovative and important not on account of its technology but because it seems to mark a new era of finding water sources in the drying West. It also proves that the next generation’s water will not come cheap, or come easy. In late July, I went to Aurora to meet up again with Binney. It was the groundbreaking day for Prairie Waters, which had been on the local television news: Binney and several other officials grinned for the cameras and signed a section of six-foot steel pipe, the same kind that would transport water from the South Platte wells to the Aurora treatment facility. That evening, Binney and I had dinner together at a steakhouse in an Aurora shopping mall. When he remarked that we may have exceeded what he calls the “carrying capacity” of the West, I asked him whether our desert civilizations could last. Binney seemed dubious. “Not the way we’ve got it set up,” he said. “We’ve decoupled land use from water use. Water is the limiting resource in the West. I think we need to match them back together again.” There was a decent amount of water out there, he went on to explain, but it was a false presumption that it could sustain all the farms, all the cities, all the rivers. Something will have to give. It was also wrong to assume, he said, that cities could continue to grow without experiencing something akin to a religious awakening about the scarcity of water. Soon, he predicted, we would talk about our “water footprint” just as we now talk about our carbon footprint.


Indeed, any conversations about the one will in short order expand to include the other, Binney went on to say. Many water managers have known this for a while. The two problems — water and energy — are so intimately linked as to make it exceedingly difficult to tackle one without the other. It isn’t just the matter of growing corn for ethanol, which is already straining water supplies. The less water in our rivers, for instance, the less hydropower our dams produce. The further the water tables sink, the more power it takes to pump water up. The more we depend on coal and nuclear power plants, which require huge amounts of water for cooling, the larger the burden we place on supplies.


Meanwhile, it is a perverse side effect of global warming that we may have to emit large volumes of carbon dioxide to obtain the clean water that is becoming scarcer because of the carbon dioxide we’ve already put into the atmosphere. A dry region that turns to desalination, for example, would need vast amounts of energy (and money) to purify its water. While wind-powered desalination could perhaps meet this challenge — such a plant was recently built outside Perth, Australia — it isn’t clear that coastal residents in, say, California would welcome such projects. Unclear, too, is how dumping the brine that is a by-product of the process back into the ocean would affect ecosystems.


Similar energy challenges face other plans. In past years, various schemes have arisen to move water from Canada or the Great Lakes to arid parts of the United States. Beyond the environmental implications and construction costs (probably hundreds of billions of dollars), such continental-scale plumbing would require stupendous amounts of electricity. And yet, fears that such plans will resurface in a drier, more populous world are partly behind current efforts by the Great Lakes states to certify a pact that protects their fresh water from outside exploitation.


Just pumping water from the Prairie Waters site to Aurora will cost a small fortune. Binney told me this the day after the groundbreaking, as we drove north from Aurora to the site. Along the 45-minute journey, Binney narrated where his pipeline would go — along the edge of the highway here, over in that field there and so on. Eventually we turned off the highway and onto a small country road, and Binney slowed down so I could take in the surroundings. “Here’s where you see it all coming together and all of it coming into conflict,” he told me. To him, it was a perfect tableau of the West in the 21st century. There was a housing development on one side of the road and fields of irrigated crops on the other. Farther ahead was a gravel pit, a remnant of the old Colorado mineral-extraction economy.


He drove on, and soon we turned onto a dirt road that bisected some open fields. We rumbled along for a quarter mile or so, spewing dust and passing over the South Platte in the process. Binney parked by a wire fence near a sign marking it as Aurora property. We got out of the truck, hopped over a locked gate and walked into a farm field.


For miles along the highway, we passed barren acreage that formerly grew winter wheat but was now slated for new houses. The land we stood on once grew corn, but tangles of weeds covered it now. As we walked, Binney explained that the collection wells on the South Platte would soon be dug a few hundred yards away; that water would be pumped into collection basins on this field, where sand and gravel would purify it further. Then it would be pumped back to the chemical treatment plants in Aurora before being piped to residents. “We’re standing 34 miles from there,” Binney said.


It was a location as ordinary as I could have imagined, an empty place, far from anything, and yet Binney saw it as something else. Earlier, when we crossed over the gravel banks of the South Platte, I found the river disappointing: broad and shallow, dun-colored and slow-moving, its unimpressive flow somehow incorporating water Aurora had already used upstream. James Michener, in writing about this region years ago, was dead-on in calling it “a sad, bewildered nothing of a river.” Still, the South Platte was dependable. It was also Aurora’s lifeline, buying the city 20 or 30 years of time. “What I really like about it,” Binney said, smiling as we walked from the field back to his truck, “is that it’s wet.”


Jon Gertner is a contributing writer for the magazine.


Picture captions

Draining The 100-foot-high bathtub ring left by the dwindling waters of Lake Mead, behind Hoover Dam.


Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company


Sep 18, 2007 (The Gainesville Sun)

Rivers to quench a thirsty south?


Sun staff writer


Florida water managers are considering tapping rivers and lakes to quench the thirst of a growing populace.


A plan to pipe water from the Ocklawaha and St. Johns rivers and other water bodies to Central Florida communities is moving forward. The project could cost as much as $1.2 billion and pipe up to 262 million gallons a day to three dozen utilities including those serving Leesburg, Orlando and The Villages.


Most U.S. communities divert water bodies to provide water for drinking, irrigating crops and supplying businesses. But the plan represents a significant shift for Florida, which has until now relied mainly on groundwater to supply the public.


Conservation advocates say the plan defies the spirit of a state law requiring communities to use local water sources before turning elsewhere. They fear the plan is a prelude to water being pumped from the Santa Fe and Suwannee rivers to satisfy the explosive growth of southern Florida cities.


“Thanks to the unsustainable growth down there, they’re looking to the north to solve their problems,” said Annette Long, president of Save Our Suwannee.


St. Johns River Water Management District officials say growth is projected to outpace available groundwater as soon as 2013 in some communities. They say the “local sources first” law doesn’t prevent ground or surface water from being pumped across political boundaries.


“It means you use the local source first and that’s exactly what’s happened,” said Jim Gross, a senior project manager for St. Johns. “It’s essentially gone.”


For years, Central and South Florida have proposed turning to the less populated north to meet their water needs. Former state Sen. Nancy Argenziano, R-Crystal River, successfully pushed for the local-sources law to prevent water transfers.


Argenziano, now a member of the state’s Public Service Commission, said the water district is failing to follow the law if it proceeds with the pipeline before pursuing alternatives.


She said desalination plants and aggressive conservation measures must first be considered. Those alternatives could cost less and create less environmental damage than the pipeline plan, she said.


“It might shoot their whole plan to kingdom come,” she said. “It’s not a done deal by any means.”


Barbara Vergara, St. Johns’ director of water supply management, said desalination is a risky option and the district has employed conservation measures such as restricting lawn watering. She said said nothing in Florida law limits communities to using only resources within their political boundaries.


“That’s probably never happened – not in many, many years in Florida,” she said.


St. Johns has joined with the South and Southwest Florida water management districts to create the Central Florida Coordination Area. The area allows utilities in southern Lake County and all of Orange, Osceola, Polk and Seminole counties to seek water outside their districts.


Three dozen utilities are being invited to submit plans on how much water they want, when they want it and how they want it delivered. On Oct. 15, the district will present those utilities with possible plans for pipelines and facilities.


By next year, planning could begin with an eye toward having facilities built by 2013.


The time line has created a sense of urgency from environmental advocates. Karen Ahlers, president of the Putnam County Environmental Council, said the project threatens efforts to restore the Ocklawaha River.


“If this alternative supply thing goes through, we’ve lost the Ocklawaha River,” she said.


The river was the focus of one of the state’s premier environmental battles, the fight to stop construction of a barge canal across the state. Rodman Dam was built on the Ocklawaha before the project was killed and the structure remains a thorn in the side of environmental advocates.


Ahlers’ group has pushed for the dam’s removal and Ocklawaha’s restoration. She questions how the district could tap the river before establishing minimum levels designed to prevent water withdrawals from causing significant environmental harm.


“I just don’t trust science that’s dictated by demand,” she said.


St. Johns water managers say they already have a good idea about available water in the river before harm would occur. They say minimum flows will be set before water is withdrawn and will eventually mean other sources must be considered.


They say desalination will be needed after 2030 to meet the region’s water needs. But they say the technology is too risky and expensive to pursue now on a wider scale.


Argenziano rejects the argument. She said the city of Dunedin, which has a reverse osmosis plant that uses brackish water from deep below the surface, shows that even a small community has the means to employ new technology.


She questioned the wisdom of piping water outside watersheds. Doing so means losing the benefits on recharging the aquifer, she said, draining the future water supply in those communities.


Gross said the St. Johns district could eventually get water sent back from other districts. The plan helps communities that are in many cases just across district borders, he said.


“Our mission under Florida law is not to vigorously defend our boundaries as if they were little kingdoms or fiefdoms,” he said.


Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 352-338-3176 or crabben@gville


Copyright © The Gainesville Sun

April 4, 2007 (New York Times)

An Arid West No Longer Waits for Rain



A Western drought that began in 1999 has continued after the respite of a couple of wet years that now feel like a cruel tease. But this time people in the driest states are not just scanning the skies and hoping for rescue.


Some $2.5 billion in water projects are planned or under way in four states, the biggest expansion in the West’s quest for water in decades. Among them is a proposed 280-mile pipeline that would direct water to Las Vegas from northern Nevada. A proposed reservoir just north of the California-Mexico border would correct an inefficient water delivery system that allows excess water to pass to Mexico.


In Yuma, Ariz., federal officials have restarted an idled desalination plant, long seen as a white elephant from a bygone era, partly in the hope of purifying salty underground water for neighboring towns.


The scramble for water is driven by the realities of population growth, political pressure and the hard truth that the Colorado River, a 1,400-mile-long silver thread of snowmelt and a lifeline for more than 20 million people in seven states, is providing much less water than it had.


According to some long-term projections, the mountain snows that feed the Colorado River will melt faster and evaporate in greater amounts with rising global temperatures, providing stress to the waterway even without drought. This year, the spring runoff is expected to be about half its long-term average. In only one year of the last seven, 2005, has the runoff been above average.


Everywhere in the West, along the Colorado and other rivers, as officials search for water to fill current and future needs, tempers are flaring among competing water users, old rivalries are hardening and some states are waging legal fights.


In one of the most acrimonious disputes, Montana filed a suit in February at the United States Supreme Court accusing Wyoming of taking more than its fair share of water from the Tongue and Powder Rivers, north-flowing tributaries of the Yellowstone River that supply water for farms and wells in both states.


Preparing for worst-case outcomes, the seven states that draw water from the Colorado River — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico in the upper basin and California, Arizona and Nevada in the lower basin — and the United States Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the river, are considering plans that lay out what to do if the river cannot meet the demand for water, a prospect that some experts predict will occur in about five years.


“What you are hearing about global warming, explosive growth — combine with a real push to set aside extra water for environmental purpose — means you got a perfect situation for a major tug-of-war contest,” said Sid Wilson, the general manager of the Central Arizona Project, which brings Colorado River water to the Phoenix area.


New scientific evidence suggests that periodic long, severe droughts have become the norm in the Colorado River basin, undermining calculations of how much water the river can be expected to provide and intensifying pressures to find new solutions or sources.


The effects of the drought can be seen at Lake Mead in Nevada, where a drop in the water level left docks hanging from newly formed cliffs, and a marina surrounded by dry land. Upriver at Lake Powell, which is at its lowest level since spring 1973, receding waters have exposed miles of mud in the side canyons leading to the Glen Canyon Dam.


In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has sounded alarm bells by pushing for a ballot measure in 2008 that would allocate $4.5 billion in bonds for new water storage in the state. The water content in the Sierra Nevada snowpack has reached the lowest level in about two decades, state hydrologists have reported, putting additional pressure on the nation’s most populous state to find and store more water.


“Scientists say that global warming will eliminate 25 percent of our snowpack by the half of this century,” Mr. Schwarzenegger said recently in Fresno, Calif., “which will mean less snow stored in the mountains, which will mean more flooding in the winter and less drinking water in the summer.”


In Montana, where about two-thirds of the Missouri River and half of the Columbia River have their headwaters, officials have embarked on a long-term project to validate old water-rights claims in an effort to legally shore up supplies the state now counts on.


Under the West’s water laws, claims are hierarchal. The oldest, first-filed claims, many dating to pioneer days, get water first, with newer claims at the bottom of the pecking order.


Still, some of the sharpest tensions stem more from population growth than cautionary climate science, especially those between Nevada and Utah, states with booming desert economies and clout to fight for what they say is theirs.


Las Vegas, the fastest-growing major city in the country, and the driest, developed the pipeline plan several years ago to bring groundwater from the rural, northern reaches of the state. The metropolitan area, which relies on the Colorado River for 90 percent of its water, is awaiting approval from Nevada’s chief engineer.


Ranchers and farmers in northern Nevada and Utah are opposed to the pipeline plan and have vowed to fight it in court, saying it smacks of the famous water grab by Los Angeles nearly a century ago that caused severe environmental damage in the Owens Valley in California.


“Southern Nevada thinks it can come up here and suck all these springs dry without any problems,” said Dean Baker, whose family’s ranch straddles the Nevada-Utah border, pointing out springs that farmers have run dry with their own wells. “We did this ourselves. Now imagine what pumping for a whole big city is going to do.”


Meanwhile, Utah has proposed a $500 million, 120-mile pipeline from Lake Powell to serve the fast-growing City of St. George and Washington County in the state’s southwestern corner. Nevada officials have said they will seek to block that plan if Utah stands in the way of theirs.


“Utah is being very disingenuous, and we’re calling them on it,” said Patricia Mulroy, the chief executive of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the agency responsible for finding water for Las Vegas and its suburbs. “St. George, Utah, is growing as fast as southern Nevada, because the growth is going right up the I-15 corridor.”


Dennis J. Strong, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, said Nevada was protesting too much and instead should be cheering the Lake Powell project because Colorado River water that Utah does not use would flow in Nevada’s direction. Mr. Strong said that Nevada’s protests “may be a bargaining chip.” He said he hoped for a compromise that would allow both projects to move forward.


In Yuma, near the Arizona border with Mexico, officials have pinned hopes on a desalination plant built 15 years ago. The plan then had been to treat salty runoff from farms before it made its way into Colorado River headed to Mexico, thus meeting the terms of an old water treaty.


But a series of unusually wet years made it more efficient to meet the treaty obligations with water from Lake Mead, so the plant sat idle. Drought has changed all that. Arizona water managers, who are first in line to have their water cut in a shortage under an agreement with other states, called for the plant to be turned on.


Under an agreement with environmentalists, the federal Bureau of Reclamation plans to monitor the environmental effects of using the plant, and study, among other things, using the purified water for purposes other than meeting its treaty obligations, like supplying the growing communities around Yuma.


“It never made sense to me to just dump bottled-water quality water into the river anyway,” said Jim Cherry, the bureau’s Yuma area manager.


What unites the Western states is a growing consensus among scientists that future climate change and warmer temperatures, if they continue, could hit harder here than elsewhere in the continental United States.


“The Western mountain states are by far more vulnerable to the kinds of change we’ve been talking about compared to the rest of the country, with the New England states coming in a relatively distant second,” said Michael Dettinger, a research hydrologist at the United States Geological Survey who studies the relationships between water and climate.


Mr. Dettinger said higher temperatures had pushed the spring snowmelt and runoff to about 10 days earlier on average than in the past. Higher temperatures would mean more rain falling rather than snow, compounding issues of water storage and potentially affecting flooding.


In some places, the new tensions and pressures could even push water users toward compromise.


Colorado recently hired a mediator to try to settle a long-running dispute over how water from the Rocky Mountains should be shared among users in the Denver area and the western half of the state. Denver gets most of the water and has most of the state’s population. But water users in the mountains, notably the ski resort industry, also have clout and want to keep their share.


Robert W. Johnson, the Bureau of Reclamation commissioner, said he shared the optimism that the disputes could be worked out, but he said he thought it might take a reconsideration of the West’s original conception of what water was for.


The great dams and reservoirs that were envisioned beginning in the 1800s were conceived with farmers in mind, and farmers still take about 90 percent of the Colorado River’s flow. More and more, Mr. Johnson said, the cities will need that water.


An agreement reached a few years ago between farmers and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the chief supplier of water to that region, is one model. Under the terms of the agreement, farmers would let their fields lie fallow and send water to urban areas in exchange for money to cover the crop losses.


“I definitely see that as the future,” Mr. Johnson said.


Picture captions: More than 80 feet below its normal level, the receding waterline at Lake Mead in Nevada has left a fishing pier suspended over the lake bed.


The Western drought that began in 1999 has resumed after a couple of wetter years that now feel like a cruel tease. At the Hoover Dam, the water level has dropped more than 80 feet.


The effects of the drought are dramatically seen at Lake Mead, Nev., where the shoreline has shrunk so considerably that it has forced a marina to relocate from newly dry land.


Federal officials have even restarted a mothballed desalination plant, long seen as a white elephant from a bygone era, partly in hopes it can purify salty underground water for neighboring towns.


At the plant, Jim Cherry, left, and Jack Simes walked between two of the three giant solid contact reactors which remove suspended solids from the water.


A section of Astro Turf in an otherwise desert landscape.


Some homeowners and country clubs are removing turf in an effort to reduce the amount of water used to grow lawns.


Dean Baker, a rancher whose family spread straddles the Nevada-Utah border, pointed out springs that farmers themselves have dried up with their own wells. “We did this ourselves. Now imagine what pumping for a whole big city is going to do.”


Randal C. Archibold reported from Yuma, Ariz., and Kirk Johnson from Denver.


Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company



July 7, 2006

Border Fight Focuses on Water, Not Immigration



CALEXICO, Calif. — For more than 100 years, as their names imply, Calexico and its much larger sister city, Mexicali, south of the border, have embraced each other with a bonhomie born of mutual need and satisfaction in the infernal desert.


The pedestrian gate into Mexico clangs ceaselessly as Mexicans lug back bulging bags from Wal-Mart and 99 Cent Stores in Calexico. The line into the United States slogs along, steady but slower, through an air-conditioned foyer as men and women trudge off to work and, during the school year, children wear the universal face that greets the coming day.


Now, the ties that bind Calexico and Mexicali are being tested as a 20-year dispute over the rights to water leaking into Mexico from a canal on the American side is reaching a peak. Though the raging debate over illegal immigration in the United States has not upset border relations here, some say the fight over water could affect the number of Mexicans who try to cross here illegally.


To slake the ever-growing thirst of San Diego, 100 miles to the west, the United States has a plan to replace a 23-mile segment of the earthen All-American Canal, which the federal government owns and the Colorado River feeds, with a concrete-lined parallel trough.


The $225 million project would send more water to San Diego, by cutting off billions of leaked gallons — enough for 112,000 households a year — that have helped irrigate Mexican farms since the 1940’s.


But Mexican farmers and their advocates say the lined canal would effectively turn off the spigot for 25,000 people, including 400 farmers whose wells rely on the seepage that has helped turn the powdery fields east of Mexicali, an industrial city, into one of the biggest Mexican producers of onions, alfalfa, asparagus, squash and other crops.


The farmers and their families ask what will they do if they cannot till the fields and answer that they will cross the border, illegally if they have to, in droves.


“They can’t build a fence high enough to stop us,” said Gerónimo Hernández, a Mexicali farmer whose family has worked the fields for generations.


Juan Ignácio Guajardo, a lawyer in Mexicali who is helping a civic group there and two environmental groups in Southern California fight the canal, said, “You can’t have it both ways,” adding, “You can’t take our water away and then say, ‘We don’t want immigration, either.’ ”


The dispute over the project was among the topics President Bush and President Vicente Fox of Mexico discussed in an April meeting in Mexico.


[A federal judge ruled against environmental groups in the United States and a Mexicali civic association in a lawsuit against the project, dismissing some claims on June 26 on technicalities and deciding on July 3 that many of the predicted effects on Mexico were “highly speculative” and that the federal environmental law at issue did not apply beyond the border. The groups said they were preparing an appeal. In addition, a separate lawsuit is pending in state court.]


On the American side, managers of the Imperial Irrigation District, which controls the canal and a vast water system that has turned swaths of the California desert in the Imperial and Coachella Valleys into some of the most fertile farmland anywhere, defend the plan.


They say the 1944 international treaty on the distribution of water from the Colorado River, which feeds the canal, does not prohibit the concrete lining. New agreements among the states and water utilities along the Colorado have imposed limits on how much water can be tapped from the river, making every drop count that much more.


“There is more need than water available,” said the general manager of the irrigation district, Charles Hosken. “When you find a point to access water, I think it is our duty to go after it.”


Mr. Hosken acknowledged that the project, which has been mired in legal challenges and planning since the 1980’s, “will have impact” on Mexico, but said, “The fact is, the water belongs to the United States, and we have never been compensated for it.”


He said he was particularly angry at opponents of the project who invoke the immigration debate, which while discussed here, has not set off the fiery passions found elsewhere.


The notion that cutting off the leakage would drive up illegal immigration, he said, was “quite a stretch” and a “scare tactic” intended to take advantage of the charged atmosphere surrounding the debate.


But opponents said the project was moving forward without enough consideration of its potential effects.


The federal lawsuit contended that a study in 1994 of the project’s environmental consequences was outdated and should be revised to take into account changes of the last 12 years.


The groups argued in the suit that the original study did not fully take into account a projected increase in air pollution if the fields were returned to dust or the deterioration of Mexican wetlands if the leaking water were to dry up and remove the habitat of endangered birds and lizards.


In the state lawsuit, filed in April, another environmental group contends that the concrete lining and the shape of the new canal would produce swifter currents that would endanger people and animals. That group says it plans to seek a temporary restraining order against the project.


California has agreed to pay for 60 percent of the project, with the San Diego County Water Authority financing the rest. Malissa Hathaway McKeith, president of Citizens United for Resources and the Environment, a group in the federal lawsuit, said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger could halt the project by withholding the state money until the environmental effects were studied more closely.


A spokeswoman for Mr. Schwarzenegger, Margita Thompson, said such a move was far from likely because the governor thought that the water recovered from the lining would lessen the need to tap the Colorado.


“This will help provide long-term stability in water management,” Ms. Thompson said.


The dispute has touched a nerve in Calexico, which, with a population of 33,000, mostly Spanish speakers of Mexican descent, functions as a virtual suburb of Mexicali, which has nearly one million residents.


The mayor and Council of Calexico have sided with the Mexicali farmers, taking pains to make clear that Mexicans are welcome here in part because they fear that economic distress in the region could damage their economy, which is buoyed by Mexican wallets.


“If we didn’t have Mexico,” said Mayor Alex Perrone, who like many other city residents was born in Mexicali and reared in Calexico, “we could not survive.”


So intertwined are the towns that Calexico fire trucks race across the border for emergencies. Mexicali children fill private schools in Calexico. Special border-crossing cards known as laser visas make it easy for many Mexicans to go back and forth, though some sneak in, too, hiding in cars or scaling the steel-plate fence.


Ire against the new canal has grown in Mexicali, where bumper stickers opposing it are turning up.


“How can they take away the farmers’ water after all these years?” asked Juan Rodolfo Rodríguez, a Mexicali shopkeeper who was buying a caffè latte at the Starbucks shop here. “Americans always want more, but we are used to this.”


Farmers like the Hernández family fear they would not have the resources to find alternate water sources, like digging deeper wells to tap an underground aquifer.


“It would be costly to maintain,” said Luis Hernández, Gerónimo Hernández’s brother. “And who knows if it would give us the same amount of water?”


Picture captions

Farmers near Mexicali have long relied on seepage from the All-American Canal to irrigate their fields.


*The debate over replacing a part of the All-American Canal with a concrete-lined trough has strained the longstanding ties between Calexico, Calif., and Mexicali, Mexico, top


*Luis Hernández checking water flow on his farm near Mexicali. He worries about the plan to replace the earthen canal, which would cut off billions of leaked gallons that have helped irrigate Mexican farms.


Rene Acuna Uscanga walks next to a border wall where it ends in Mexicali. Some Mexican farmers say that if they lose irrigation water and cannot till their fields, they will cross the border, illegally if they have to.


*A farm worker harvests alfalfa on the outskirts of Mexicali. The farm’s wells rely on the seepage leaking out of the canal on the American side of the border.


Nazario Ortizz looks over water being pumped from a seepage canal near Mexicali. The region outside the city is one of the biggest Mexican producers of onions, alfalfa, asparagus, squash and other crops.


*If their seepage canals run dry, farmers near Mexicali fear they would not have the resources to find alternate water sources, like digging deeper wells to tap an underground aquifer.


Copyright 2006  The New York Times Company


March 13, 2006  (AP)

Wasteful Mexico City Hosts Water Summit

By MARK STEVENSON, Associated Press Writer


Mexico City is plagued by an almost diabolical combination of floods and water shortages, rising sewage and sinking water tables. What better place for world leaders to come together to discuss how to better manage water?


Many of the 20 million people of this metropolis get by on as little as one hour of running water per week, while almost all the copious rainfall is flushed unused down the sewers, creating a gargantuan flow of wastewater that the city’s few treatment plants can’t handle.


As with New Orleans, Mexico City is on life support, but on a much larger scale.


Huge pumps work day and night to suck sewage-laced water out of the rapidly sinking, mountain-ringed bowl in which the city lies. Some areas suffer floods of sewage. Around seven in every eight toilet flushes goes untreated.


Mexico City has paved over its rivers and made them into underground sewers or expressways — often both at the same time — while pumping so much water from underground aquifers that some neighborhoods sink by up to a foot a year.


The city would probably flunk in all the five topics to be discussed at the 4th World Water Forum starting Thursday: how water can be harnessed for growth, be provided more efficiently, better benefit the poor, be used environmentally, and be prevented from causing natural disasters.


Mexico City’s system serves no one very well. Almost everyone buys bottled water or expensive home water systems. But it serves the poor worst. For many, bad water or none at all is just another fact of life.


“We don’t want to ask for the impossible, but it would be nice if the water could come twice a week,” said Juan Maria Bautista Ortiz, 42, whose family of four gets as little as one hour of running water per week at their tarpaper shack.


Plastic drums in their dirt yard to catch the precious liquid when it comes and store about 400 gallons for an entire week of toilet use, sponge baths, washing clothes and dishes.


The city water system isn’t bad because it’s cheap. Because it’s bad, it’s terribly expensive.


City water pipes are leaky, low-pressure and often dry, so every home must have an underground storage tank, as well as a system to pump the water up to a rooftop storage tank from which to flow down.


“It costs more than it would to build a well-made water system,” said Jesus Campos, the assistant director of Mexico’s National Water Commission.


Officials occasionally launch halfhearted campaigns to get people to drink tap water, but while they swear it’s safe when it leaves treatment plants, they say it’s often contaminated in aging, ill-maintained home tanks and plumbing.


In fact, Mexico City is sinking in an accelerating spiral of water problems.


As aquifers are depleted, the ground subsides and breaks underground pipes, causing more of the leaks that already waste about 40 percent of drinking water. Sewage pipes also fracture, releasing sewage that contaminates the aquifers.


As the sewer-rivers, the population, and water wastefulness all multiply, the city must spend even more — about $2 billion over the next five years — not to fix the system or create separate storm drains, but simply to build larger pipes out of the valley.


Built on what was once a lake, Mexico City now wallows in waste and struggles to get rid of the water it has while greedily eyeing the rivers and watersheds of surrounding states. Each proposed diversion prompts angry protests.


Where is it all heading? The director of the city’s water system, German Martinez, doesn’t expect the city’s aquifers to last longer than about 50 years. Urban planner Jorge Legoretta says the city has been hit by big floods 25 times in its 700-year history, most recently in the 1950s, and expects “catastrophe no. 26” within 15 years.


Officials aren’t proud of Mexico City’s water record, but say they’re not embarrassed to host the forum.


“I don’t like to look at this as a crisis situation,” said city water chief Martinez. “Every city in the world has problems with water. Mexico City is no exception.” He prefers the term “pooling” to “flooding,” sees deeper wells as the answer, and also boils his tap water.


Jesus Campos, assistant director of Mexico’s National Water Commission, tries to put the best face on hosting the water confab.


“Perhaps even negative examples can be of use,” he said. “This example can be very illustrative, and might even serve to tell people, ‘Don’t grow this fast.'”



On the Net:

World Water Forum agenda:


Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.



August 12, 2005

Growth Stirs a Battle to Draw More Water From the Great Lakes



WAUKESHA, Wis. – Time was when Waukesha’s mineral-rich water was coveted by Milwaukeeans and Chicagoans, who scorned the Lake Michigan water lapping at their shores. In 1892, one speculator even tried to pipe the city’s water to Chicago for the coming World’s Columbia Exposition, until aroused Waukeshans trained pistols, pitchforks and fire hoses on the pipe layers, who retreated.


What a difference a century makes. Waukesha has sucked so much water from its deep aquifer that it is now looking to the vast blue expanse of Lake Michigan, just as Chicagoans once eyed its water.


But the authorities who control some of the largest bodies of fresh water in the world are not sure that any of it should go to communities like Waukesha, which is 15 miles from the lake’s shore but outside of its watershed.


Their fear is that without strict rules on who gets Great Lakes water and who does not, water-starved western cities will eventually knock at the door.


“Today the economics are not there to say we’re going to take all the water in the Great Lakes and ship it to Phoenix and Vegas,” said Todd Ambs, the water division director of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “But water’s not getting cheaper. Twenty-five, 30, 40 years from now, the economics are going to be different. We’ve got to have a system in place to deal with that.”


Fights over who owns and who deserves water have long been a part of life in arid states like California and Nevada. But as the spread of exurbia has more than consumed the savings of a generation’s worth of technological improvements like low-flush toilets, even places not perennially in danger of running dry have become jealous of their water.


Akron, Ohio, had to ask for Great Lakes water in the late 1990’s. It received permission, but Lowell, Ind., was turned down.


And Michigan has told a Nestlé subsidiary that if it wants to increase production of its Ice Mountain bottled water in Mecosta Township, Mich., all of the additional water pumped out of the ground must be “delivered and sold within the Great Lakes basin.” The company is fighting the requirement in federal court.


In the last 25 years, ideas have been suggested to build a slurry pipe that would send Great Lakes water to help Wyoming mines and to build a 400-mile canal between the Missouri River in South Dakota and Lake Superior. New York City has raised the possibility of using Lake Erie water to ease droughts.


The Great Lakes basin has “more and more demands for water and certainly more and more development,” Mr. Ambs said. “One of the reasons we’re looking to have a water management strategy is preparation for the future.”


In 2001, the eight states that border the Great Lakes, along with Ontario and Quebec, two provinces within the lakes’ watershed, pledged to develop a plan to manage access to the lakes’ water.


By the end of this year, that plan may include an agreement – requiring ratification by the states’ governments – that the water does not leave the Great Lakes basin except under rare circumstances, based on the applicant’s proximity to the basin and whether the wastewater could be returned to the Great Lakes system.


The basin’s western boundary is a barely perceptible rise in the land called the subcontinental divide; the water west of the divide flows into the Mississippi River system, and to the east it drains into the Great Lakes.


Waukesha’s problem is that it is west of the line. Less than five miles west, but it might as well be 500 miles.


The city’s mineral springs and hotels made Waukesha (pronounced WAW-keh-shaw) the “Saratoga of the West” in the late 19th century, and the water and the railroad that once brought in resort tourists later nourished a healthy mix of factories and agribusiness. The cityscape is now a mosaic of old industry and new subdivisions; a small downtown offers an eclectic tableau of stores, with a tattoo parlor, fish store and law office side by side near a modern town clock.


The draw-down of water from the deep aquifer was gradual at first, accelerating in the late 1980’s and throughout the next 15 years. In recent measurements, the water level had dropped about 600 feet. And the deeper the water source, the more likely that it would be contaminated with too much radium, a naturally occurring radioactive element.


The city water’s radium content is now  more than double the acceptable level  set by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2000. In setting the standard, the agency said that a person exposed over a lifetime to radium levels twice as high as Waukesha’s “is projected to have a significantly increased chance of developing fatal cancer.”


More than 50 Wisconsin communities, mostly in the southeastern part of the state, and up to six times that many nationally  are in violation of the radium standard.


The Waukesha Water Utility is seeking 20 million gallons a day to be piped from Lake Michigan. “Water is the No. 1 need and the No. 1 issue for all Waukesha County communities,” said Carol J. Lombardi, the city’s mayor.


The county has grown nearly 35 percent in the last 25 years to an estimated 377,000 people in 2004. Other communities in Waukesha County also draw from the same deep aquifer as the city.


The deeper water also comes with high concentrations of the minerals that initially made Waukesha famous. Steve Korthoff, who has lived in the city for 28 years, said his family uses a water softener for household uses like showering because of a concentration of calcium. They drink the water freely. Asked about its taste, Mr. Korthoff said, “You get used to things.” But, he added, “I’m not sure you would like it.”


If the city does not get access to Lake Michigan water, it will face bills of perhaps tens of millions of dollars to lower the radium levels by either cleaning up the existing water or finding a new, uncontaminated source. But some politicians in Milwaukee, where the population fell by 8.9 percent in the 1990’s, are loath to sell the city’s Lake Michigan water to suburbs that have been draining away their businesses and wealthier residents, and their tax base.


Waukesha County “supports widening roads to allow for more transportation on the roadways to get more access out to that community, rather than try to limit the sprawl out there,” said Michael Murphy, a Milwaukee alderman. “Their solution to the problem is not the conservation of their limited resources, but looking to Lake Michigan.”


But Dan Duchniak, the general manager of the Waukesha Water Utility, said a diversion of 20 million gallons a day from Lake Michigan would be sufficient, and “70 million gallons a day would be enough to correct all the problems of southeastern Wisconsin.”


Chicago, Mr. Duchniak noted, is eligible under a Supreme Court ruling to draw as much as 2.1 billion gallons a day from Lake Michigan, even though the vast majority of Chicago’s land is outside the basin.


And, he said, Waukesha has more of a claim on Lake Michigan water than other cities outside of the subcontinental divide.


The argument requires an excursion into hydrology. Once, the deep aquifer the city tapped into was high enough that it tended to flow into Lake Michigan. Now, so much has been drawn from the aquifer that some geologists believe the flow has reversed.


“Our argument is that we’re different,” said Mr. Duchniak – a claim his critics contest. “We’re not Las Vegas, we’re not even Madison, Wis. We’re using Great Lakes water today. What we’d like to do is take Great Lakes surface water rather than ground water.”


“I want to take a straw sucking up ground water and change it from being a vertical straw to a horizontal straw,” he said.


For critics like Emily Green, who oversees Great Lakes issues for the Sierra Club, Mr. Duchniak’s arguments are a dodge. Her complaint, like that of Mr. Murphy, the Milwaukee alderman, is the absence of conservation as the growth spurt of the western exurbs, in towns like Oconomowoc, has accelerated.


“Yes, people need a place to live,” Ms. Green said. “But do they need McMansions on five-acre lots?”


Mr. Duchniak said his city was  working on a conservation plan that could reduce water use by 20 percent in the next 15 years. It is short on specifics, but hints at the likelihood of price increases.


The city has already embarked on a $12 million project to blend water from a shallow aquifer with the radium-laced water from farther down.


But that will not solve the ultimate problem of Waukesha’s water supply. If the surface water from Lake Michigan is not available, Mr. Duchniak said, the city will have to spend $87 million bringing in underground water from areas west of the city – more than double what the Lake Michigan water would cost.


“Have we done things wrong in the past?” he asked. “Yes. Unequivocally, yes. But we have to move forward.”


Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

Water management: towards 2030

Agriculture policies must aim at unlocking the potential of water management practices to raise productivity, promote equitable access to water and conserve the resource base…


Over the last half-century, significant productivity gains in agriculture have protected the world from devastating food shortages and the threat of mass starvation. Water management, in both rain-fed and irrigated agriculture, was instrumental in achieving those gains. A key component in Green Revolution technologies based on fertilizer application and the use of high yield varieties, improved water management helped boost productivity – or output of “crops per drop” – by an estimated 100% since 1960.


The next 30 years will throw up new challenges. As world population grows – to an estimated 8,300 million in 2030 – agriculture must respond to changing patterns of demand for food, combat food insecurity and poverty in rural areas, and compete for scarce water with other users. To meet those multiple demands, says FAO, agriculture policies will need to unlock the potential of water management practices to raise productivity, promote equitable access to water and conserve the resource base. It proposes a strategy to “re-invent” water management in the agriculture sector, based on modernization of irrigation infrastructure and institutions, the full participation of water users in the distribution of costs and benefits, and the revival of flagging investment in key areas of the agricultural production chain.


Water for crops. The water needs of humans and animals are relatively small – the average human drinks about four litres a day. But producing the same person’s daily food can take up to 5,000 litres of water. That is why the production of food and fibre crops claims the biggest share of freshwater withdrawn from natural sources for human use, or some 70% of global withdrawals.


FAO’s recent report World agriculture: towards 2015/30 projects that global food production will need to increase by 60% to close nutrition gaps, cope with the population growth and accommodate changes in diets over the next three decades. Water withdrawals for agriculture are expected increase by some 14% in that period, representing an annual growth rate of 0.6%, down from 1.9% in the period 1963-1999. Much of the increase will take place on arable irrigated land, forecast to expand globally from some 2 million sq. km to 2.42 million sq. km. In a group of 93 developing countries, water use efficiency in irrigation – i.e. the ratio between water consumption by crops and the total amount of water withdrawn – is expected to grow from an average 38% to 42%.


Estimated global water withdrawals

Sector              1950     1995

Agriculture       79%      69%

Industries         14%      21%

Municipalities  7%       10%


“If gains in water management achieved over the past 50 years are maintained,” FAO says, “pressure on resources will be reduced, while the scope for transfer of water for other, non-agricultural uses will be increased.” It points out, however, that past increases in productivity have been the result of strategic investment not only in water control infrastructure, but also in agricultural research and extension. Current trends in those key areas of the production chain show a sharp decline. To meet future challenges, therefore, agricultural investment must be revived and used to support a strategic package that combines research, improved agricultural practices, capacity building for water users, and promotion of global agricultural trade.


Progress will also depend on a shift from what FAO calls “a culture of supply management” to one of “demand management”. The supply-driven model underpinned most water development during the past half-century, as large national or state agencies placed extensive farming areas under irrigation. However, they proved less successful in managing those systems after construction. Decision-making was typically top-down and bureaucratic, leaving little flexibility to downstream users in choosing cropping patterns, calendars, and water delivery schedules. Often, unreliable water deliveries forced users to overexploit groundwater. It became evident in the 1980s that many irrigation schemes had become a burden on national budgets and a source of environmental degradation.


FAO views positively the far-reaching irrigation reforms, beginning in the 1990s, that led to massive transfer of responsibility to local water user associations and a shift to demand-driven management strategies. Today, farmers are increasingly involved in decisionmaking and in bearing the cost of operation and maintenance of irrigation systems. “One of the first priorities of modernization is to assess the physical conditions of the irrigation system and identify the practical options for moving towards more reliable and flexible water delivery service and accommodate a variable demand for water services,” FAO says. Ultimately, it is the users who must decide on the level of service they require and are willing to pay for.


“Negative externalities”. But water management in the new century is not simply about crop production. “While the specific objective is to provide a more reliable and adequate water supply for crops,” FAO says, “management will always have significant impacts on economic activities, environmental processes and people’s health.” Like industry, agriculture is under pressure to reduce the impact of its “negative externalities”, particularly those associated with the application of fertilizers and pesticides.


Positive environmental effects of irrigation include the creation of artificial wetland systems, micro-climates and associated biodiversity


Environmental concerns must be part of modernization in water use and management. Extraction from rivers and lakes and the construction of irrigation infrastructure invariably displaces natural wetlands which are, themselves, highly productive components of agro-ecological systems. Drainage from irrigation often results in loss of water quality, the spread of water-related diseases and soil degradation through waterlogging and salinization. To reduce these impacts, FAO says, modern water management needs to be based on strategic environmental assessments and cost-benefit analysis, constant environmental monitoring and integration of irrigation into the wider environmental context.


But there also needs to be wider recognition that sound water management produces positive results, including the socio-economic viability of entire rural areas, through development of the social capital required to manage irrigation systems and the expansion of transport and marketing infrastructure to sell agricultural produce. Positive environmental effects of irrigation include the creation of artificial wetland systems, micro-climates and associated biodiversity. Land management for rain-fed agriculture helps control soil erosion and protect downstream areas from floods. “Recognizing the diversity and the amplitude of these externalities is fundamental to sustainable development,” FAO says. Conversely, management focused solely on crops will become unsustainable in economic and environmental terms.


Policy interventions. FAO sees broad scope for policy intervention to help “re-invent” agricultural water management. It recommends a strategic approach to development of available land and water resources in order to meet demand for food products and agriculture commodities, and a broader awareness of the productivity gains that can be achieved through wise water use.


Individual farmers and households need to be assured “stable engagement” with land and water resources, meaning land tenure and water use rights that are flexible enough to promote comparative advantage in food staples and cash crops. Those rights must to be matched by access to rural credit and finance and dissemination of technology and good practices in water use. There also needs to be a re-adjustment in management strategies away from formal irrigation systems and towards pro-poor, affordable technologies, such as small-scale water harvesting.


At irrigation scheme level, modernization programmes will help extract the full value out of sunk costs and reduce pressure on public funds. Modernization strategies should transform rigid command-and-control systems into much more flexible service-delivery systems. Agriculture should – and can – shoulder its environmental responsibilities much more effectively by minimizing the negative environmental impacts of irrigated production and seeking to restore the productivity of natural ecosystems.


Finally, government policy and investment must help local markets for agricultural produce to become more effective in meeting local demands. This means investment in key public goods, such as roads and storage, as well as institutional capacity, but will also demand a more progressive role for large-scale private investment.


Three themes

FAO identifies three “pro-active themes” for agricultural water management in the years ahead:


Modernization. “Where irrigation has a comparative advantage, irrigation institutions need to adopt a service orientation and improve their economic and environmental performance – for example, by adopting new technologies, modernizing infrastructure, applying sound administrative principles and promoting user participation. The central task of providing irrigation services must be linked more closely to agricultural production, and the needs of other users at basin level.”

Participation. “Sharing the benefits of a common natural resource base may prove hard to negotiate. But the economic benefits can be significant if flexible transfers in land and water are permitted within a well-constructed regulatory framework. These initiatives can only succeed if strong commitment is given to the participation of users in planning and investment decisions and the full and open sharing of economic and environmental information.”


Investment. “Incentives for individuals and user groups to invest in water control requires a clear comparative advantage, both in servicing local and export markets. Needed is a mix of micro-credit for small holders, well regulated commercial credit for emergent and large-scale farmers and concessional finance for large scale public infrastructure.”



*           See also: Raising water productivity, Improving irrigation technology and Modernizing irrigation management

*           More about the World Water Forum

*           Visit the web site of our Water resources development and management service

Published March 2003



December 15, 2004

Water Contract Renewals Stir Debate Between Environmentalists and Farmers in California



SAN FRANCISCO, Dec. 14 – The time has come for thousands of farmers in California to renew their water contracts with the federally run Central Valley Project, the country’s largest irrigation system and for many years a major source of friction between the state’s powerful agricultural and environmental interests.


The farms served by the Central Valley Project cover nearly 4,700 square miles and get about 20 percent of California’s water supply. That has made the new contracts, some for 25 years and some for 40 years with options to renew, the center of a debate over how much water in the state should be dedicated to growing crops and at what price.


When construction of the Central Water Project began in 1937, the idea was to protect the state’s farmland from water shortages and floods and provide cheap water for family farmers. But as the state has grown in population, there has been a growing push by cities and environmentalists to break the farmers’ grip on the water, or at least make them pay more for it.


A report to be released on Wednesday by the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group that has tracked federal subsidies in agriculture, estimates that the subsidies in the Central Valley Project are worth up to $416 million a year at market rates for replacing the water. The calculation, based on data collected by the group over 16 months, shows that the median subsidy for a Central Valley farmer in 2002 was $7,076 a year and for the largest 10 percent of the farms, the average subsidy was worth up to $349,000 a year.


Five years ago, the United States Bureau of Reclamation, which runs the Central Valley Project, began negotiations on 223 water-supply contracts with individual farmers and big irrigation districts, serving farmers from Redding to Bakersfield. Those negotiations are expected to be wrapped up early next year, and many critics of the bureau, including the Environmental Working Group, are not happy that they will apparently continue supplies of federally subsidized water for farms.


“Reforms to make details of water subsidies public, limit the amount and value of water subsidies to large farms and encourage conservation by pricing water at rates closer to market value are needed to end the disaster for taxpayers and the environment wrought by the Central Valley Project,” the Environmental Working Group report states.


Many farmers reject that analysis, including the president of Woolf Enterprises, a family-owned farming business based in Huron, near Fresno, which was identified by the group as the recipient of $4.2 million in subsidies. Woolf Enterprises grows almonds, cotton, tomatoes and other crops on about 20,000 acres in the area served by Central Valley Project.


The president, Stuart Woolf, said the land was a collection of farms owned by members of his family, each 960 acres, the maximum allowed under federal rules. Mr. Woolf said the family business had survived by adding more acreage and by introducing savings through economies of scale – including large savings on its water use.


Though he had not seen the Environmental Working Group’s full calculations, he scoffed at the suggestion that his farm had received such a huge benefit, saying, “The numbers just don’t add up.”


“They would indicate the purpose of the Central Valley Project is to have small family farms,” Mr. Woolf said. “I would contend the small family farm won’t be able to survive in today’s ag environment. A small family farm can’t make the investments that are needed.”


Representative George Miller, a California Democrat who has long been at odds with the state’s agricultural interests over water, has accused the Bureau of Reclamation of “rushing to put these contracts in place” at a time when the reliability of the state’s water supplies is in question. Mr. Miller said the contracts would amount to a huge windfall for some farmers, who under a law he helped write in the early 1990’s would be entitled to sell the water to urban water districts at marked-up prices.


“What these guys are doing is freezing in time the massive subsidies that go to the largest and wealthiest farmers in the state, and who are then going to sell it back to the taxpayers,” he said in a phone interview from Washington. “It is a great gig if you can get it.”


Officials with the Department of Interior, which oversees the reclamation bureau, defend the new contracts as keeping with the bureau’s mission since 1902 of encouraging agricultural development in the West. Though the costs of water supplies will remain below market value, the new rates will be high enough, the officials say, to recover the costs of building the Central Valley Project by 2030. Diversions for environmental purposes will continue.


“This is a big and important effort by the bureau to have contracts in place and ensure orderly operations for the project,” said Jason Peltier, a deputy assistant secretary for water and science. As for the bureau’s critics, Mr. Peltier said, “I suppose we will have to agree to disagree.”


Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company



February 17, 2004

Ohio Town’s Water at Last Runs Past a Color Line



ZANESVILLE, Ohio — In January, a strange thing happened when people along Coal Run Road turned on their taps. Drinking water came out. Not the sulfur-tinged, bug-infested stuff that collected in their cisterns or swirled in their wells. Cool, clean, straight-from-the-pumping-station city water.


For most of their lives, residents of this tiny hollow on the edge of town lived a bit like frontiersmen, keeping drinking water in jugs, collecting rainwater in barrels, even occasionally melting snow from their yards, all because they did not have city water service.


“I never thought I’d live to see it,” said Helen McCuen, an 89-year-old widow who has lived in the hollow for 57 years.


The story of how they got that water, and were for years denied it, seems anachronistic in 21st-century America. But it speaks volumes, the residents contend, about disparities in living standards that are related to the color of one’s skin.


For years, decades really, residents of the hollow had been asking local officials to extend water lines down their narrow, twisting roads. Not enough water pressure, they were told. Too expensive. Too hilly.


Yet just up the hill, not 200 yards away, homeowners have had running municipal water for years. One new homeowner even installed a hot tub and routinely sprinkled his lawn, something residents of the hollow could never do with their 1,000-gallon cisterns, which were constantly running dry.


Almost all the people living at the top of the hill are white. Almost all the people in the hollow are racially mixed: white, black and American Indian. And it increasingly seemed to residents of the hollow that this had something to do with their plight.


“The water stopped where the black folks started,” said Saundra McCuen, 49, one of Helen McCuen’s seven children. “I don’t want to use the race thing, but what else could it be?”


In 2002, two dozen residents filed a complaint with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, asserting that they had been denied water service because of racial discrimination. Last summer, the commission agreed.


The commission found that on Coal Run Road, none of the 17 black or mixed-race homes had city water service, while two white homes did. On nearby Langan Lane, all of the 18 white homes on top of the hill had city water, while five of the eight black or mixed-race homes in the hollow did not. (The other three families had connected to the municipal lines by themselves.)


The commission concluded there was probable cause to believe that the city, county and local water authority had “failed to provide the complainants with access to public water service because of their race.”


One month after the report was released, Muskingum County announced it had found enough money to issue a $730,000 contract to extend water lines into the hollow. (Officials had used a much higher estimate — $2 million — when they told hollow residents a few years ago that it was too expensive to connect them to the water system, residents said.)


Government officials say race had nothing to do with the lack of water service in the hollow. But they have also begun blaming one another.


City officials contend that a now-defunct water authority removed the hollow from its service area many years ago, leaving responsibility for water to the city. But Zanesville, a city of 28,000 people, decided it could not extend lines into the hollow because it lies just outside the city limits, said Scott Hillis, the city’s law director. The city assumed that the county would provide the water.


But Muskingum County officials contend they did not become aware of the hollow’s situation until two years ago. (Zanesville officials said they told the county of the hollow’s requests at least eight years ago.)


County officials also contend they have not had enough money to meet the county’s needs, since about half of its residents — most of whom live in remote rural areas — do not have running water.


“As far as I’m concerned the suit is ludicrous,” said Dorothy Montgomery, a Muskingum County commissioner. “There is nothing done by the commissioners that is based on black or white.”


Zanesville, 60 miles east of Columbus, was founded 200 years ago as a way station for migrants moving from Virginia to Kentucky. It became famous for its clay pottery and Y-shaped concrete bridge over the Muskingum and Licking Rivers, but fell on hard times after World War II as many of its kilns and mills closed.


Before the Civil War, the underground railroad ran through the city. But city businesses remained segregated until the late 1950’s, residents said. And the Ku Klux Klan has been active for decades, holding small rallies in the region as recently as the late 1990’s.


The denial of water service “wasn’t in-your-face racism,” said Vincent Curry, executive director of Fair Housing Advocates Association, a group based in Akron that helped the residents file their complaint. “This was more, `We won’t respond to you because we don’t care about you.’ ”


Until January, Helen McCuen paid a “water man” to fill a cistern buried in her front yard twice a month. And until the 1980’s, when she finally bought an electric pump, she and her children used a hand pump and pail to bring water into the house. Drinking water was bought by the jug. And if supplies ran low, the family rationed baths and caught rain in barrels.


“I didn’t think I could get used to drinking water out of the tap,” Ms. McCuen said, sitting in her cozy living room surrounded by photographs of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. “But I did.”


For Jerry Kennedy, 54, the indignity of hauling water struck home a few years ago when he offered a friend a cup of coffee. His cistern was empty, so he opened the door and walked into the winter air to gather snow.


“What are you doing?” his friend asked.


“Getting water for your coffee,” he replied.


She was stunned, he said, to learn that he did not have water service.


A few residents drilled wells for drinking water. But most local wells have been polluted by iron and sulfur runoff from abandoned mines that turns the water red and makes it smell like rotten eggs in the summer.


John P. Relman, a lawyer in Washington representing residents of the hollow, said they spent 5 or 10 times as much as other people in the area for water because they had to buy or haul it themselves. Mr. Relman has filed suit for the homeowners, seeking compensation from local authorities for those higher costs.


“They stereotyped us as poor, uneducated black folks who didn’t have enough sense to ask for water,” said Cynthia Hairston, a nurse who grew up along Coal Run Road, left for two decades and then returned with her husband three years ago. “And then we did. And they said: `Where did they come from? We thought we had pushed them back into the corner.’ ”


Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company


January 14, 2004  (New York Times)

Water Pump Case Tests Federal Law



FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla., Jan. 9 — For nearly half a century, a pumping station in South Florida has been pouring millions of gallons of storm runoff annually into the Everglades, keeping the farms and backyards of western Broward Country dry but filling the wetlands with water often tainted by pollutants, mainly from phosphorus-rich fertilizers.


The station, known as S-9, is not a filthy factory, leaching mine or toxic dump. It is a large pump in a squat, nondescript building at the intersection of two levees. But its role in raising the level of phosphorus in the Everglades puts it at the center of a Supreme Court battle that could end up changing the reach of the Clean Water Act, the landmark 1972 law that established a federally controlled system for keeping the nation’s waterways clean.


The core question is this: Is S-9 a polluter, subject to regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency and state agencies that protect the nation’s water supply? Or is it merely a neutral conveyor of water, a cog in a vital infrastructure that, along with thousands of other water systems, keeps flood plains dry and reservoirs full while slaking the thirst of cities, subdivisions and farms?


The court, which will hear arguments on Wednesday in a lawsuit brought by a small Indian tribe against Florida water authorities, will decide whether, legally speaking, the pump is adding pollutants to the Everglades or is simply transferring them between bodies of water that belong to the same large national system of waterways. If the court decides the pump adds pollutants, S-9 and similar pumping equipment could become subject to a stringent system of permits and pollution controls required under the Clean Water Act.


The court is stepping in at a time when the nation’s water agencies and developers are engaged in huge efforts to tap and reroute water to quench the thirst of expanding suburban communities.


The lawsuit was filed six years ago by the 500-member Miccosukee tribe, which argued that high levels of phosphorus in the runoff are imperiling the ecosystem of the Everglades, where the tribe has lived since the early 1800’s.


The Miccosukee (mik-ko-SUE-kee), whose tribal headquarters sits on the Tamiami Trail in the Everglades in western Dade County, won federal recognition in 1962. In due course, they built a gambling business. This gave them the financial wherewithal, one tribal elder said, to mount a series of legal assaults on the South Florida Water Management District, which operates the pump.


One lawsuit took aim at S-9, whose discharge of phosphorus in recent years has averaged 20 parts per billion, twice the level at which many native plants thrive. In 2002, a federal judge ruled that the pump should be regulated under a section of the Clean Water Act requiring “point” sources of pollution — like factories and mines — to obtain permits under a program run by states.


The suit, now before the Supreme Court, pits the Bush administration — which filed a brief in support of the water district — and a broad array of city water planners, Western water districts and 11 Western states, led by Colorado and New Mexico, against 14 mostly Eastern states, led by New York and Pennsylvania, as well as the Association of State Wetlands Managers and environmental groups like the National Wildlife Federation.


The Eastern and Midwestern states that have sided with the Miccosukee have an abundance of water and of polluting industries, and thus a keen interest in controlling water quality. New York, for example, filed a brief in the case arguing that the states needed to ensure that their “finely tuned programs to assess, protect and improve the water quality of each surface water body within their borders are not frustrated.”


But in the arid West and Southwest, where states must devise elaborate ways to transport large amounts of water over long distances, merely getting enough water is often the most pressing need. These states have sided with the Water Management District in South Florida, fearing that many structures that bring water to dry ranches and suburbs will be newly regulated.


So has New York City, whose water comes from an intricate network of upstate reservoirs. The city argues that its supplies could be threatened if silt-laden water was subject to quality tests as it moved through tunnels en route to city taps.


Supporters of the Miccosukees argue that if the tribe loses, the regulatory framework that keeps waterways clean would be undone.


The tribe’s opponents focus on the need to be nimble in controlling the movement of water. What they fear is not the dismantling of needed regulatory controls but the imposition of what they see as new, superfluous requirements for federal permits that would usurp the states’ rights and ability to manage their water resources.


Strict permit rules, they fear, would bring delays, citizen lawsuits and requirements for expensive antipollution equipment.


“Take the worst-case scenario,” said Robert Bennett, a spokesman for the Central Arizona Project, that state’s major water agency. “All of that is going to slow down and reduce the amount of water we could deliver. The sucking sound you hear would be the people of Phoenix turning on their taps.”


The Miccosukee say their goal is to protect the Everglades by forcing the water district to get a permit for the pump and, eventually, to detoxify its discharge.


For now, the Everglades appear to be healthy along the Tamiami Trail. About 50 miles to the northeast, where sugar cane and sod fields bound the wetlands and the runoff is laced with higher concentrations of phosphorus, the Everglades have become a very different place. Thick, tall stands of cattails, which thrive on phosphorus, have elbowed out the saw grass, and many other kinds of plants and fish have vanished.


“The cattails show the destruction of everything,” said Ronald D. Jones, an Everglades expert who is a professor of biology at Portland State University.


Gary Goforth, the chief consulting engineer for the Everglades Construction Project, disagrees. The water district is fulfilling the mandates of the state’s Everglades Forever Act, Mr. Goforth says, by building containment areas that use a variety of methods to remove phosphorus, including biological allies like underwater plants and surface algae.


In addition to their gambling business, the Miccosukees have a modest tourist operation offering traditional crafts, alligator wrestling and airboat tours of the Everglades.


One airboat outfit bears the name of Buffalo Tiger, an 84-year-old tribal elder. While water managers and environmentalists see the battle over S-9 as a critical test of wills, for Buffalo Tiger cleaning up the Everglades is simply the right thing to do.


But, he added: “You can’t fix it. You can only patch it up. Then in 30 to 50 years, you’ll have to do it again.”


Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company



December 11, 2003 (New York Times)

West Texans Sizzle Over a Plan to Sell Their Water



ALPINE, Tex. — Angry West Texans and some state officials are demanding a halt to a deal that allows a group of politically well-connected Midland oilmen to tap the desert and sell billions of gallons of water from the state’s public reserves.


The venture was advancing without announcement or competitive bidding by the powerful Texas General Land Office, which controls 20 million acres of public lands and the liquids and minerals beneath them.


The agency has never licensed private sale of its water. The eight-man water partnership, Rio Nuevo Ltd., seeks to be the first, pumping out and selling some 16 billion gallons a year to municipalities and ranchers in drought-parched far west Texas, where many people fear that their own wells could go dry as a result.


Since last year, people involved in the matter say, the land office — steward of a nearly $18 billion permanent school fund to benefit public education — has given an exclusive hearing to Rio Nuevo, prodded by the speaker of the Texas House, Tom Craddick, Republican of Midland.


The proposed deal has raised a ruckus in this remote town of 6,000 and its Big Bend country sister communities Marfa and Marathon. Since the news leaked out two months ago, lawmakers and others have called on the land commissioner, Jerry Patterson, to avoid any action pending further examination.


Adding to the furor are accounts that Rio Nuevo sought to deliver its water by sending it down the Rio Grande — a plan the state’s agriculture commissioner called “cockamamie” — and to pay the state 20 cents an acre for water rights to 646,548 acres in six counties, a yield to the schools of about $129,000.


The company now disavows that figure. The proposed scope was cut to 355,380 acres in four counties at fees Rio Nuevo now says would yield the schools about $7 million a year.


The company also says it plans to invest $350 million in water pipes and pumps. Who would buy the water and at what cost is not yet clear, though a likely customer could be the City of El Paso. But Adrian Ocegueda, a spokesman for Mayor Joe Wardy of El Paso, said that studies of the impact on the water level should precede any deal.


A bipartisan State Senate subcommittee was formed to look into the matter, its five members writing Commissioner Patterson that “concerns remain about the lack of a formal process by which this, and any future proposals, will be evaluated and decided upon.”


Mr. Patterson and Rio Nuevo representatives sat through a heated meeting with 500 residents in this Brewster County seat on Dec. 2 and said a 90-day public comment period would precede any action.


At the meeting, John King, superintendent of Big Bend National Park, warned that the water plan “could cause irreparable harm.” A shortage of water outside the 800,000-acre park, Mr. King said after the meeting, could send wildlife streaming into it, disrupting a delicate balance.


Mayor Oscar Martinez of Marfa said he had seen several springs go dry. The water deal, he said, should “not even be contemplated.”


By Texas law, unless a water district has been formed, landowners control the water beneath their property and can draw it out even if that depletes a neighbor’s supply. This is known as the rule of capture, or “the biggest pump wins.”


Asked why the talks with Rio Nuevo had not been announced at the time, Mr. Patterson said, “We don’t announce a lot of things under consideration.” He confirmed that discussions about the lease had been held out of the public eye by the three-member board on which he sits. “We were cautious,” he said. “We had never done this before.”


The water deal has the region on edge. It has set Mr. Patterson, a former state senator, against the agriculture commissioner, Susan Combs, a rancher and fellow Republican who said Rio Nuevo’s plan grew out of a “cockamamie idea” — sending water down the Rio Grande, where much of it could evaporate.


Though big oil entrepreneurs, including T. Boone Pickens, have bought water-mining rights from public conservation districts and private land owners, the state has never opened its water to commercial marketing. But growing demand requires such sales, Mr. Patterson said. He said he would also consider sales of water under prisons, parks and other state property, just as the land office now leases rights to oil, gas, minerals and wind power.


“The big question, the only question, is how much water is there, is there enough to export without doing harm to the local community?” Mr. Patterson said at the Alpine meeting. But Mr. Patterson and Rio Nuevo said they could afford to survey the supply only after a lease was signed. Mr. Patterson also said the land office lacked the money to mine and sell the water itself, though it is preparing to buy a water mining and sales business in Central Texas.


He said that because the land office had no track record for letting a water contract, the first one would have to be awarded without bidding.


Local people have turned out in record numbers to protest. “We’re already taking more than the skies are putting back,” said Tom Beard, a rancher who heads the Far West Texas Regional Water Planning Group. “The only reason they got this far,” Mr. Beard said of Rio Nuevo, “is they’re very politically plugged in.”


An analysis by Texans for Public Justice, a watchdog group, shows that six Rio Nuevo partners gave a total of $83,136 to Republican state candidates in 2001 and 2002 — the bulk of it, $72,886, from Gary Martin, an oil investor and businessman.


Mr. Martin declined to answer questions.


Another partner, Roger Abel, a retired president of the Occidental Oil and Gas Corporation, said the project would prove publicly beneficial, taking water “from Texas for Texans” over a wide area.


A third partner is Steve Smith of Austin, founder of Excel Communications, who spent about $4 million buying the hamlet of Lajitas near Big Bend in 2000 and who has invested some $60 million more to make it a luxury resort. Mr. Smith did not return a call but Mr. Abel said he was responding on his behalf.


Other Rio Nuevo partners include Kyle McDonnold, a Midland lawyer, and four partners in a Midland oil exploration company called Falcon Bay Energy: Mike Ford, Anthony Sam, Robert Canon and Steve Cole.


Mr. Canon said that before he and Mr. Cole founded Rio Nuevo, another Midland company, Mexco Energy, had bought an interest in a Falcon Bay oil and gas projects. Mr. Craddick, the House speaker, is a Mexico director, but Mr. Canon said that Falcon Bay and Rio Nuevo were separate entities and that Mr. Craddick had nothing to do with Rio Nuevo.


Mr. Craddick, too, said through a spokesman that he had no connection with Rio Nuevo. But he did not dispute accounts that he had urged Mr. Patterson and David Dewhurst, the land commissioner at the time and now the state’s lieutenant governor, to meet with Rio Nuevo partners.


Ms. Combs, the agriculture commissioner, said that around April 2002, Mr. Martin approached her with an idea of marketing state water via the Rio Grande. It was folly, she said, because sending water into the river would entail large losses from evaporation.


Not long afterward and at the behest of Mr. Craddick, Mr. Dewhurst said, he met with Mr. Martin to discuss the project. Mr. Dewhurst, who was running for lieutenant governor, said he later returned a contribution from Mr. Martin when he learned the oilman had an issue pending before him as land commissioner. “I thought it was a terrible idea,” Mr. Dewhurst said of the proposal.


Mr. Patterson said that at Mr. Craddick’s urging, he, too, began meeting with the Rio Nuevo partners, even before he succeeded Mr. Dewhurst in January.


Then, in May, as the legislative session wound down, the Texas House and Senate passed a bill that would allow the Rio Grande watermaster to put into the river “privately owned water” for delivery to clients and directed the state’s Commission on Environmental Quality “to expedite any application for a permit” to carry out the act.


Mr. Dewhurst said he remembered Rio Nuevo’s pressing for such a bill, but said he did not focus on it during the session. Mr. Craddick’s spokesman said the speaker had nothing to do with the bill.


Val Clark Beard, the county judge of Brewster County and its top-ranking official, was skeptical. “It was widely perceived as the speaker’s bill,” she said. “Unusual things get done at the end of the session.”



Barbara Novovitch contributed reporting for this article.


Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company


October 17, 2003  (New York Times)

Pact in West Will Send Farms’ Water to Cities



BOULDER CITY, Nev., Oct. 16 — Secretary of the Interior Gale A. Norton signed a contentious agreement here on Thursday that signals an epic shift in the struggle over water in the arid West from farmland to the swimming pools, showers and green lawns of cities.


The agreement ends one of the West’s longest-running water wars by requiring California, the nation’s thirstiest state, to gradually reduce its dependence on the Colorado River, which acts as a huge spigot for snow melt from the Rocky Mountains for more than 25 million people from Denver to Los Angeles.


At its core, the agreement affirms a tough lesson for the bone-dry region: Because of finite supplies and a population boom, water reserved over the past century for irrigating crops must be diverted more and more to urban areas.


The deal calls for the largest movement of farm water to municipal users in the nation and will be in effect for at least 35 years. As compensation, farmers, some of whom might need to plant less, will be paid handsomely for water they get for a very small cost from the federal government.


“With this agreement, conflict on the river is stilled,” Ms. Norton said from a concrete perch overlooking the Hoover Dam, where a formal signing ceremony was attended by federal officials, representatives of the seven states that draw from the Colorado and four water districts in California that had been feuding over that state’s share of the river.


The last time a water deal of this significance was reached on the Colorado, the federal government was represented by Herbert Hoover, who was then secretary of commerce under President Warren G. Harding. That deal, the Colorado River Compact, was signed on Nov. 24, 1922, and led to the construction of the Hoover Dam and California’s commitment to limit its Colorado River water use to 4.4 million acre-feet.


In recent years, the state has been taking closer to 5.2 million acre-feet. An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons, or enough on average to provide for two households for a year.


“This is a huge breakthrough,” Ms. Norton said in an interview. “Even the agreement that allowed the construction of the Hoover Dam left some issues unresolved. This resolves issues that have been unresolved for over 70 years.”


The deal comes at a time when the Colorado is enduring a fifth consecutive year of drought and California and its neighbors, experiencing unbridled population growth, are at loggerheads over how to meet everyone’s water needs.


Ms. Norton and state and local water officials said the drought was a driving force behind the negotiations, as water districts across the West got a sobering view of how tight supplies could become.


“This deal has a huge economic impact by stabilizing the water supply not only for California, but for Nevada, Arizona and the upper basin states,” said Pat Mulroy, director of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, referring to Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. “As all of these states develop, finding a point of water stability is essential.”


Under the agreement, farmers in the Imperial Valley, a fertile basin in Southern California that would be a wasteland without water from the Colorado, must eventually sell hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water a year to San Diego County, a sprawling coastal metropolis of more than three million people with virtually no local water supplies.


The San Diego district will pay market prices for the water, or about $258 per acre-foot at the outset. The farmers typically pay only delivery fees for their water, which amount to $15 or $20 per acre-foot.


An earlier version of the deal collapsed in December when many Imperial Valley farmers balked at the notion of selling their water, but as water experts predicted then, it was only a matter of time before agricultural interests relented to the unstoppable march of the urbanized West.


“About every 100 years, we have something like this we can agree upon,” said Maureen Stapleton, general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority. “It is a day of historic celebration.”


Noticeably absent from the festivities on Thursday, which included a reception at Hoover Dam and a banquet in Las Vegas, were many Imperial Valley farmers, who for the first time in a century will be giving up large volumes of their water.


“There is very little interest in celebrating,” said Michael B. Cox, president of the Imperial County Farm Bureau, who skipped Thursday’s ceremony. “A lot of us understand we needed to do a transfer, but man, so many of those provisions are just hard to accept.”


The Imperial Irrigation District, which provides water to the farmers, remains deeply divided on the issue, approving the agreement by a 3-to-2 vote two weeks ago. Many farmers fear that the agreement has opened the way for more demands on their supplies and that ultimately they will be driven out business by the unquenchable thirst of California’s growing cities.


Already, the state’s largest water district, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, receives nearly 9 percent of its supplies from agricultural sources, including some from the Imperial Valley.


“The farmers are split down the middle on this,” said Bruce R. Kuhn, a district board member who was the swing vote. “This is a first. This is like the pioneers coming West.”


But Lloyd Allen, an Imperial farmer who is president of the irrigation district, showed up on Thursday in his cowboy hat and heaped praise on Ms. Norton and Gov. Gray Davis of California, who pushed the negotiations forward after December’s impasse and helped break a deadlock by agreeing to state assistance for the Salton Sea, a salty body of water brimming with bird life in the Imperial Valley that relies on agricultural runoff to keep from drying up.


“I am going to go out there in the middle of that bridge and I am going to get on my hands and knees and I am going to kiss that dam,” Mr. Allen told the gathering.


He continued, “This thing has made where I live a beautiful, beautiful valley. Now I find out it is going to make a lot more beauty over there on that coastal plain because you are going to get a lot of water from this.”


California had promised to limit its use of Colorado River water in the 1920’s. It was a pledge that Congress had insisted upon before approving construction of the dam, which created Lake Mead, a huge reservoir about 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas. .


But even with California’s promises, the growing state continued to draw more than its share from the Colorado for the better part of a century, leading to protracted legal battles. Three years ago, the six other Colorado River basin states, along with the Department of the Interior, gave California an ultimatum: Get your house in order by Dec. 31, 2002 — namely work out a deal where water from California’s farms is shared with its cities — or all supplies of river water above 4.4 million acre-feet will be cut off.


When the deadline passed, Ms. Norton turned off the flows to the Imperial farmers and the Metropolitan Water District, an unprecedented punishment.


That jolt led to a new round of negotiations, which were completed only last Friday and were approved the same day by Ms. Norton. With the deal now signed, Ms. Norton said on Thursday that she would turn the water flows back on, and that California would be given 14 years to wean itself from its overdependence on the river.


Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company



July 30, 2003 (Wall Street Journal)


A River Runs Through Him

Oregon Water Saga Illuminates Rove’s Methods With Agencies




WASHINGTON — In a darkened conference room, White House political strategist Karl Rove was making an unusual address to 50 top managers at the U.S. Interior Department. Flashing color slides, he spoke of poll results, critical constituencies — and water levels in the Klamath River basin.


At the time of the meeting, in January 2002, Mr. Rove had just returned from accompanying President Bush on a trip to Oregon, where they visited with a Republican senator facing re-election. Republican leaders there wanted to support their agricultural base by diverting water from the river basin to nearby farms, and Mr. Rove signaled that the administration did, too.


Three months later, Interior Secretary Gale Norton stood with Sen. Gordon Smith in Klamath Falls and opened the irrigation-system head gates that increased the water supply to 220,000 acres of farmland — a policy shift that continues to stir bitter criticism from environmentalists and Indian tribes.


A look at Karl Rove’s involvement in the Klamath River dispute:


“Control of Congress will turn on handful of races decided by local issues, candidate quality, money raised, campaign performance, etc.”


–From Rove’s 1/6/02 presentation to Interior Dept. officials


Jan. 5, 2002: Rove accompanies Bush, who lost Oregon by less than 1% in 2000, to Portland, Ore.; Bush voices support for Klamath Basin farmers.


Jan. 6: Rove gives presentation to Interior Department officials connecting regulatory actions in key states, including Oregon’s Klamath issue, to Republican prospects in the coming elections.


Feb. 2: Rove meets with farmers in Oregon.


March 29: Bush administration sides with farmers, diverts waters for agricultural use.


Sept. 21: Thousands of salmon die in the shallower Klamath River.


June 25, 2003: Regional officials tell Klamath farmers the flow of irrigation water needs to be curtailed; worried congressmen call Rove’s office for help. The decision is reversed later in the day.


Though Mr. Rove’s clout within the administration often is celebrated, this episode offers a rare window into how he works behind the scenes to get things done. One of them is with periodic visits to cabinet departments. Over the past two years Mr. Rove or his top aide, Kenneth Mehlman — now manager of Mr. Bush’s re-election campaign — have visited nearly every agency to outline White House campaign priorities, review polling data and, on occasion, call attention to tight House, Senate and gubernatorial races that could be affected by regulatory action.


Every administration has used cabinet resources to promote its election interests. But some presidential scholars and former federal and White House officials say the systematic presentation of polling data and campaign strategy goes beyond what Mr. Rove’s predecessors have done.


“We met together and talked a lot about issues of the day, but never in relation to polling results, specific campaigns or the president’s popularity,” says Lisa Guide, a political appointee at Interior during the Clinton administration. Frank Donatelli, political director in the Reagan White House, says “we were circumspect about discussing specific administration rulings that had yet to be made.”


Mr. Rove declined to comment. White House spokeswoman Ashley Snee says the agency visits simply were designed to keep political appointees apprised of the president’s accomplishments and priorities.


Klamath River water levels were an issue at least as far back as the 2000 presidential campaign. During the unusually dry summer of 2001, angry farmers stormed the head gates to forcibly release water, but the Bush administration generally resisted their demands. In 2002, the issue continued to loom large as Mr. Smith faced a potentially difficult re-election challenge.


On Jan. 5, Mr. Rove accompanied the president to an appearance in Portland with Mr. Smith. The president signaled his desire to accommodate agricultural interests, saying “We’ll do everything we can to make sure water is available for those who farm.”


The next day, Mr. Rove made sure that commitment didn’t fall through the cracks. He visited the 50 Interior managers attending a department retreat at a Fish and Wildlife Service conference center in Shepherdstown, W.Va. In a PowerPoint presentation Mr. Rove also uses when soliciting Republican donors, he brought up the Klamath and made clear that the administration was siding with agricultural interests.




His remarks weren’t entirely welcome — especially by officials grappling with the competing arguments made by environmentalists, who wanted river levels high to protect endangered salmon, and Indian tribes, who depend on the salmon for their livelihoods. Neil McCaleb, then an assistant Interior secretary, recalls the “chilling effect” of Mr. Rove’s remarks. Wayne Smith, then with the department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, says Mr. Rove reminded the managers of the need to “support our base.” Both men since have left the department.


An Interior spokesman, Mark Pfeifle, says Mr. Rove spoke in general terms about the Klamath conflict in the course of a broader discussion. Without directing a policy outcome, Mr. Pfeifle says, Mr. Rove simply “indicated the need to help the basin’s farmers.”


In the end, that is what happened when Interior reversed its previous stance and released more water. Mr. Rove’s intervention wasn’t the only reason. Mr. McCaleb himself says the biggest factor was a report from the independent National Research Council, which questioned the basis on which Interior scientists had made earlier Klamath flow decisions.


But Mr. Rove didn’t let the matter drop after the Shepherdstown meeting. Weeks later, he returned to Oregon and met with a half-dozen or so farmers and ranchers. Thereafter, the White House formed a cabinet-level task force on Klamath issues. The results became clear on March 29, when the water was released to parched farms.


That hasn’t ended the controversy. Environmentalists blame the change in water levels for the subsequent death of more than 30,000 salmon, calling it the largest fish kill in the history of the West.


A National Marine Fisheries Service biologist, Michael Kelly, has asked for protection under federal “whistle-blower” laws, saying he was subjected to political pressure to go along with the low-water plan and ordered to ignore scientific evidence casting doubt on the plan. This month, a federal judge ruled the administration violated the Endangered Species Act in the way it justified the water diversion.


Administration officials note that the judge found fault only with a narrow portion of the biological opinion, and didn’t order changes in water flow. Interior is investigating the cause of the fish kill, Mr. Pfeifle says.


Oregon farmers point to other factors in the salmon kill, including water temperature and the presence of an infectious disease during salmon-spawning season. And they haven’t stopped pressing to keep the irrigation water coming.


A few weeks ago, the federal Bureau of Reclamation in Klamath Falls warned farmers that the department would curtail the irrigation flow. Irate, Republican Rep. Greg Walden began making calls to protest. His first one went to Mr. Rove’s office.


Within hours, the idea was dropped. Interior officials say managers from two cabinet departments agreed on a way to avoid it.


Copyright 2003 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved


July 18, 2003  (New York Times)

Judge Orders Change in Plan to Distribute Klamath River Water


OAKLAND, Calif., July 17 — A federal judge here has ruled that a Bush administration plan for distributing water from the Klamath River, where 33,000 salmon died last year in one of the country’s biggest fish kills, must be revised because it is based on a biological opinion that violates the Endangered Species Act.


The ruling by the judge, Saundra Brown Armstrong of Federal District Court, was made public today and hailed by opponents of the water plan as a major environmental victory. But administration officials also expressed satisfaction with the ruling, particularly because the judge indicated that water deliveries this year would not be affected.


“We are glad to see operations can continue through this summer,” said Blain Rethmeier, a spokesman for the Justice Department, which represented the National Marine Fisheries Service, one of the federal agencies named in the lawsuit and the one that was the author of the biological opinion.


For more than a year the Bush administration has been at odds with fishermen, conservation groups and some Indian tribes over water flows for the river. Those flows are managed by the Bureau of Reclamation; the river runs through southern Oregon and northern California.


The groups argue that the administration’s management plan sets aside too much water for the irrigation of farmland in the Klamath basin at the expense of fish, including the coho salmon, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The groups took the administration to court in an effort to keep some of the agricultural diversions in the river.


Central to the conflict has been the biological opinion by the Fisheries Service, which is the basis of the plan’s water allocations.


Judge Armstrong said parts of the opinion were “arbitrary and capricious” and ordered that they be amended. Specifically, the judge said the biological opinion relied improperly on the states of California and Oregon and private parties to ensure that fish in the river received enough water over the long term.


Environmental groups had made the same argument.


“A promise to provide a fraction of the water salmon need, sometime in the future, from somewhere, meets neither the requirements of the law nor of science,” Kristen Boyles, a lawyer with Earthjustice, one of the environmental groups that filed the lawsuit, said in a statement. “The fish in the Klamath are in real trouble right now; they need real action, not vague promises.”


The fight over the river has grown intensely partisan, with Democrats accusing the Bush administration of siding with farmers for political reasons and suggesting the Klamath water policy reflects a broader Republican agenda against the environment.


Representative Mike Thompson, a Democrat from California who represents some of the Klamath basin, supported the lawsuit, and some state biologists with the California Department of Fish and Game also publicly questioned the scientific analysis behind the federal policy.


“On one hand I am pleased with the result,” Mr. Thompson said of the judge’s ruling, “but on the other, it is sad commentary that you have to go to this extreme in order to get the agency that is charged with protecting fish and wildlife to come to the table and try to hammer out a solution.”


Mr. Rethmeier of the Justice Department said it was unclear whether the ruling would be appealed. But he said there was no doubt that the National Marine Fisheries Service could address the problems raised by the judge.


Jeffrey S. McCracken, a spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation, said the agency expected that the judge’s ruling would have no immediate effect on water for farmers.


Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company



March 3, 2003  (New York Times)

A New Frontier in Water Wars Emerges in East



GREAT FALLS, Md., Feb. 28 — In 1632, King Charles I granted Maryland the right to the Potomac River “from shore to shore.” For the most basic of reasons, that is something Virginia, on the Potomac’s south bank, is now fighting to overturn.


“The bottom line is that if Maryland can restrict Virginia’s ability to withdraw water from the river, Maryland is in control of Virginia’s destiny,” said Stuart Raphael, a special counsel to Virginia, rehearsing a complaint that is now before the United States Supreme Court.


It is a fight over royal charters, interstate compacts and years of precedent, but mostly it is a fight over water, reflecting growing worries in the region that a commodity is not as bountiful as it once seemed. And up and down the East Coast, its echoes can now be heard.


Such tensions have long been common in the arid West. But their emergence in the East is relatively recent, a product in large part of scares in 1999 and again last summer, when many rivers fell near critical lows, the victims of drought and development. Along rivers like the Savannah, the Pee Dee, the Roanoke, the Chattahoochee and the Potomac, Eastern states are wrangling over a question that suddenly seems to matter very much: Whose water is it?


“This past year, we came within feet of shutting down nuclear power plants because there wasn’t sufficient water to cool them,” said Freddy Vang, the deputy director of natural resources in South Carolina, which is enmeshed in disputes with North Carolina, over the Pee Dee, and with Georgia, over the Savannah. “At the same time, we came within feet of shutting down major municipal water supplies because they couldn’t pump water anymore.


“So the question is, how do we take a shared resource and manage it to both entities’ benefit?” Mr. Vang said. “And right now, there are zero rules.”


Compared with the West, where rivers like the Colorado were long ago apportioned drop by drop, most of the East is an empty page when it comes to deciding how much water a state can draw from a river. Until recently, that did not seem much of a bother, because most rivers seemed abundant. But then came the summer lows.


“You’re finally starting to see the pinch,” said Brian Richter, director of a freshwater campaign for the Nature Conservancy, a conservation group. “Where rivers would have been in a naturally low condition, you’re imposing human utilization to the point where rivers are entering conditions where they’ve never been seen before, and in some cases drying up for the first time in history.”


Leon F. Szeptycki, eastern conservation director for Trout Unlimited, said, “Communities are running out of water; that’s what happened in last summer’s drought.” He added: “They’ve got to find a way to get more water, whether through better planning, better laws, or by finding water somewhere else. That’s what they’re up against.”


Along the Potomac, now swollen with runoff from melting snow, there is little sign of a water shortage. In Maryland, Virginia and most of the East Coast, the drought is officially over, with a cold, wet winter overtaking the parched spring and summer that caused such problems for the region and most of the United States.


But one season’s rain and snowfall has done nothing to alter the basic trends that have left Virginia and Maryland concerned as they look to the future. Along a stretch that begins here, just outside Washington, three utilities on the Virginia and Maryland sides of the river are sucking more and more water from the Potomac each year, and at least a dozen times since 1999, those withdrawals have amounted to more than the river can safely sustain.


The withdrawals to supply 3.7 million people in Virginia, Maryland and Washington now average 400 million gallons a day, up 19 percent from 10 years ago. But those by the Fairfax County Water Authority, which serves Northern Virginia, the fastest-growing part of the Washington suburbs, have leapt by 62 percent, and are expected in the years ahead to increase far faster than those of their Maryland neighbors.


On a peak day last summer, the three utilities sucked 583 million gallons from the Potomac, about 85 percent of its volume at the time, and reduced the flow to near its legal minimum of 100 million gallons a day at Little Falls, just upstream from the Washington border with Maryland. To augment the river’s natural flow, the utilities began in 1999 to release water from two upstream reservoirs. They have taken that step more than a dozen times since, but the region’s demands are projected to gradually exceed the available supply over the next 30 years.


For now, Virginia’s withdrawals from the river are still subject to limits set by Maryland, under the authority that it traces back to King Charles’s decree. But what worries many in Maryland is what might happen if the Supreme Court upholds a December recommendation by Ralph I. Lancaster, Jr., a lawyer the court appointed as “special master” to review the case.


The recommendation said “Virginia and its citizens have the right, free of regulation by Maryland” to withdraw water from the Potomac and to build pipes, docks and piers into the river without Maryland’s permission. It is being vigorously challenged by Maryland, whose rejection in 1996 of a request by Virginia to build an additional water withdrawal pipe prompted the lawsuit that set off the current fight.


“Maryland has the right to regulate the Potomac because it is the owner of the river and has not relinquished this fundamental sovereign power,” Maryland said in brief submitted to the Supreme Court on Thursday that outlined its objections to the special master’s report.


At the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, which works to coordinate use of the river by the three Washington-area utilities, experts said they believed close cooperation would continue whether Maryland retained its controls. Agreements now in place, independent of Maryland’s rules, have “created a stable water supply system for the Washington metropolitan area,” said Erik R. Hagen, the commission’s deputy director.


The court, which under the Constitution has the sole jurisdiction to decide such disputes between states, is expected to decide this year whether to accept the master’s report or schedule its own hearing on the matter. A hearing would probably not occur before next fall.


But the Virginia v. Maryland water dispute will almost certainly not be the last to reach the court, because most other states that have been wrangling over apportionment of their rivers have made little progress toward a lasting deal.


What is widely viewed as the most successful model of a cooperative effort to divide an Eastern river — the arrangements brokered by the Delaware River Basin Commission, for New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey — was itself the product of a dispute between New York and New Jersey that reached the Supreme Court in 1931.


And now, throughout much of the East, said David L. Feldman, a senior researcher at the University of Tennessee’s Energy, Environment and Resources Center, a combative new view appears to be emerging “that if states don’t take action or communities don’t take action to protect that resource, that someone is going to go out and grab it.”


In one fight, between Virginia and North Carolina, a federal court ruled in favor of Virginia’s diversion to Virginia Beach of water stored in a reservoir on the Roanoke River, on the border between the two states. Other battles are simmering over the Roanoke, as Raleigh, N.C., and other communities seek to augment their dwindling water supplies.


Of the fights now under way, perhaps the most rancorous pits Georgia, Florida and Alabama against one another over the division of the Chattahoochee River, whose downstream flows have been threatened by the Atlanta area’s rapid growth.


That fight has spilled into Tennessee and South Carolina, because Atlanta has made known its interest in drawing water claimed by those states, from the Tennessee and Savannah Rivers, and transferring it to the Chattahoochee basin for its own use. Tennessee and South Carolina recently erected legal barriers to such transfers, but South Carolina in particular still feels vulnerable, because Georgia also borders the Savannah, and it faces no current restrictions on withdrawals.


For South Carolina, the more urgent threat lies in reduced flows in the Pee Dee, which runs south into the state from North Carolina and is a major source of water for at least a half-million people, including the population of Myrtle Beach. Last summer municipal water supplies ran low in South Carolina, partly because of power plants and other industrial users in North Carolina, whose federal licenses require them to release far less water from their dams than South Carolina says it needs to sustain its fast-growing population and industrial base.


At the height of last summer’s drought, Mr. Vang, the South Carolina official, went to North Carolina and successfully appealed to his counterparts there for more water to be released. South Carolina is also trying to persuade the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates the power plants, to guarantee more water for the state.


But the two states have yet to agree on a formula, despite what experts say is an increasingly pressing need to do so across the region.


“We’ve gone from a period of saying there’s plenty of water going around, so, hey, don’t worry about it, to, hey, we’re running out of water,” said Tom J. Temples, director of the center for water research and policy at the University of South Carolina. “It’s kind of reached a critical mass.”


Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company


January 12, 2003  (New York Times)

County Water Board Sues U.S. in Dispute Over Colorado River



SAN FRANCISCO, Jan. 11 — Farmers in Southern California who use most of the state’s disputed supply of Colorado River water have struck back at the federal government for taking some of it away.


The Imperial Irrigation District, which provides the farmers with irrigation water, has asked a federal judge to block a decision by the secretary of the interior that reduces the district’s allocation from the river. Imperial officials said a lawsuit was filed on Friday in federal court in San Diego.


The interior secretary, Gale A. Norton, last month ordered a reduction of about 7 percent in Imperial’s water after a deal collapsed that would have transferred a similar amount of water from the Imperial Valley to neighboring San Diego County. In her legal capacity as “master of the river,” Ms. Norton also reduced some of the water requested by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the big urban supplier in Los Angeles.


In a letter sent to Ms. Norton, the Imperial district’s recently named board president, Lloyd Allen, sounded a bitter and defiant tone.


“Simply stated, the action of your department is misguided, unjustified, unsupported by the law or the facts,” Mr. Allen wrote, “and is an example of heavy-handed and unwarranted federal interference with intrastate water allocation matters.”


“Our forefathers worked too hard to create the most productive farm region in the world,” the letter continued. “While I.I.D. would prefer to have consensual agreements, we will not retreat from litigation to protect the lifeblood of our community.”


Ms. Norton’s top water official, Bennett W. Raley, said today that he had not seen the lawsuit but that the Interior Department had been anticipating the legal challenge.


“This was something that we expected and are fully prepared for,” said Mr. Raley, an assistant secretary. “I don’t think it is helpful, but we respect entities’ ability to litigate if they are unhappy with government actions.”


An agreement to transfer some of the Imperial district’s water to San Diego was supposed to signal a turning point in the long history of fighting over water from the Colorado River. It was a requirement of an accord reached two years ago among the seven states that draw water from the Colorado. But since the negotiations failed on Dec. 31, tensions have grown among the various groups in California and positions have hardened.


On Monday, the board of the Metropolitan district, which is involved in the talks, directed negotiators “to make no commitments” to the Imperial district beyond those made in October, which the Imperial board voted last month to reject. Also this week, two state legislators said they were considering legislation that would further cut the Imperial district’s water allotment.


“The dynamic certainly has shifted,” Mr. Raley said. “I think people are dealing with a new reality. It will be at least a matter of months before we can assess what direction California wants to go with respect to Colorado River water.”


Mr. Allen, in his letter to Ms. Norton, blamed the government for the unraveling of negotiations. “Instead of government neutrality in the face of disagreements among the southern California water agencies, your department utilized heavy-handed tactics and threats against I.I.D.,” he wrote. “Frankly, your actions are in stark contrast to the principles of the Bush administration.”

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company


January 7, 2003  (New York Times)

California Report Supports Critics of Water Diversion



SAN FRANCISCO, Jan. 6 — A new state report on the Klamath River supports contentions by fishermen, environmentalists and several American Indian tribes that 33,000 fish died on the lower river last fall because the Bush administration allowed too much water to be diverted to farmers.


The report by biologists at the California Department of Fish and Game is expected to figure prominently in a lawsuit against the federal government that seeks to reduce water supplies to farmers before the spring irrigation season, which begins in April.


Lawyers for both sides are scheduled to appear on Thursday in federal court in Oakland, Calif. A similar legal challenge against the Department of the Interior, which regulates the river’s flows, failed last year, but the extensive die-off has given opponents of the federal policy new resolve.


“This time around, Exhibit A will be 33,000 dead spawners,” said Glen H. Spain, the Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “The water has been overcommitted and the demand has to be brought back into balance with the supply.”


The state report, which was released on Friday, warns that if conditions on the river remain the same and water flows are not increased, the Klamath could experience another major fish kill. Last year’s die-off was the largest ever in California of adult chinook salmon, which accounted for about 95 percent of the dead fish. A smaller number of coho salmon and steelhead trout also died.


One author of the report, Neil Manji, a fish biologist in Redding, Calif., said the study was not intended “to point fingers” at the Bush administration. Instead, he said, it was meant to make the case for having more water in the river as “a common sense approach” to managing the fisheries’ needs.


The report says that of all the factors that contributed to the die-off, from the large number of fish to the presence of bacterial pathogens in the water, “flow is the only factor that can be controlled to any degree.”


“Man can only do so much at this particular time,” Mr. Manji said. “I think every scientist would agree that increased flows would reduce the potential for a big kill.”


Last March, in a reversal of a curtailment the year before, Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton presided over a ceremony at Klamath Falls, Ore., in which water was released to farmers that had been held back because of concern about endangered fish. The policy switch was denounced by fishermen, Indian tribes and many environmentalists, who vowed to fight it and a new 10-year management plan for the river that would keep water flowing to the farmers.


Kristen Boyles, a lawyer with Earthjustice, an environmental legal group that represents the opponents of the administration’s policy, said the state report contributes to a growing consensus among scientists that diversions from the river for agriculture are harmful. The 230-mile Klamath River, which flows from Oregon to the Pacific Ocean near Redwood National Park in California, supplies irrigation water to about 200,000 acres of farmland through the federal Klamath Reclamation Project.


Last October, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service sought federal whistle-blower protection after claiming his agency was pressured by the Bush administration to accept water flows in the 10-year plan that were too low to support fish. The biologist, Michael Kelly, said the low flows threatened coho salmon, which are protected by the Endangered Species Act.


Jeffrey S. McCracken, a spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation, the Interior Department agency that administers federal water policies, defended the decision last year to divert more water to farmers, saying it was based on advice from federal biologists. He said a decision about this year’s flows would not be made until studies of the fish die-off are completed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Academy of Sciences.


Mr. McCracken questioned the objectivity of the new report by the California biologists, since state officials began blaming the federal government for the fish kill last September, when the fish were still dying.


“The conclusions really aren’t a surprise to us, given they arrived at these same conclusions even before they did the study,” he said. “It is nothing that they haven’t already said.”


Jonathan Birdsong, a spokesman for Representative Mike Thompson of California, who in October introduced legislation to block the Bush administration plan for the river, denounced the bureau’s attitude toward the state report.


“This administration has always said the best science is in the states, that the states are closer to the people,” Mr. Birdsong said. “The fact that they are discounting the state experts is a little disheartening. It is more than that. It is hypocritical.”


But Dave Solem, manager of the Klamath Irrigation District, whose members farm about 40,000 acres of land irrigated with Klamath water, said he also viewed the state report with deep suspicion.


“All of these things are focused on one thing: to be used as evidence in court,” Mr. Solem said. “I can guarantee this will be regurgitated many times over and over. It becomes scientific fact just because they put it out.”


Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company


January 5, 2003  (New York Times)

In a First, U.S. Puts Limits on California’s Thirst



LAKE HAVASU CITY, Ariz., Jan. 4 — Three of the eight pumps that tap into the glistening reservoir of Colorado River water near here are sitting idle, by order of the federal government.


With the pumps switched off since 8 a.m. New Year’s Day, less water is churning down the 242-mile aqueduct toward coastal Southern California, where 17 million people rely on snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains for washing dishes, flushing toilets and watering lawns.


This is a pivotal moment in the contentious history of water in the arid West, which more often than not has pitted California’s unquenchable thirst against that of its smaller but equally parched neighbors.


For the first time since it was given the authority four decades ago, the United States Department of the Interior has said no to California’s dipping into the Colorado River for more than its allotted share.


Nudged on by six other states that draw from the river, Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton described the enforcement last month as “a turning point in the history of the Colorado River.”


The circumstances that led to the crackdown involved a failed deal to move water from farms to cities in Southern California, a requirement of a federally brokered armistice along the Colorado two years ago. Though the farms-to-city provision was overshadowed by the consequences for California, it reflected an epic shift in the jostling for water that some water experts say could someday eclipse the rivalries among states.


Already as cities across the West look to agriculture to help meet growing water needs, demarcation lines are more likely to have swimming pools on one side and irrigation ditches on the other. Competing statehouses and cross-border agencies figure less into the calculation.


“Water has to move to the cities, and the only real issue now is under what terms,” said Thomas J. Graff, regional director of the advocacy group Environmental Defense in Oakland, Calif., and a former member of the Colorado River Board of California.


The population in the West swelled by nearly one-fifth in the 1990’s. California alone added 4.1 million people. The city of Phoenix grew by 350,000. At 66 percent, Nevada posted the fastest growth rate of any state.


Desperate to get water from a river whose every drop is spoken for, the booming urban centers that ring the Colorado River are looking inside their own states to entice farmers to break their century-old grip on irrigated water. While no one suggests agriculture will disappear, many farmers are likely to switch to crops that yield higher profits with less water. To make it happen, the rich urban areas are offering big sums of money and, when necessary, are exerting heavy political pressure.


That was demonstrated in striking fashion this week in the crackdown on California’s water use, which was not limited to the idling of pumps here at Lake Havasu. The Interior Department, in another historic first, punished the most water-rich agricultural district in the West for not selling some water to San Diego County, where nearly three million people live with virtually no local water supplies.


Farmers in the district, the Imperial Irrigation District, pay $15.50 in delivery fees for each acre-foot of water they use. (An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, enough to fill an acre to a depth of one foot.) San Diego offered to buy up to 200,000 acre-feet a year — about 7 percent of Imperial’s supplies — for $250 per acre-foot. Though in the end the district’s board approved the sale, it loaded the deal down with conditions the Interior Department and other water districts would not accept.


With no deal, Ms. Norton ordered that the Imperial Irrigation District lose about the same amount of water from its annual Colorado River allotment, in this case without compensation. Separately, she directed cutbacks on surplus water to the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. It complied by turning off the pumps near here on Wednesday morning.


Together, the penalties mean cities and farms in Southern California could be denied nearly 650,000 acre-feet of water from the river this year, enough to meet the needs of about 3.8 million people or a city roughly the size of Los Angeles.


Even if the water cuts are restored, as the Interior Department has pledged they will be if a belated deal on the San Diego sale is struck, water experts from across the West predicted “a new era of limits” for the Colorado River basin.


“The secretary has bit the bullet, something that everybody had said was coming for 40 years but nobody believed would really happen,” said Joseph L. Sax, a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, who served as counselor to former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and is a consultant to the United States Bureau of Reclamation.


“This is a historic moment,” Professor Sax said. “California must live within its allotment. In particular, cutting back agricultural users by this administration will be remembered as quite an extraordinary thing.”


The tilt toward cities, though still resisted by many water interests, has been acknowledged even in places like the Imperial Valley, where farmers have siphoned water from the Colorado for a century and where people speak openly of their disdain for coastal California.


The Imperial Irrigation District has transferred more than 100,000 acre-feet of water each year over the last decade to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the biggest urban water district in the West. The water came from savings realized from conservation measures in the farm district that the urban district paid for.


This week, in voting in favor of the failed plan to sell 200,000 acre-feet a year to San Diego County, one of the Imperial district’s directors said he felt the hand of history at his back. The director, Bruce Kuhn, said giving up the water had been the hardest decision of his life.


“History will be our judge,” Mr. Kuhn said. “This decision will be talked about for at least 100 years.”


Stella Mendoza, the board’s president, voiced the fears of the farmers who turned up to oppose the sale. “I don’t trust that San Diego will not come back for more,” she said. “Once you take out the first pickle from the jar, the rest come easy.”


Professor Sax said the consternation in the Imperial Valley was understandable, but was unlikely to change the eventual outcome in a material way.


“This is probably one of the more painful and more pathological versions of what is going to happen,” he said. “But water has to move from agricultural to municipal use. There is no significant doubt about that.”


The trick in the coming years will be striking a balance so that agriculture, which retains control of the vast majority of the water from the Colorado and is the biggest industry even in California, considers the transfers something farmers want to do.


Dennis B. Underwood, a former commissioner at the Bureau of Reclamation who is now a vice president of the Metropolitan Water District, said deals between farms and urban water districts were being fashioned so that the best farmland is preserved and farmers profit without forfeiting the future.


The Metropolitan district and the Palo Verde Irrigation District have agreed to a plan that would leave up to 29 percent of the district’s farmland fallow in certain years to free water for Metropolitan’s urban customers. “You take lands out for a year or two, they become more productive and then you bring them back into production,” Mr. Underwood said. “It shores up the urban economy with water and also helps agriculture.”


The greatest resistance, however, is likely to come when pressure grows for farmers in some districts to give up on water-guzzling crops like alfalfa and cotton.


“There is still going to be a lot of agriculture, but it is going to get by with less water used more efficiently and probably on higher value crops,” Mr. Graff of Environmental Defense said. “Just throwing water on fields to grow grass or to grow cotton is increasingly inefficient and uneconomic.”


In California, the urban sharing of farm water has become particularly urgent because of the enforcement of the Colorado River limit of 4.4 million acre-feet. More than three-quarters of that water is allotted to farms like those in the Imperial Valley and Palo Verde. With no new big reclamation projects like the Hoover Dam on the horizon — more dams are being destroyed than built — California has been compelled to find ways to redistribute its finite supply.


Mr. Underwood said urban water districts were also looking increasingly to “nonhydrological sources” like desalting seawater, recycling poor quality water and reducing demand through conservation. But some environmental groups fear the shift to agricultural water has actually lulled some districts into complacency about conservation.


“It has been a source of frustration of many on the environmental and agricultural sides that the U.S. government has not been strictly enforcing the conservation requirements in the urban sector,” said Hal Candee, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Environmentalists also say they must be vigilant in ensuring that some of the water directed away from farms also goes to environmental projects, like restoring wetlands and water flows in depleted rivers.


In the past, California was able to sidestep its chronic water problems by dipping deeper into Lake Havasu, which gets its water from releases upstream at the Hoover Dam. Some years, the state took as much as 5.2 million acre-feet, an action that irritated the other six Colorado River basin states but that was of no great consequence because those states did not need the water.


But by the late 1990’s, that had changed. Two neighboring states on the river’s lower basin, Arizona and Nevada, were experiencing phenomenal growth and a greater thirst for the water California was monopolizing. And the basin that feeds the Colorado River was undergoing the worst drought on record.


That combination led to stepped-up demands by the six states — which also include New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah — for the Interior Department to force California to live within the allotment dictated in a Supreme Court ruling in 1963. In a complex set of negotiations, the states, along with the Department of the Interior, agreed to give California until 2016 to break its habit. But when the Southern California water agencies missed the deadline for the San Diego sale, the cutoff became immediate.


Though California’s neighbors played tough, some water officials inside and outside California said that finally bringing the simmering issue to a head helped to cool tempers among the seven basin states. Kay Brothers, the assistant general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said a decade of increased cooperation among the states on things like storing water underground across state boundaries had also helped.


“I think we are at a pivotal moment in the West, and with cooperation so much better over the past 10 years, no one wants to lose the momentum,” Ms. Brothers said. “It is a mind-set change that has developed among the states.”


In one indication of possibly changed times, Mr. Underwood said he started calling colleagues in the six other states when it became apparent on Dec. 31 that the San Diego deal had fallen apart. He said there were no angry shouts, just offers of assistance.


“We all realize they have to enforce the law of the river,” Mr. Underwood said. “But if you tear at the fabric, at the common thread, then everything unravels and you end up in the 1920’s. That would be in nobody’s best interest.”


Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company


December 12, 2002

$100 Million Deal Proposed for Central Valley Farmers



SAN FRANCISCO, Dec. 11 — The United States Bureau of Reclamation has agreed to pay more than $100 million to landowners in the Central Valley to stop farming about 34,000 acres because of severe water drainage problems.


Federal officials said it would be the largest buyout of farmland in the bureau’s 100-year history and, some Central Valley water officials hope, could lead to a much bigger land retirement in the coming years totaling as much as 200,000 acres of farmland.


The proposed payment is part of a settlement of a 15-year-old legal battle over agricultural drainage issues that will be submitted for approval Thursday to a federal judge in Fresno, Calif. The judge, United States District Court Judge Oliver W. Wanger, is expected to take comments from the public before deciding whether to approve the deal.


Though all the details of the proposed settlement have not been made public, some environmental groups and members of Congress have already expressed concern about it.


Hal Candee, a senior lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said his organization worried that the settlement money would be taken from funds intended for environmental projects in California. John Lawrence, a water policy expert on the staff of Representative George Miller, said there were also concerns that farmers might be getting too much money for land that would have little value without its federal water subsidies.


“We have to ask whether those hard questions were asked or whether this is a sweetheart deal,” Mr. Lawrence said. “I am not charging that, but the questions need to be asked.”


About 100 farmers had sued the federal government, which provides water to the Central Valley, and the local water agency, the Westlands Water District, because poor drainage had loaded their land with salt and, in some cases, it was believed, the toxic mineral selenium. They had demanded $400 million in damages.


In previous court rulings, it had been determined that the Bureau of Reclamation was responsible for providing adequate drainage for the farmland, a problem that dates to the 1950’s. Bennett W. Raley, assistant secretary for water and science for the United States Department of the Interior, said it was too risky to let the case go to trial.


By settling the lawsuit, he said, and having the land removed from production, the federal government would be freed of its obligation to provide drainage.


“This was not done for the land retirement,” Mr. Raley said of the settlement. “It was a damages case. We could have been found liable for damages and have paid the very same money out and not have made one inch of progress toward resolution of the drainage issues.”


Mr. Raley said it might strike some people as odd that the Bureau of Reclamation, which was created to provide water for Western agriculture, was proposing to remove land from cultivation. He said that the move was unusual and should not be seen as a broader shift in policy by the Bush administration.


“There is a degree of irony here,” Mr. Raley said. “It shouldn’t however be mistaken for a decision by the administration to walk away from irrigated agriculture. To the contrary, we would like to get back to focusing on delivering water in a reasonable and efficient way to agriculture and environmental uses.”


Under the proposal, the federal government would pay $107 million in damages to the 100 farmers and the Westlands Water District would pay $32 million to buy the 34,000 acres and keep them out of production. In exchange, the land owners would agree to “waive tort, contract and inverse condemnation claims” against the federal government and the water district, according to a description of the settlement released by the Interior Department.


Officials with the water district had long opposed taking farmland out of production. But that thinking has gradually changed because of the expensive drainage issues and recurring water shortages. Under the deal, the Westlands district would keep the water intended to irrigate the land, allowing district officials to divert it to other farmers.


“It is extremely painful and difficult for farmers to retire land,” said Tupper Hull, a district spokesman. “But it is a process that is going forward.”


Some water officials hope the deal will be the first step in a much larger agreement with the federal government that would remove as much as 200,000 acres from production because of the drainage issues.


The Westlands district, the largest agricultural irrigation district in the country, covers more than 600,000 acres of farmland in the western Central Valley, an area equal to the size of Rhode Island. Mr. Hull said the district has been in negotiations with federal and local officials about the district’s proposal to retire up to a third of its farmland.


“We believe this settlement will facilitate the negotiations with the United States over ongoing drainage and water supply issues,” he said. “We don’t think that will happen overnight, but the negotiations have been very serious in recent months.”


The Westlands district has a contract with the federal government to receive 1.1 million acre-feet of water a year, but has generally only received 70 percent of that because of water restrictions. By reducing the amount of cultivated land, the district intends to limit its need for water. Though the proposal would not change its water contract, the district has suggested it would agree to reduce its contract to 805,000 acre-feet if the federal government would fallow the 200,000 acres.


Mr. Raley said it “makes perfect sense” for the Westlands to reduce the amount of irrigated land, but he said it was too early to say whether the Department of Interior would be willing to pay for such a large retirement of acreage.


“Something of that magnitude has huge implications,” he said.


Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

December 11, 2002

California Vote Threatens Deal on Colorado River



SAN FRANCISCO, Dec. 10 — A two-year-old plan to end fighting among seven Western states over water from the Colorado River appeared near collapse today after a rural irrigation district in Southern California refused to sell water to nearby San Diego County.


Officials from the Imperial Irrigation District voted Monday night to reject an important provision of the plan, which required the agricultural district to transfer a small portion of its allotment from the Colorado River to the San Diego County Water Authority, one of state’s biggest urban water users, for 75 years.


The district’s board, by a 3 to 2 vote, determined the sale would be too risky for farmers in the Imperial Valley, a desert land that has been irrigated for 100 years with Colorado River water. Some board members said they feared that if farmland were put out of production to free up water for city users, the spigot might never be turned off. They also worried about extra water for the Salton Sea, which would be damaged by a reduction in agricultural runoff.


“I can’t vote for it because, frankly, it is not in the best interest of the Imperial Valley,” said Bruce R. Kuhn, a board member who owns a land-leveling business and was considered the swing vote.


Frustration with the district’s decision was felt from Sacramento to Washington, in large part because it was the final piece in a detailed arrangement supported by state and federal officials to put decades of fighting over the Colorado River to an end. The chief executive of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves 17 million people in six counties including San Diego, told a meeting of its board today that the Imperial Valley vote “demonstrates that reliance on single highly complex transactions is imprudent.”


State and federal water officials said they feared the vote might set off a new round of water conflicts, both inside California and between the state and some of its arid neighbors. A spokesman for Gov. Gray Davis said the governor would try to broker an agreement that would lead to a new vote by the Imperial Valley district before Dec. 31, the deadline imposed under the plan.


“This is a critical issue not only for the Imperial Valley but for the entire state of California,” said the spokesman, Byron C. Tucker. “The deadline has not passed.”


There were also suggestions today that big urban water districts or the federal government might move to take water from the Imperial Valley against the district’s will, or try to get around the board by striking deals with individual farmers. The 400 or so farmers in the Imperial Valley were so split over the proposed sale that the Imperial Valley Farm Bureau was unable to formulate a position on it, leading to speculation that some farmers might be willing to break ranks.


“The days of water wars is a place where nobody wanted to return, particularly when we had an agreement that provided for something the Colorado River has never experienced, which is 75 years of peace on the river,” said Dennis Cushman, an assistant general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority, which would have received 200,000 acre-feet of water from the sale. “The uncertainty that comes with that loss of peace will have a detrimental effect on every party that draws water from the river.”


Bennett W. Raley, assistant secretary for water and science for the United States Department of the Interior, said that if the decision was not reversed, it would force the federal government to reduce California’s use of Colorado River water sharply beginning next month.


Speaking to reporters in a telephone conference call, Mr. Raley said it was a “recipe for disaster” for California to ignore the fact that it is drawing too much water from the Colorado River and that to address the problem, some water needed to be transferred from agricultural to urban users. The Imperial Valley irrigation district receives about 3.1 million acre-feet per year out of the state’s total allotment from the Colorado River of 4.4 million. An acre-foot is the amount needed to cover an acre to a depth of a foot.


“The department takes this entire issue very, very seriously because of the importance of the Colorado River, the importance of the secretary’s role as the water master for the Colorado River, and the real world consequences that flow from decisions regarding the Colorado River,” Mr. Raley said. “There are no abstract or theoretical issues. At some point, it gets down to real impacts on real people and environment and other resources.”


Mr. Raley said a final decision on further actions that might be taken against California would be announced next week by Gale A. Norton, the secretary of the interior.


Though most Southern California water districts have reserves for the next year or two, a federal cutoff could reduce by about one-third the annual supplies of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the state’s largest.


Adan Ortega Jr., a vice president for the district, said it has been receiving about 1.35 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River, more than half of the district’s total annual deliveries of water. Under law, the Metropolitan district is entitled to 550,000 acre-feet, with the remainder coming from surpluses.


But Mr. Ortega said the water district had already prepared for a big drop next year because of drought conditions along the river. To make up for losses, he said, the district is negotiating with farmers in the Sacramento area for a one-year purchase of 200,000 acre-feet.


“People are disappointed, but the weather had tempered our expectations about what we get from the river anyway, so you have a little more forbearance than you would otherwise,” Mr. Ortega said. “We had not been counting on any surplus allocation from the Colorado this year.”


The proposed sale of the Imperial Irrigation District water to San Diego was part of an overall strategy to reduce California’s dependence on water from the Colorado River. The state, which is legally entitled to 4.4 million acre-feet a year from the river, has been drawing an additional 800,000 acre-feet, or enough to provide for 1.6 million households.


Fast-growing states along the Colorado River like Arizona and Nevada have demanded that the federal government force California to stop taking the additional water. Under a deal worked out by the Department of the Interior, the state had until the end of this month to put into place several transfers of Colorado River water from farmers to cities. If it did so, California would be given 15 years to wean itself from the excess supplies — something federal officials characterized as a “soft landing” for the state.


Pressure on the Imperial district board members to approve the deal was intense in recent weeks from both federal and state officials. Farmers today complained about that pressure, and though split on the board’s vote, worried about losing control of their own destiny.


“I have Joe Blow down the street who waters his lawn and brushes his teeth and has as much say over my water as I do,” said Jack Vesey, who works the vegetable farm started by his grandfather in the 1920’s


Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company



November 11, 2002  (New York Times)

Arkansas Rice Farmers Run Dry, and U.S. Remedy Sets Off Debate



ULM, Ark., Nov. 5 — Rice farmers like John Kerksieck are on the brink of draining one of Arkansas’ biggest aquifers dry.


That alone is troublesome, in a state that gets almost 50 inches of rain a year. But even more confounding — since these Southern farmers will not be the last to find themselves in such a pickle — is the question of what to do about it.


Most of the farmers want the government to send them replacement water from the White River. The Army Corps of Engineers and the state support a plan to spend more than $200 million in federal money on the project, or about $300,000 a farmer. It is time, they say, for the government to do in other states what has long been done in the West — provide irrigation water to farmers who have no other resort.


But others are concerned about the precedent such a project would set. If the government rewards farmers who use up their water here, they say, what is to stop others from doing the same?


The debate touches on issues of water rights and responsibilities, and spills over into farm policy, because one issue is whether taxpayers should have to spend more to help grow rice, which is already heavily subsidized. It also involves wrangling about whether the corps, which has been limited to navigation and flood control, has any business wading into irrigation.


One interest group, Taxpayers for Common Sense, contends the plan is a boondoggle of the first order.


Farmers here in Arkansas’ Grand Prairie, one of the country’s richest rice-growing areas, see it differently. “We really don’t have a water problem,” said Mr. Kerksieck, 42, in hunting garb in anticipation of the duck season, which rivals rice farming as the Grand Prairie’s main preoccupation. Like many here, he traces his lineage to the farmers who arrived in the early 1900’s, starting a century of pumping from the aquifer at rates that could not be sustained.


“There’s plenty of water in the river,” Mr. Kerksieck said. “They’ve just got to let us divert it.”


Another farmer, Lynn Sickel, 51, said: “I’m a conservative person. But if this is what it’s going to take for highly productive farmland to continue to provide food nationally and internationally, well, that’s the taxpayer’s burden.”


David Carruth, a local lawyer who had led opposition to the plan, posed the question a different way. “Why shouldn’t we say to these farmers in the Grand Prairie: `You’ve known since 1940 that you had a problem with your aquifer, and you went ahead and overpumped it anyway,’ ” he said. ” `Why should we go ahead and grant you another resource?”


Neither Congress nor the Bush administration has made a final decision about the plan, with total cost estimated at $319 million, with the federal government paying 65 percent. But nearly all sides agree that time for a decision is running short. Water levels in the shallow aquifer, known as the Alluvial, are declining at rates so fast that by 2015 there will not be enough left underground to sustain the area’s 1,000 farms, which cover about 250,000 acres and represent about 5 percent of country’s rice production.


The economic impact of such a collapse could surpass $46 million a year, the corps has estimated.


The Grand Prairie is not the only area in trouble because of declining groundwater. Underground water accounts for 22 percent of American water use, and in many areas, including much of the Great Plains, coastal Florida and North Carolina and parts of the Mississippi Delta, it is being depleted. Even in eastern Arkansas, whose aquifers are fed by the Mississippi River, overuse has prompted state officials to designate a second area as critical because of scarce groundwater.


But the Grand Prairie area is the first whose aquifer problems have prompted the Corps of Engineers to propose stepping in, a move that many see as an important test case as water shortages, even in the East, have become common.


“One could take the position that, hey, the farmers are the ones who created this mess, so why don’t we just let their wells go dry and let everybody go broke, and then the problem will fix itself,” G. Alan Perkins, a Little Rock lawyer and an authority on water law, said. “But the critical problem is that right now, we’re facing an imminent aquifer failure.”


Like many states, Arkansas has essentially never limited the amount of water that farmers can pump from their land. In the last 50 years in the Grand Prairie, farmers have relied increasingly on irrigation, over and above ample rains, to increase the yields of their crops. The farmers have increased by nearly tenfold the amount of water pumped from the Alluvial Aquifer, even as its level was declining by more than a foot a year, the state Soil and Water Commission said.


“By allowing limitless access to such a resource, we encourage overexploitation,” said Robert Glennon, a law professor at the University of Arizona and the author of “Water Follies,” a new book on groundwater depletion.


Even now, under the critical area designation, state law permits limits on pumping only if an alternative source of water is made available to the current users at equal or lower cost. Arkansas hopes that alternative can be the White River, but it says it cannot carry out the project without significant federal help.


“We see groundwater depletion in Arkansas being a major problem, and one that involves the national interest, and really the only federal agency with the expertise and ability to deal with it is the corps,” Earl T. Smith, chief of the Arkansas commission’s water resources management division, said.


Under the corps’ current plan, about 2 percent of water from the White River would be diverted for farm use, a project that would include pumping stations, canals and reservoirs. The plan, which the corps said would save the aquifer by reducing pumping to sustainable levels, has passed an environmental review, but faces opposition from outdoor and environmental groups like the Arkansas Wildlife Federation. The groups contend that lower river flows could alter the habitats of certain fish and migratory birds, including ducks, and thus hurt fishing and hunting.


Congress has allocated $45 million for the project, and farmers and the State of Arkansas have spent an additional $11 million. The Bush administration has not included the plan in its budgets. Although withholding a final decision, the Office of Management and Budget has limited how the corps can spend money already allocated for the plan, restricting it to conservation purposes.


Mr. Carruth, the critic of the plan, said a better approach would be to retire some farmland and to spend federal money on technology to enable farmers to use water more efficiently. That approach, he says, eases overpumping of the aquifer without the costly river diversion.


“Why should we subsidize a pump that will sell subsidized water to grow a subsidized crop?” he asked, noting that federal price guarantees mean that rice farmers receive $3.10 a bushel for their crop, more than twice the current $1.40 market price.


An analysis by the corps said that without White River water, there was no way to save enough underground water to continue irrigation at anything but a tiny fraction of current levels.


The farmers say the goal of maintaining a domestic food and fiber industry, and avoiding further reliance on foreign suppliers, is well worth the federal cost, even if it means guaranteeing water and crop payments for their rice.


“There is a long and established history of the federal government being involved in water resources development and protection” John C. Edwards, the executive director of the White River Irrigation District, which represents the 1,000 Grand Prairie farmers, said. “There has been a federal interest in irrigation in 17 Western states. Now that water problems are coming to the East, we can learn from the past to make this a better project for the future.”


Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company


October 3, 2002  (New York Times)

U.S. Sees No Tie to Water Plan in Deaths of Fish in California



SAN FRANCISCO, Oct. 2 — Federal officials said today that at least 20,000 chinook salmon and other fish died in the Klamath River in northern California in the last two weeks, but they were unwilling to attribute the deaths to water flows that had been diverted to farmers.


Steve Williams, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the kill peaked last week. Mr. Williams said things began to improve on Saturday, well before emergency releases of water from the Upper Klamath Lake in southern Oregon reached the so-called dead zone of the lower river on Monday.


The timing of that turnaround, he said, left open the question of how much low water flows in the river contributed to the fish kill, which biologists say was the largest in memory.


Early this year, estimates were that 130,000 chinook salmon would enter the mouth of the Klamath this spawning season.


“It is important we don’t jump to conclusions or draw conclusions until we have a chance to thoroughly go through this information,” Mr. Williams said.


Early laboratory tests show that most of the fish died of suffocation due to infections that damaged their gills. Federal and state biologists said that the organisms that caused the infection are common throughout the river, but rarely have they led to so many deaths.


Last week, biologists with the California Department of Fish and Game said the diseases were spreading in part because so many salmon were crowded into small pools of water. They recommended that substantially increased flows of water be released into the river for extended periods at least through next April.


So far, however, federal officials have agreed only to additional flows of water for two weeks. Sue Ellen Wooldridge, counselor and deputy chief of staff in the Department of Interior, said to do more would endanger sucker fish in the Upper Klamath Lake.


“The Catch-22 is if someone is calling for some water out of the Upper Klamath Lake for salmon downstream, we will be in violation of the biological opinion in the lake,” Ms. Wooldridge said. “That is not possible.”


Ms. Wooldridge and Mr. Williams spoke during a telephone news conference after Mr. Williams sent a letter about the findings to a government advisory group on the Klamath created this year by President Bush. Water allocations in the Klamath basin have been the source of a fierce dispute among people in the area, with farmers on one side and anglers, environmental groups and several Indian tribes on the other.


In March, the Bush administration was seen to tip the balance in favor of the farmers by adopting a plan that assures large amounts of water are reserved for irrigation. Opponents of the plan predicted it would be devastating for the river and its fish, and today they reacted angrily to the suggestions that higher water levels in the river might not have made a difference for the salmon.


“The main reason that the fish kill started to decline before the slug of water got to the lower river is because the majority of the fish had been dead by then,” said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, one of the groups opposed to the diversion of large amounts of water to irrigation. “It is incredibly disingenuous of them to cite that the rate is going down. When you have a population and kill off 50 percent, your death rate is going to go down.”


Mr. Spain joined the leaders of several other groups from the Klamath River region, including Sue Masten, chairwoman of the Yurok Indian Tribe, and Representative Mike Thompson, the area’s congressman, in delivering 500 pounds of the dead salmon outside the Interior Department’s offices in Washington. Mr. Thompson and the others called on Gale A. Norton, the secretary of the interior, to increase flows and rejuvenate the river.


But Ms. Wooldridge seemed to leave little room for reconsidering the administration’s Klamath policy. Asked in the telephone news conference whether the fish kill had shaken the administration’s confidence in its water plan, she replied tersely, “The answer is no.”


Susan Holmes, the legislative representative for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, one of several groups suing the Department of Interior over the Klamath plan, said it was misleading for Ms. Wooldridge to cast the Klamath water question as a battle for resources between salmon downstream and the sucker fish in the lake.


It is the department’s own plan, Ms. Holmes said, that set the levels for the lake — and that the lawsuit challenges as inappropriate.


“She is ducking behind a biological opinion that came from the Department of Interior, and that we said would kill salmon,” Ms. Holmes said, referring to Ms. Wooldridge. “They are doing everything they can to dance around giving more water to the fish. The fish need water. This is a concept you learn somewhere around kindergarten and the Bush administration needs to catch up.”


Mr. Williams said that it was not uncommon for “individual experts to have disagreements,” but that in the end, people would have to wait for a definitive answer about what happened on the Klamath.


“This is a complex system,” he said. “There are a lot of factors that could have contributed, that interact with one another, and it takes some time to sort that all out.”


Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company


August 28, 2002  (New York Times)

Saving Water, U.S. Farmers Are Worried They’ll Go Dry



PETERSBURG, Tex. — Ronnie Hopper grows cotton, and he has learned firsthand that water is precious. The water that he pumps from underground costs him five times as much as it used to, so he does his best not to waste a drop.


He has installed new, high-efficiency center-pivot sprinklers, designed to eliminate losses to evaporation. He has cut back on his planting on his 2,000-acre farm to concentrate water on fields that can use it best. He is even considering drip irrigation, water by the trickle.


Mr. Hopper has reason to be parsimonious. Though he lives atop one of the world’s largest aquifers, the Ogallala, which spans eight states, it is falling every day. Here in dry northwest Texas, the problem is particularly acute, with declines of at least three times the average.


“Putting more wells in this particular ground would be like putting more straws in a glass,” Mr. Hopper said, ruddy-faced in the Texas sun.


People have warned of the threat to the aquifer, which supplies roughly a quarter of the United States’ irrigated farmland, for more than 20 years, and it is still in danger. But the experience of farmers like Mr. Hopper offers reasons both for hope and caution for those struggling to save scarce water elsewhere, and to arrest drastic declines in other underground supplies in places like India and China.


In a shift of much significance, per capita water use — on the rise in most of the rest of the world — is now declining in the United States. That retreat has been led by industrial users and farmers like Mr. Hopper, who began to save water through technology and conservation even before the recent years of drought, which this summer will affect more than a third of states.


Now, however, after years of conservation, these users now worry that whatever savings are achieved will only be lost to competition from fast-growing American cities and suburbs. Despite America’s overall decline in water consumption, these booming population centers are making greater demands than ever on limited water supplies.


“We’re coming to the reality that we may not have enough water to farm all of this land,” Mr. Hopper said, in fields that stretched toward the pancake-flat horizon. “But we don’t want anyone coming in and telling us that we don’t know how to use it best.”


By global standards, the United States remains one of the world’s most gluttonous water users. But Americans’ water use declined more than 20 percent from 1980 to 1995, to about 1,500 gallons of water per person a day from 1,900, according to the most current data from the United States Geological Survey, which says the downward trend appears to be continuing.


Today the depletion of the Ogallala — beneath parts of Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas — has slowed to an extent not predicted by any forecasts. It is dropping by just a few inches a year on average, after averaging declines of about two feet a year since intensive irrigation began about 60 years ago.


Still, it is the outlook beyond their fields that makes farmers almost as anxious as the falling water levels beneath them.


In most of the country, farmers have primary water rights, ahead of suburbs and cities. But competition is intensifying. Texas, for instance, with rapid population growth and few restrictions on water use, is increasing its water consumption faster than any other state.


By 2050, Texas water planners say the state’s population will leap to 40 million people from nearly 21 million in 2000. By the same year, the board has warned, Texas’ supply of water, from existing sources, will be 19 percent less than it is today.


Given that imbalance, the Texas water board said, it would be unrealistic to think that the Ogallala could be sustained into the indefinite future. The aquifer should be treated like a mine, it said, and plumbed until it runs out. But then what?


Doing More With Less

At 58, Mr. Hopper remembers when water was so plentiful and the Ogallala lay so near the surface that conservation and cost barely entered his mind. But cotton is a thirsty plant, and out where he lives, farming has always been a marginal business.


On Mr. Hopper’s farm, the aquifer, which stood 95 feet below the surface when he was a boy, now stands at 335 feet, with just 65 to go before it hits bottom. Now, he figures, his water bill (in electricity, for pumping from ever greater depths) accounts for a fifth of his overhead. Last year, he earned 52 cents an acre for his cotton, not enough to break even, and 20 cents of that came from the government.


Environmentalists call it a waste twice over: the United States produces a surplus of cotton, and pays subsidies to its farmers, yet in places like Texas the water-intensive crop is draining a finite water supply.


Still, water managers like those in Texas have resisted limiting farmers’ water use — and often do not even gauge it.


“One of the goals, I think, of most of the producers here is to reduce the use of water,” said Jim C. Conkwright, the general manager for the district based in Lubbock, which covers Mr. Hopper’s farm. “But it’s not something we can accomplish overnight.”


Most water experts say the most urgent task is to find ways to do more with less. “If you become more efficient within reason, we can improve the situation in many places around the world,” said Ben Dziegielewski, executive director of the International Water Resources Association.


Mr. Hopper says that is what he and many other farmers have done. American farmers who withdrew 2.9 feet of water for every irrigated acre in 1980 were making do with 2.6 feet by 1995, government statistics show.


The savings reflect efforts to eliminate losses from evaporation, wind and runoff, as Mr. Hopper has done by installing the center-point sprinklers. They deliver water closer to his cotton with about 95 percent efficiency, compared with about 50 percent for old-fashioned furrow irrigation.


With the savings in pumping costs, Mr. Hoppers says he has paid for his investment in just a few years. “It all comes down to economics,” he said. “I’ll take as good care of the land as I can afford to do.”


But even as farmers like Mr. Hopper try to conserve, thirsty cities and suburbs in the region have begun to look to the Ogallala to meet their expanding water needs. By 2050, planners in Texas expect municipal water use to rise by nearly 67 percent.


The competition alarms farmers like Mr. Hopper, who argues that the cities have no claim on the aquifer at all. “Who are they to say that farming is not the most beneficial use?” Mr. Hopper asked.



Controlling Water’s Use

In places like Petersburg, there is much talk these days about what is unfolding near Abilene, to the north, as a possible barometer of the future. There, the wealthy investor Boone Pickens and his company, Mesa Water Inc., own farmland, and their plan is to pump the water from underground and sell it to other parts of the state.


Over a lunch of cheeseburgers and tater tots smothered in chili and cheese, Craig Heinrich, 38, who grows cotton himself, was among the local farmers who said he just did not know what to think of the plan.


“If they’re going to pump all that water out of the aquifer, it’s going to have a real impact on farming,” he said. “But if they start telling him what he can and can’t do with his water, they’ll be telling us next.”


Telling people how to use their water, something many see as a natural right, is a sensitive issue. In Texas and most other Ogallala states, landowners still have the final say over how and how much of the water beneath their land they should use.


But in Nebraska, local water districts have taken the authority to limit how much water can be used for crops.


“As we restrict the water supply, the irrigators are more or less required to use the water as efficiently as they can,” said Bob Hipple, general manager of a water district in Nebraska’s southwest. There, to supplement rainfall, farmers may use just 14.5 inches of underground water per acre per year, down from 22 inches a year in 1980, when the limits were first imposed.


But such restrictions have for the most part been left to states to apply. The federal government has mostly limited its own efforts to promote conservation to making grants available to help farmers switch to more efficient irrigation.


For now, states like Texas seem comfortable with the idea that conservation will more or less take care of itself.


Over the next 50 years, Texas’ water board expects rising pumping costs to push some farmers out of business. That, it hopes, will free up increasing amounts of Ogallala water. To water managers like Mr. Hipple in Nebraska, though, such projections seem optimistic and and misplaced.


“When I was in Vietnam,” he said, “we used to kid about the idea that we might as well live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse. An area can let everyone pump all the water they want, or it can say, perhaps it is better to live slower, live to be older and look as good as you can along the way.”


Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company


August 28, 2002  (New York Times)

Forecast for Future: Deluge and Drought



It has been a summer of extremes. Rains have deluged Europe and Asia, swamping cities and villages and killing some 2,000 people, while drought and heat have seared the American West and Eastern cities. What is going on?


The floods and droughts could simply be flickers in the inherently chaotic weather system, some experts say. But many warn that such extremes will be increasingly common as the world grows warmer.


Such a shift could pose big problems in places where water is already a strained resource, they say.


“Their water use is already finely balanced, and based on hydrology they think they’re going to get, and climate change is telling us they’re going to get something different,” said Dr. Peter H. Gleick, the director of the Pacific Institute, a private environmental research center in Oakland, Calif.


A warmer world is more likely to be a wetter one, experts warn, with more evaporation resulting in more rain, in heavy and destructive downpours.


But in a troublesome twist, that world may also include more intense droughts, as the increased evaporation parches soils between occasional storms.


“In a hotter climate, your chances of being caught with either too much or too little are higher,” said Dr. John M. Wallace, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington.


And the globe is getting warmer. The last several decades of global temperature readings curve up sharply on graphs.


Climate experts concluded for the first time last year that humans were causing most of the warming trend by burning coal and oil, which release carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases.


The main way that warming is likely to manifest itself, scientists say, is through changes in the balance of water as liquid, vapor and ice.


Still, a scientific debate persists. Some experts say the earth has built-in buffering mechanisms that can limit extremes. But many others say that past records, current trends and computer models all point to big changes ahead. One new study this summer found evidence that the Asian monsoon, as part of the warming trend, has already intensified.


Generally, agriculture is expected to falter in arid subtropical areas like the eastern Mediterranean and southern Africa, while flourishing in northern climes — like the North American wheat belt — as more precipitation and longer growing seasons boost yields.


But climate experts say that even there, rain is more likely to fall as field-scouring torrents. Government scientists have already measured a significant rise in downpour-style storms in the United States over the last 100 years.


Long-term planners in the western United States are already trying to adjust. Next year, California will for the first time incorporate climate change into its five-year water-management plan.


Water supplies there are already squeezed by growing populations, said Jonas Minton, the deputy director of the California Department of Water Resources. A warming climate is intensifying the problem, he said.


Over the past 50 years, he said, winter precipitation in the Sierra Nevadas has been falling more and more in the form of rain, increasing flood risks, instead of as snow, which supplies farmers and taps alike as it melts in the spring.


One of the clearest climate shifts can be seen in mountain glaciers, said Dr. Lonnie G. Thompson, the director of the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University.


Some glaciers, like those in the Alps, were already retreating before the 20th-century burst of greenhouse emissions. But the rate of melting in the last decade in Peru, Tibet and many other places has quickened far beyond the pre-industrial pace, he said.


Referring to the glaciers, Dr. Thompson said: “It doesn’t matter if you’re in the Himalayas, South America, Africa. They are all speaking with the same voice. The system is changing.”


The shriveling of mountain glaciers is likely to eventually disrupt water and hydroelectric power from Cuzco, Peru, to New Delhi, even as populations in such cities continue to grow.


In the short run, the melting could unleash sudden floods and avalanches as it overwhelms reservoirs and stream beds, experts say.


The United Nations Environment Program recently identified 44 glacier-fed lakes in Bhutan and Nepal that are swelling rapidly and could pose a risk of disastrous flash floods this decade.


In the long run, though, these long-frozen sources of water will run dry, said Cesar Portocarrero, a Peruvian engineer who worked for Electroperu, the government-owned power company, for 25 years monitoring the country’s glacial water supply. He now serves as a consultant to Dr. Thompson.


Mr. Portocarrero said some Peruvian planners had explored the notion of supplying the thirsty cities along the Pacific coast with water from the Amazon River basin by building pipelines through the Andes. The costs of such a project would be enormous, he said.


In the meantime, the shifting climate is reflected in other ways in his hometown, Huaraz, a small city perched 10,000 feet up the Andes.


“I was doing work in my house the other day and saw mosquitoes,” Mr. Portocarrero said. “Mosquitoes at more than 3,000 meters. I never saw that before. It means really we have here the evidence and consequences of global warming.”


Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company


May 30, 2002  (New York Times)

Mexico Misses Deadline for Water-Debt Plan



MEXICO CITY, May 29 — President Vicente Fox will not meet a deadline for a plan to pay Mexico’s enormous water debt to the United States, Mr. Fox’s aides said today.


Mexico owes 456 billion gallons under a 1944 treaty, a debt run up over a decade. Mr. Fox promised President Bush two weeks ago  that on May 30, he would announce a strategy to pay off the debt. But today there is no plan to divide the waters of the Rio Grande,  which divides Texas and Mexico along a 1,250-mile border, and there will not be one tomorrow, the aides said.


The Rio Grande valley is a semiarid place where millions depend on other people’s water for their economic existence. Severe water  shortages are creating social and political strains on both sides of the river.


Mr. Fox’s aides now say it will take five years or more to pay the debt. To honor it by this summer, as Texas has requested, is  impossible, said Alberto Szekely, the national water secretary. “Not even draining all the reservoirs would satisfy that demand,” he said.


The United States ambassador, Jeffrey Davidow, acknowledges that Mexico is a thirsty land but says it could begin paying its some of  its due tomorrow. “Let’s share the water that there is,” he said. “The suffering has to be shared.”


There is enough suffering to go around, to be sure, but not enough water. Thousands of farmers on both sides of the border, gripped  by an eight-year drought, stand to lose their crops, in part because Mexico has not allowed enough water to flow to the Rio Grande.  Texans are especially aggrieved because Mr. Fox now has twice promised to pay the debt, accumulated by two past Mexican  presidents.


Mr. Fox’s close relations with Washington will be hurt if he cannot come up with a plan. His inability to deliver quickly on his  personal pledge to Mr. Bush to solve the water crisis is raising questions about his ability to govern.


“Vicente Fox is trying to pay an accumulated debt of corruption, environmental degradation and administrative negligence,” said Sergio  Aguayo, a leading political analyst in Mexico.


But, he added, “one of this president’s flaws is that he announces things before he accomplishes them.” The water debt, left unpaid,  “will contaminate his other problems” with the United States, including an impasse over immigration and economic development issues,  Mr. Aguayo said.


Mexico wants the United States to help finance millions of dollars in improvements to its irrigation and wastewater treatment facilities  to help meet its debt. Beyond that, farmers and politicians alike are facing the fact that drought and demand may alter the way people  live along the river.


Since the 1944 treaty, irrigated agriculture has flooded the dry lands of the Rio Grande basin, feeding thirsty crops like citrus and sugar  cane in a semidesert.


“There must be fundamental change in the ways water’s being used on both sides of the border,” said George Kourous, an expert on  border issues at the Interhemispheric Resource Center, a research group in New Mexico.


Those changes should include both governments “sitting down together and working on a plan,” said Mary Kelly, executive director of  the Texas Center for Policy Studies, an environmental group in Austin. “Times change. Economies change. And water management  policies have to change with them.”


Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

May 24, 2002  (New York Times)

Water Crisis Grows Into a Test of U.S.-Mexico Relations



GUERRERO VIEJO, Mexico, May 22 — Half a century ago this town was drowned. The United States and Mexico built a huge reservoir by damming the Rio Grande, under a treaty to divide the water of the mighty river.


Now the ghost of Guerrero Viejo has risen. The reservoir, drained by drought, thirst, population growth and personal greed, holds  one-twelfth of its capacity. The town, once deep under water, stands on dry land. On the water’s edge, two miles away, horses and cattle  graze on grasses that should be five fathoms under.


The treaty is falling apart, along with any pretense that the United States and Mexico are not on the verge of political war. The  water-management policies of both nations for the border can best be described in three words: pray for rain.


Under the terms of the treaty, Mexico now owes the United States 456 billion gallons of water — enough to quench the thirst of New  York City for a year. The water should have flowed down the Rio Grande over the past decade, but didn’t.


President Vicente Fox says he is preparing a plan to pay the debt back. Exactly how is a mystery.


“We can’t pay it off, we don’t have the water,” said Enrique Martínez governor of the state of Coahuila, which borders Texas. He added  a sober prognostication: “I think the struggle for water will be the gravest problem of this century.”


This same struggle is simmering worldwide: rivers and reservoirs are running dry as a growing population fights over a shrinking  source of life. The issue is testing the political friendship between Mr. Fox and President Bush, who knows it well from his days as  Texas governor.


The two presidents discussed the debt twice in the past two months, once face to face at an economic summit meeting in Monterrey,  Mexico, and again by telephone last week.


What started as a local dispute along the Rio Grande has turned into an international imbroglio, a question of national security for  Mexico and a matter of survival for several million Texans and Mexicans. The crisis is shocking people on both sides of the border  into seeing that there may be limits to growth.


In the Rio Grande valley, where the population has gone from 200,000 to 20 million since the water treaty was signed in 1944, the  United States and Mexico “have been promoting growth” — industrial and agricultural — “as if there were no limit,” said Alberto  Szekely, Mexico’s national water secretary. “And water is one,” he said.


“Both sides were warned long ago that something like this would happen,” he said. “But they were working on free trade and avoiding  political issues like this.” Water policy on both sides of the border, he said, has been marked by negligence and wishful thinking.


One-third of the water that flows to the Rio Grande above the Falcon dam is supposed to go to south Texas, and the remainder to  Mexicans downriver. But with rivers and reservoirs at record lows, people on both sides of the border, dependent on the water for  drinking and irrigation, fear their fields and towns will dry up and blow away.


[South Texas farmers, who have taken their case to the State Department, blockaded the border at the Pharr international trade bridge  today in protest, demanding that Mexico pay back the water. Jo Jo White, the manager of one of the largest irrigation districts in the  Texas border region, joined the protest.


“In 30 to 60 days we’ll be out of water if Mexico doesn’t comply,” Mr. White, who manages irrigation for 300 farmers and 60,000  acres, said in a telephone interview. “The crops in the ground will be lost. The growers, who have been living on the edge — it’ll be the  nail in the coffin for them.” Mexico has “shorted us, and they shorted their own growers twice as much,” he said. “This is not only an  American problem.”]


The Mexican farmers near the river are petitioning President Fox to resolve the debt, run up by two past presidents, without destroying  their parched lives.


“We really are out of water,” said Juan Luis Zapata, a sorghum farmer wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap, in the town of  Camargo, 35 miles downriver from the Falcon reservoir. “The government hasn’t managed the water for the benefit of the people.  Water has always been used as a kind of political power.”


In Texas and in Mexico’s Tamaulipas State, where Mr. Zapata lives, the farmers point upriver to the state of Chihuahua, where they  claim officials are hoarding billions of gallons.


“We don’t have any water,” Patricio Martínez, the combative governor of Chihuahua, says flatly. He has defied both Mr. Fox and many  American visitors, including Mr. White, by saying that his state’s waters are sovereign — treaty or no treaty. “The harsh truth is that  drought is a fact of life in northern Mexico and the southwestern United States,” he said.


President Fox says Mexico, which has less water per capita than Egypt, has spent decades squandering what it has, “without planning,  without sense.”


To help him pay his old debt, Mr. Fox has asked the United States to let him take on a new one. In order to build a water system that  does not waste half its flow through leakage and evaporation, Mr. Fox has asked Mr. Bush to loan Mexico about $420 million, or  something less than a penny of financing for every 10 gallons owed.


This idea has infuriated the Texans, who see the request as blackmail. Governor Rick Perry, who succeeded Mr. Bush, has urged the  president to not loan Mexico a dime until the debt is paid.


“We feel abandoned by a home-grown president who knew what was happening all along,” Mr. White, the Texas farmer, said.


Mr. Fox’s advisers fear that the United States will not agree to bargain with them on immigration and economic issues unless the debt  is paid. The water issue has thus become a major point of discord in relations between two nations that seemed in exceptional harmony  during Mr. Bush’s first months in office.


In Mexico’s Congress the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ran Mexico for seven decades until Mr. Fox’s election, is  skeptical of his promise to make good on the water debt.


“The water the U.S. is demanding doesn’t exist,” said Silvia Hernandez, head of the Senate committee on North American relations.  “The plan won’t work.”


But back in Camargo, Mr. Zapata wipes the sweat from his brow, surveys his stunted sorghum with a weary gaze, and says there is no  choice for Mexico.


“Look, this is an international treaty — we signed it,” he said. “But without our own water, every day, every year, we will keep going backward until we’re gone.” There is only one alternative, he said: “Pray to San Isidro,” the patron saint of farmers, to make it rain.


Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company


May 27, 2002  (New York Times)

Atlanta’s Growing Thirst Creates Water War



LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga., May 24 — It has all the elements of a classic regional water war, pitting developers against environmentalists and state against state. Yet this battle is gripping not the parched Southwest, but the normally verdant Southeast, in a sign of future clashes around the country over an increasingly limited supply of fresh water.


Atlanta and its swelling suburbs, still ballooning with growth, rely for nearly all their water on the Chattahoochee River, a relative trickle  of a waterway that is the smallest to supply so large an American city.


Until now, that dependence has not been a problem. Even in the last 10 years, as greater Atlanta’s population soared nearly 40 percent,  the withdrawals from the Chattahoochee have kept pace, with more than 400 million gallons now sucked from the river and a reservoir  every day, helping to keep countless suburban lawns green.


But for the first time, Atlanta is being forced to admit that the current pattern cannot be sustained. That theme is at the heart of a dispute  among Georgia, Alabama and Florida about dividing water rights for the next half-century, and it has left Atlanta to ponder what to do  when its share of the Chattahoochee runs out.


With a June 17 deadline approaching for the governors of the three states to reach a deal, the dispute pits the growing thirst of Atlanta  against the needs of downstream regions, including Apalachicola Bay, a pristine estuary on the Gulf of Mexico in Florida.


The decisions at hand may be the toughest on water that the Southeast has yet had to make, marking an end to an era in which  abundant, cheap and barely regulated water has been seen as a kind of natural right in a region blessed by 50 inches of rain a year.


“In the past, water barely even entered into our calculations,” said J. T. Williams, chairman of Killearn Inc., whose developments have  added thousands of golf-course and clubhouse-community houses to the Atlanta area in recent years, with thousands more under way.  But now, Mr. Williams said, “It’s getting a little nervous for people in the development industry.”


Georgia officials insist that they do not expect Atlanta to reach a real day of water reckoning until 2030, when they have projected that  demands on the Chattahoochee will reach a maximum sustainable limit. But a recent draft report by the Army Corps of Engineers  suggests that in some months, the Chattahoochee may already be being tapped near capacity, a warning particularly alarming to Atlanta  because its history and geology have left it with few good water alternatives.


“I think it’s safe to say that water is now going to be the driving force in all of our decisions, and we’re going to have to be a lot smarter  about it than we have been in the past,” said F. Wayne Hill, the top executive in Gwinnett County, one of the 16 counties in the sprawl  of a greater Atlanta that now numbers more than 4.1 million people.


In Atlanta as in much of the East, the droughts of recent years have thrust water scarcity into greater public consciousness, through  restrictions like the ones in place here, which allow outdoor watering only every other day. But public officials and experts here say that  the multistate talks, with their focus on a 50-year future, have made clear the need to put in place in places like Atlanta more permanent  but also more burdensome changes, in water pricing, regulation and conservation, along the lines familiar to the water-parched West.


“The idea that we’re having water wars in a region that gets so much rain is astonishing, but it is definitely the shape of things to come,”  said Aaron T. Wolf, an expert on water conflicts and a professor of geoscience at Oregon State University in Corvallis. “The whole  country is learning that we can’t just keep on doing what we’ve always been doing when it comes to fresh water.”


Unlike most American cities, Atlanta was founded, in 1837, not as a port but as a railway junction, far from any major river or lake. It  rests on the hard rock of Piedmont granite, too impermeable to allow for the underground aquifers that in many parts of the country are  the major source of fresh water.


In the last 10 years in particular, its growth has been dizzying, with the population of greater Atlanta climbing from 2.9 million in 1990  to 4.1 million in 2000, according to census figures. About 70 percent of the water supply is drawn from the Chattahoochee, including  the waters blocked at Lake Lanier by the Buford Dam, built north of Atlanta in the 1950’s by the Army Corps of Engineers, with the  balance from a neighboring reservoir and river system.


In 1990, that meant that greater Atlanta pulled an average of about 320 million gallons of drinking water a day from the Chattahoochee,  according to state and local officials. By 2000, with only slight declines in per capita water use, that figure had risen to 420 million  gallons, and Georgia officials project that it will keep rising, to 705 million gallons a day by 2030, a point that even they describe as the  maximum possible, given other demands on the river, including hydropower and the need to sustain ecosystems downstream,  particularly in the Apalachicola River in Florida, which carries the waters of the Chattahoochee 109 miles to the Gulf of Mexico.


But the question of exactly how to divide the rights to the river, in what is known as the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin, has  stymied the governors of Georgia, Florida and Alabama since they were entrusted with the task by Congress in 1998.


As the talks now stand, an insistence by Florida on measures designed to guarantee sufficient year-round flows into the oyster- and  shrimp-rich Apalachicola remains confronted by vehement opposition from Georgia to what it regards as thinly veiled proposals for the  micromanagement of water it has always regarded as its own.


“We need to be able to use our own water resources that were built and planned for this area,” said Pat Stevens, chief of environmental  planning for the Atlanta Regional Commission. “I just don’t see any alternative.”


“Left unconstrained they’ll suck it dry,” said David McLain, executive director of Apalachicola Bay and Riverkeeper, in Eastpoint, Fla.,  in a reference to the politicians and developers of greater Atlanta. “What we’ll be left with is a muddy ditch.”


The June 17 deadline is only the latest in a series that have so far come and gone with little more than an agreement by the three states  to extend the talks. If the negotiations break down, the dispute will almost certainly end up at the Supreme Court, which could wrest  any solutions out of the states’ control.


But while the governors of the three states say they would prefer to resolve the matter themselves, none is likely to sign on to a deal  unless he can portray it as the best for his residents. All three governors are up for re-election this year, intensifying a shared sense of  how much is at stake.


“Take the slogan `Gov. Fill-in-the-Blank is giving our water away’ and you have a kiss of political death,” said George William Sherk,  a water lawyer who teaches at George Washington University in Washington.


The fight over water allocation has links to other disputes in the river basin, including a longstanding debate about the dredging of the  Apalachicola, a multimillion-dollar a year task by the Army Corps of Engineers to make possible navigation by no more than a handful  of barges. Sand and silt from the dredging have clogged the swamps that line the river and that are home to large numbers of  endangered plants, reptiles and amphibians.


Despite strong opposition from some lawmakers, including Representative Bob Barr, Republican of Georgia, and Senator Bob  Graham, Democrat of Florida, Congress appropriated new money for the dredging last year.


The dredging maintains a nine-foot deep channel in the Apalachicola River from the Gulf of Mexico to the Jim Woodruff Dam at the  Georgia state line, allowing barge traffic to reach the Georgia port city of Bainbridge. Just 47 barges moved up the river from the Gulf  of Mexico in 1989, the most recent year for which figures are available.


Of the three states, only Georgia relies on the rivers in the basin for large supplies of fresh water; Florida, short of water elsewhere, has  plentiful supplies for its sparse population in the area where the Apalachicola flows into the sea. In general, Alabama has aligned with  Georgia, leaving Florida to make the case to give the needs of downstream ecosystems as much weight as those of upstream  populations.


In the talks, Florida has so far demanded that Georgia sign on both to agreements that would guarantee minimum flows of water at the  point where the Chattahoochee crosses the Florida line, and to limits that would affect how much river water Georgia could withdraw.  Georgia has said it could agree to one or the other, but not both, saying it will need flexibility in order to provide the water that Atlanta  needs.


But as a sign of a new era, state and local officials are now talking openly about the necessity for bigger changes in water use if  Atlanta’s rapid growth is to be sustained. These would include seeking out new water supplies, but would focus on price increases and  other regulations designed to sharply reduce municipal water consumption that averages about 160 gallons per person per day, far  higher than in places like Phoenix and Los Angeles.


“When it comes to water, most of the folks in Atlanta have been fairly spoiled over the years,” said Ted Larrabee, executive coordinator  for the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, established last year to oversee all of greater Atlanta. “There has been a  lack of programs that do anything more than give lip service to conservation, and that is what has to change.”


Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company


March 12, 2002  (New York Times)

21st-Century Plumbing for New York City’s Leaky Old Water Tunnel



NEWBURGH, N.Y. — All along the East Coast, drought has shriveled streams as never before. But tucked in the woods 70 miles north of New York City, a deep pool of clear water spills into a sparkling brook that runs downhill to the Hudson River.


No matter how dry the weather, gauges measure a flow of four million to six million gallons a day.


No one is thrilled, however.


The sinkhole and half a dozen other springs and wet spots nearby are fed by leaks 600 feet underground in one of the most important water tunnels in the world, the 85-mile Delaware Aqueduct.


This 57-year-old tunnel carries, on average, half of New York City’s daily supply of a billion-plus gallons of water from reservoirs along the Delaware River where it rises in the Catskill Mountains. It also supplies this town and many others along its route to the city.


At certain times of the year, the tunnel carries 90 percent of the water for the nine million people served by the sprawling 19-reservoir water system, which has long been considered an engineering marvel of the industrial era.


When the tunnel is at full capacity, about 36 million gallons a day escape through uncharted breaks in the concrete and steel lining, engineers for the city say. That might not seem much in a billion-gallon-a-day system, but the leak equals the total daily water usage of Rochester.


And with New York City and surrounding communities preparing to enact drought emergencies in coming weeks requiring strict water conservation, fixing the leak has taken on new urgency, even though city officials say that inspections and repairs could take several years.


“It’s particularly true in a drought, but you hate to see that kind of water lost at any time, given what went into building that aqueduct and the reservoirs,” said Diane Galusha, who chronicles the deaths of 79 workers during construction of the Delaware tunnel in her book “Liquid Assets: A History of New York City’s Water System” (Purple Mountain Press, 1999).


The leaks were first noted by city engineers and consultants in 1991. In 1995 and 1996, the leakage rate when the tunnel was running full bore was estimated at 25 million gallons to 34 million gallons a day, engineers reported.


After 10 years of analysis and preparations — a period environmental groups and some city elected officials say was far too long — preparations for the repair effort are under way.


The operation is is risky and elaborate, involving novel applications of technologies from deep-sea explorations and oil prospecting. There are roles for deep-sea divers, robots and pilots flying with heat-sensing cameras that can detect cold tunnel waters as they seep to the surface.


This fall, a pilotless submarine will ply 45 miles of the tunnel looking for cracks. If the submarine works, it may be used by other cities, including Chicago, to inspect aging aqueducts.


The effort to investigate the deeply buried leaks got under way in 1998, but gathered momentum in 2000, when officials agreed there was at least some risk of losing the tunnel entirely. The city began developing a contingency plan “in case of tunnel failure,” according to one city memo — on the theory that the leakage might be weakening overlying rock sufficiently to collapse the 13-foot- diameter tunnel.


This plan would include requiring upstate communities that tap 125 million gallons a day from the city system to shift to local sources; imposing sharp restrictions in the city; and temporarily using other supplies that are not as clean as the water from the distant Catskills.


But recent engineering studies show no signs that such a calamity looms, said John M. McCarthy, a senior engineer at Malcolm Pirnie Inc., the engineering company hired by the city to conduct the investigation and supervise repairs.


“There is no evidence in all the investigative work we’ve done that the tunnel is in any imminent danger,” Mr. McCarthy said.


The first stages of the project are costing more than $27 million, not including fixing the leaks.


The potential for problems was evident even in the years before World War II, as armies of “sand hogs,” the underground workers who specialize in tunnel digging, cut their way deep into the bedrock lying between New York’s forested mountains and its concrete canyons.


The Delaware branch of the three- pronged city water supply captures the water from the upper reaches of the Delaware River and stores it in four reservoirs west of the Hudson.


At the Rondout Reservoir, the water plunges 1,000 feet and enters the 45-mile stretch of the tunnel that cuts east beneath scrubby ridges, fast- spreading exurbs and hillside apple orchards before it crosses far below the Hudson.


On the east side of the river, the water rises through shafts and fills another reservoir before it flows south through more tunnels and basins to city taps.


The system is a hydrological triumph, allowing most of the city — even buildings up to 12 stories high — to be supplied by gravity alone.


But right from the start, geologists noted two spots where the landscape dipped along the initial 45-mile route, identifying weakened areas of faults and cracks deep below. One was in Wawarsing, a rural community east of the mountains, and the other on the northern edge of Newburgh, an old industrial town on the west bank of the Hudson.


The most worrisome spot, by far, was the one on the riverbank. Two faults intersect there precisely where the tunnel diggers drove under the river. In the understated argot of engineering, reports cited the area’s “unfavorable geology.”


As the diggers proceeded, they had to inject cementlike grout into the rock ahead of them, trying to glue the fractured spots together before moving ahead with the excavation.


To prevent leaks, engineers added heavy steel liners, nests of reinforcing steel bars and extra layers of concrete.


The Delaware water began to flow in 1945 and all was well. In 1958, the last time the aqueduct was drained, inspectors drove the length of the tunnel in a modified jeep and found small leaks, but nothing significant.


They did, however, notice some problems in the long stretch far beneath the Hudson. “The concrete lining in this area which is directly under the Hudson River has numerous cracks in addition to those that are contributing to the inward leakage,” the inspection report noted.


By the 1990’s, concerns were growing rapidly, but quietly. The city never publicly discussed the problem until the fall of 2000, when lawyers for Riverkeeper, a private environmental group, released documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.


In the file were reports by Victor Feigelman, a longtime engineer for the city and later a consultant, who noted starting in 1991 that significant leakage had developed.


The city ran tests introducing harmless dye into the tunnel and timing how long it took to surface in the Newburgh sinkhole. Consistently, it took the dye less than an hour to migrate from the tunnel up through 600 feet of rock to the pool.


Even as the extent of the leaks became clear, the city identified a new problem. A shaft east of the Hudson, which is used in the rare instances when the tunnel is drained, had a leak somewhere in the bronze valve separating it from the tunnel deep underground.


In December 2000, deep-sea divers began a repair operation that was as dangerous and hair-raising as a spacewalk. Far out of their usual element, they descended 70 stories into the 13-foot-wide shaft in a 12- foot-wide diving bell. Alternating teams spent nearly a week inspecting and finally repairing a half-inch hole where a metal plug had popped out of a fitting.


More analysis led to a plan to use a self-propelled craft to inspect all 45 miles of the tunnel where the leaks are suspected. Oceanographic engineers are building a 400-pound mini- submersible, which they plan this fall to lower 1,000 feet into the vertical shaft leading to the tunnel’s upstream end.


The torpedo-shaped device, 9 feet long and 16 inches across, will be programmed to stay dead center in the tunnel and will use five digital cameras to record every foot of the lining as it heads downstream. After traversing the 45 miles, it will be plucked out through another shaft by a tethered submersible robot.


It will also record subtle changes in sounds, in hopes that it may pick up the gushing, gurgling or trickling turbulence of escaping water, said Ben G. Allen, a senior engineer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass., which is building the $500,000 device.


While the submersible inspects the tunnel from the inside, the city is preparing to inspect the rock around it from the outside, drilling a series of holes with the same precision equipment being employed in the Arctic to look for oil.


The holes will be drilled to the depth of the tunnel, then turn horizontally in the spots where leaks are thought to occur, Mr. McCarthy said. “They will parallel the tunnel for approximately 1,500 feet,” he said, “gathering hydrogeological data on how the water is moving, the rock quality and fractures.”


Along with the area near the sinkhole, water engineers are particularly concerned about the tunnel section that lies directly under the Hudson, where the solid rock above thins to about 300 feet and is overlaid by 200 feet of gravel and crumbled rock in the bottom of the culvert-shaped riverbed — material left behind by the last ice age glacier.


In a 1999 report for the city, Mr. Feigelman, the engineering consultant who first identified the Delaware leak a decade ago, wrote, “The most severe scenario, of course, would be a significant leak under the river.”


It was statements like this that raised the concerns of Riverkeeper and other private groups.


Marc A. Yaggi, a lawyer for Riverkeeper whose job is to monitor the city water supply for problems, still decries the pace of the repair effort. “It’s been 12 years they’ve been aware of it, and they’ve done virtually nothing except find out how much it’s leaking,” he said. “They need to get started fixing it immediately. The downside is just too great to let this go on much longer without taking really aggressive measures.”


But city officials say they remain confident that the 8- to 14-foot-thick concrete walls and extra steel reinforcement in the tunnel’s weak spots will hold firm until a repair plan can be drawn up.


Joel A. Miele Sr., the commissioner of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, said it was important for New Yorkers to understand that the repairs were never intended as a short-term fix to help relieve current shortages. Given the extraordinary challenges posed by fixing something deep underground in a tube filled with high-pressure water, it pays to proceed cautiously, he said.


When a deep tunnel is emptied of water, Mr. McCarthy noted, the change in pressure can create more risks of collapse than are posed by even a leak as large as that in the Delaware tunnel. Even so, officials are considering slowly emptying the tunnel and sending in work crews.


Another option is building a specialized programmed submersible that could repair cracks autonomously without draining the tunnel, he said.


Yet another would be to drill down from the surface around the leaking spots, again using the precision equipment, and to inject grout from the outside, Mr. McCarthy said. But this approach raises risks of blowouts similar to those that sometimes cripple oil rigs.


A final possibility, he and city officials said, is that they will conclude that the risks of other repair strategies are too great and that the best choice may be to do nothing at all — except perhaps eventually build a new tunnel to replace the old one.


Mr. Miele, who leaves his position next month after six years, said he was confident that the city would come up with a repair and that the existing Delaware tunnel would last many more decades.


“As an engineer, it never cases to amaze me,” he said of the tunnel and the water supply. “It’s the best expression of man’s capability.”


But he did add that fixing the leaks could create new problems and said he had forewarned state environmental officials and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg about one, concerning the sinkhole in Newburgh.


“When we fix this leak, we’re going to shut down that stream,” Mr. Miele said. “Those wetlands are going to dry up and that’s probably against the law.”


Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company


February 24, 2002

Beyond a Drought, Water Worries Grow



With soil parched, reservoirs depleted and streams trickling at rates typical of a record summer heat wave, water managers for New York City and surrounding communities are scurrying to find new ways to increase supplies and cut demand.


It is not that they are worried about getting through the East Coast’s current dry spell, which technically began in 1998 and — like all droughts — will end eventually. In fact, many water officials and experts say the tough droughts in the 1960’s and 1980’s prompted conservation measures that have cut profligate water use.


The new effort is aimed at a point down the line — no one knows how far in the future — when spreading development reduces the soil’s storage capacity, and the growing population and economy boost demand so much that some places run dry.


For some communities, chronic water shortages could lead to a politician’s ultimate nightmare — an immovable cap on economic growth.


“It’s going to be a tough, dry season,” said Bradley M. Campbell, the acting commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. But more important than getting through this year, he said, is changing practices so the metropolitan region can handle future, potentially larger, climate shifts comfortably. “We need to change the way we do business in managing water resources,” he said.


Government hydrologists say a prolonged lack of precipitation and warm temperatures this winter are setting the metropolitan region up for a summer drought that could rival what is called the “drought of record,” which drained reservoirs and wells from 1963 to 1965. New York City and most New Jersey counties have been under a drought warning since late January.


The Delaware River Basin Commission, which controls Delaware River water used by 20 million people, issued a drought emergency in December that reduces allotments for New York City and the four states sharing the supply.


In New Jersey, some private water suppliers have begun offering steep discounts to large users when water is plentiful, to encourage those that have storage capacity to fill up when water is abundant and cut water use.


But much more must be done, said Mr. Campbell, whose agency is trying to get developers to change their approach to some projects — to create parking lots with permeable material instead of asphalt, for example, allowing rain to percolate into the soil.


The state also needs to clean up its galaxy of toxic waste sites, which continue to taint groundwater and keep that resource off limits for drinking, he said.


Eventually, fundamental shifts in development patterns will probably be necessary, water policy experts in the region say.


“What comes first, the water supply or the housing?” said Gary N. Paulachok, the deputy Delaware River master, who is charged with making sure the users of of the river’s water are honoring binding agreements to share it.


“In a lot of cases,” he said, “we see housing developments go in and then the search is on for a water supply.”


To stave off trouble, New York City is taking a fresh look at a range of ideas even as its engineers inspect equipment it last used in the drought emergency of 1989 to pump and treat water from the Hudson River 60 miles north of the city — the source of last resort.


It is considering buying small private water supplies south of its Delaware River reservoirs in the Catskills, which could help it meet its obligations under an interstate water compact. The city has to keep some water flowing in dry times to other users of the Delaware River in New Jersey and elsewhere downstream.


By gaining control of other water sources feeding into the Delaware, the city could satisfy its water-sharing requirement without taking as much from reservoirs holding the city’s supply.


City officials have also started asking big commercial users of water to consider switching, where possible, to recycled wastewater for nondrinking purposes instead of using high-quality drinking water.


“Ninety percent of the water we use does not go to human needs,” said Charles G. Sturcken, chief of staff of New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection. The city is interested in pursuing anything that cuts the use of drinking water for other purposes, he said.


The goal, city officials said, would be to install systems for reusing water for such purposes, the way car washes and laundries capture, filter and reuse water that would otherwise go down the drain. One large consumer cited by Mr. Sturcken is the airports. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey guzzles tens of thousand of gallons of water a day to wash planes at the regional airports it operates.


To keep jobs and businesses coming to Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island without straining drinking water supplies, Mr. Sturcken said, the city is considering drawing undrinkable groundwater from wells in Brooklyn and Queens to supply, at a discount rate, to businesses needing water for manufacturing.


And in a layer of porous rock deep beneath the boroughs, the city is also considering creating a reservoir, a giant underground bubble of water stored in the porous earth. In times of surplus, water would be pumped into this layer of porous rock, then pumped out when supplies are low, city officials said.


New Jersey already has nine such reservoirs, called aquifer storage and recovery systems, and five more are planned or are being built, said R. David G. Pyne, a water engineer in Gainesville, Fla., who keeps track of water storage projects around the world and maintains a Web site on the technology,


Subterranean banking of water is most established in dry regions. Las Vegas has the largest aquifer storage system in the United States, pumping up to 100 million gallons a day into the ground. New York City’s would equal that, if tests bear out its merits, Mr. Sturcken said.


Another result of the region’s steadily lengthening drought, which water experts say almost guarantees strict limits on use this summer in the New York metropolitan area, is intensifying tugs of war over shared supplies.


Most notable is the growing grumbling over how best to share the Delaware River, which provides about half of New York City’s water through aqueducts leading from the Catskills and also serves 12 million people downstream, some as far as Philadelphia and parts of Delaware.


City environmental officials say they have been pressing the Delaware River Basin Commission to fulfill commitments to build new reservoirs downstream. Under the existing sharing scheme among New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware, established after two battles before the United States Supreme Court, the city is obliged to dump water from its reservoirs to sustain a certain flow in the Delaware.


Robert Tudor, the deputy executive director of the river basin commission, said that every option for averting shortages was being considered by communities sharing the water. In Pennsylvania, experts are assessing using old gravel pits and mines to bank excess water, he said.


The Pennsylvania Legislature is also considering a bill that would create the first statewide system for conserving water and tracking all water use. The bill cites projections that parts of the state will run out of water in a few decades.


Some private water experts say New York City would benefit greatly from adjusting prices for water to encourage conservation in dry times — the same way transportation officials are now increasing tolls during periods of peak traffic to encourage people to shift driving patterns.


James T. B. Tripp, a member of the New York City Water Board and general counsel for Environmental Defense, a private conservation group, said that raising rates a certain amount for each level of a drought warning or emergency would encourage landlords, homeowners and businesses to conserve.


“People respond to prices,” he said. “It’s a great way to deliver a message.”


Even as water disputes intensify and conservation projects move ahead, no one is certain whether the future will be drier or wetter.


Ever since the city, in the 1830’s, put 4,000 laborers to work building distant dams and aquifers for its upstate supply, most decisions and investments made by the people who manage the water system and others nearby have been aimed at preventing problems a generation or more ahead.


But now there are many indications that the climatic future will not resemble the past, that a global warming trend and other regional shifts measured in recent years hint of bigger, unpredictable, changes to come.


Most climate experts expect global warming to have big impacts on water supplies around the world, altering storm and drought patterns, spawning more sudden downpours, and shrinking mountain snowpacks that provide long-term water storage for places like California and Afghanistan.


But when the focus closes in on specific regions, the computer models render only a blurry vision. A recent study of the impact of climate change on water supplies in and around New York City by scientists at Columbia University said there would doubtless be changes.


For example, the study said, warmer temperatures will result in more water loss through evaporation and will likely require the city to release more water into upstate streams in the summer to sustain native trout populations.


But in a warmer world, would there generally be more or less water in the reservoirs? The scientists answered with a blunt maybe. “Current global climate change models cannot forecast rainfall patterns with sufficient accuracy to indicate what will happen to precipitation in the New York City system watersheds,” the report said.


And that leaves the water managers for the city, New Jersey and communities small and large along the East Coast expressing growing concern as they log onto the Internet every day to check government maps of stream and river currents, where colored dots denote the strength of flows.


For months, the region — in fact the entire East Coast — has been peppered with red dots, each indicating a new record low.


The managers know chances are that spring rains will return, or a hurricane will sweep up the coast, or El Niño’s slow awakening in the Pacific this year will nudge the jet stream and shake off the dry pattern.


But even so, they say, the array of glowing red dots adds to the urgency of their search for ways to store, conserve or secure more water, because there is the chance that nature will not cooperate.


“Is it good water management policy to depend on tropical storms to get us out of trouble?” said Mr. Paulachok, the Delaware River water official. Last year, such a storm never came, setting up the situation that is intensifying now.


In the meantime, all around the region, the ground is growing drier and streams are continuing to shrivel, according to federal officials.


“In southeastern Pennsylvania, well drillers are working 24-7 to either drill new wells or deepen existing ones,” Mr. Paulachok said. “It could be a very, very difficult summer.”


Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company


February 5, 2002 (New York Times)

Study Discounts Halting Irrigation to Protect Fish



Government efforts to save rare fish in the Klamath River basin last year by stopping irrigation, which enraged farmers along the Oregon- California border, are not supported by science, according to a National Academy of Sciences study requested by the Bush administration.


The study was embraced yesterday by the basin’s farmers, who said they had lost more than $200 million after the Interior Department, citing the Endangered Species Act, stopped diverting water from Upper Klamath Lake to protect its two species of rare suckerfish and coho salmon in the river downstream.


The study was also welcomed by Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton, who last year was in the middle of a water war when agencies under her command, bound by the Endangered Species Act, had to deny water to rural property owners, an important constituency of President Bush’s.


Several times last year, farmers illegally opened canal gates trying to rescue shriveled crops. When Ms. Norton ordered limited releases of water in July, many farmers said it was too little too late.


“I am concerned by the weaknesses revealed by the National Academy of Sciences study,” Ms. Norton said yesterday.


She added that the study “will affect our decision-making process for this year and future years.”


Ms. Norton said she had asked top wildlife and water management staff members to report to her on the findings within 10 days.


The report, which the academy planned to release on Wednesday, was described in yesterday’s Washington Post.


The report, by an independent panel convened by the academy’s National Research Council, found no research showing that higher water levels in the lake benefited suckerfish or that reduced flows of Klamath water harmed coho salmon.


Environmental campaigners said they had not expected the critical tone of the report.


“There’s a lot of science justifying those lake levels, and we were surprised to see the report come out so negative,” said Reed Benson, executive director of Water Watch of Oregon, a Portland group that has tried to maintain natural flows in rivers and protect wildlife.


Mr. Benson noted, however, that the criticism was restricted to the Interior Department’s decisions about the lake levels. Generally, he said, “it also recognizes that endangered species face a lot of problems in the Klamath basin, especially warm polluted water. It’s an ecosystem that’s in bad shape, and there is no silver bullet for saving fish.”


The new analysis contradicts conclusions reached last spring by federal biologists trying to estimate the ecological threats posed by a drought that settled over the watershed.


At the time, biologists for the Interior Department and the marine fisheries branch of the Commerce Department separately concluded that extra water had to be held in Upper Klamath Lake to dilute pollution that might otherwise kill suckerfish and to maintain flow in the Klamath River to protect coho salmon.


The review, which began in November, found no relationship between big die-offs of suckerfish and years when the Upper Klamath had low water levels.


It also found that shunting more lake water into the Klamath might harm coho salmon more than it helped them, by raising the temperature of cold spots near springs where the salmon retreat in hot weather.


The authors emphasized that this was a preliminary report and that a final, much lengthier analysis would be published in March 2003.


Yesterday, federal biologists said they had based their decision last year on other scientific reviews, including ones by Oregon State University and the University of California system.


“Under the Endangered Species Act, we have to make a decision based on the best available science,” said a biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “That’s a different standard than saying we have to prove something is absolutely right or wrong.”


Many farmers said they hoped the independent study would prevent the shutting off of all water to irrigation canals in the future.


“We feel very vindicated that what we’ve been saying the whole time, that there’s enough water to go around, was reinforced by the National Academy of Sciences,” said Mike Byrne, a cattle rancher and hay and grain farmer in Tulelake, Calif.


“Last year, it was complete chaos,” Mr. Byrne said.


Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company


July 25, 2001

U.S. to Resume Farms’ Access to Irrigation



WASHINGTON, July 24 — The interior secretary, Gale A. Norton, said today that she had determined that the federal government could legally allow a small amount of the irrigation water to flow to farmers along the Oregon-California border rather than continuing a cutoff that began in April.


About one-seventh of the year’s usual flow is to resume as early as Wednesday, Ms. Norton said in announcing her decision in Portland, Ore. While the water will not be sufficient to rescue this year’s parched crops, it may be enough to recharge dry wells and to help save topsoil that might otherwise blow away in the winter winds.


The water, from the Upper Klamath Lake, was cut off by the Bureau of Reclamation under the Endangered Species Act, to protect the endangered suckerfish and coho salmon in a year of record drought. Until now, the Bush administration had said the cutoff could not be altered, because the act requires water allocations give priority to preventing the extinction of plants and animals.


But Ms. Norton said today that recent rainfall in the area as well as conservation measures upstream had raised the lake’s level above what had been expected, and would allow a limited flow of water for the rest of the summer. Her action was criticized by some conservation groups as hasty, since it might deplete the lake levels too much to provide adequate water for the fish.


The water cutoff had sparked angry protests in the region, where some 1,200 farmers expected their crops to be all but lost. Several times in recent weeks, farmers illegally opened the headgates at the lake. The local sheriff and other authorities had declined to arrest them, prompting federal law enforcement authorities to dispatch a contingent of federal marshals.


Some lawmakers and the local irrigation district in Oregon had urged Ms. Norton to convene a Cabinet- level committee that could override the Endangered Species Act. Ms. Norton declined the request.


A statement today by the Klamath Water Users Association, representing businesses and farmers in the area, said that the shift “comes too late and offers too little to help the communities that already have been devastated by the government’s cutoff of water to the Klamath Basin.” It said a lasting solution had to “address the underlying inequities in the Endangered Species Act.”


Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company


April 16, 2001  (New York Times)

For Texas Now, Water and Not Oil Is Liquid Gold



MIAMI, Tex. — The dirt road winds through the gray hills of T. Boone Pickens’s sprawling Mesa Vista Ranch when an unlikely swath of green grass appears like an emerald in a sandbox. It is a lushly irrigated two-hole golf course, a playpen for a wealthy man, and a reminder that beneath this bleak, isolated terrain lies one of the prime untapped reserves of water in Texas.


And Mr. Pickens, the former oilman and corporate raider whose takeover bids once struck terror in boardrooms, has more in mind for the Mesa Vista than golf. At a time when nearly every major city in Texas is desperate for more water to meet runaway population growth, Mr. Pickens is proposing to pump tens of billions of gallons — to the highest bidder.


“Water is the lifeblood of West Texas,” said Mr. Pickens, 72, who is courting Fort Worth, Dallas, San Antonio and El Paso as potential customers and estimates that a deal could reap $1 billion. “They’ve got to get it somewhere.”


For decades the gold beneath the ground in Texas was oil. But if oil built modern Texas, water is now needed to sustain it.


Water has become so valuable that a complicated scramble is under way for the rights to underground aquifers, reminiscent of the days when “land men,” among them a young George W. Bush, solicited rural landowners to drill for oil. There are even “water ranches” popping up around the state.


The unanswered question is whether all this activity will skew who gets water and who does not in the future, or influence how much it will cost. In many parts of the country, water is considered a life-sustaining public resource. So there are already public policy concerns about whether pumping water for profit could threaten supply in some areas. Rural officials fear that large cities could simply outbid them in a profit-driven market. And Texas law offers few restrictions; groundwater is considered private property, and any landowner can pump the water out even if it leaves neighbors high and dry.


“You’re going to devastate a large part of the state of Texas,” said Tom Beard, a rancher who said he feared that arid West Texas could be pumped dry by water ranches owned by distant cities. “I’m not sure we can afford to treat water like cotton or cattle. And certainly not like oil. The approach to oil was to pump it up, use it up and do something else. We can’t do that with water.”


Throughout the country, drought and population growth have placed a premium on water. Such demand is amplified in Texas after four droughts in five years. The state’s population is 20.8 million, second only to California’s, and demographers predict that it will double in 50 years. Already, El Paso must find new sources of water or it could run out in 20 years. The Rio Grande, a primary water source for counties along the Mexican border, is so dry that this month it failed for the first time in 50 years to reach the Gulf of Mexico, stopping 50 feet short.


Until now, Texas has largely avoided the contentious political fights over water familiar to Western states like Arizona. But the Texas Legislature is considering a sweeping piece of legislation known as Senate Bill 2 that could determine how water is regulated and what is done to meet demand in the state for the next half-century. Regional water planning groups have proposed $17 billion in public works projects, conservation efforts and irrigation improvements. Lawmakers say it could cost at least $80 billion to upgrade the state’s aging municipal water systems.


The political debate is complicated. Environmentalists want more conservation and tougher regulation, as opposed to new dams and aggressive pumping of groundwater. There are the competing demands of agriculture and urban areas. There are also differing needs and climates in the state’s various regions, some of which depend on reservoirs and other surface sources while others depend on underground aquifers. The divide is starkly rural versus urban, particularly over who should have priority in times of drought when a water source is shared.


A major sticking point in planning is the difficulty in passing taxes to pay for any major water projects. Legislators have already stripped Senate Bill 2 of a tax increase on water and sewer bills that would have raised several hundred million dollars a year. This lack of political will is one reason some lawmakers say water marketing — essentially allowing private companies to sell and move water like electricity — is the best solution.


“We can’t pay for all of it — the state,” said State Senator J. E. Brown, the influential Republican who is sponsoring the water legislation and who favors encouraging private efforts. “Either you’ve got to let the price of water go up, or we’re going to have to collect fees.”


State Senator David E. Bernsen, a Democrat who represents Beaumont, agreed that a fund-raising mechanism was needed for future water projects. But he warned of the potential consequences of privatization in a state where nearly 55 percent of the population depends on groundwater for drinking.


“It’s kind of like the golden rule: those with the gold make the rules,” Mr. Bernsen said. “If individuals like T. Boone Pickens are going to control groundwater, and water is already more valuable than oil, then they will set the economic policy for where Texas is going to grow. And that is a dangerous situation.”


Here in Miami (pronounced my- AM-uh), which is tucked in a remote stretch of the Texas Panhandle, the equivalent of a water rush has been under way for more than year, though no major pumping has begun. Roberts County, which includes Miami, has fewer than 1,000 people and is hardly affluent. An acre of land costs only $250 because the rugged terrain makes farming difficult at best. But it does sit atop a mostly untouched section of the immense Ogallala Aquifer, which stretches as far north as South Dakota.


On a recent Saturday afternoon, about 60 ranchers in dusty jeans gathered inside the Roberts County Courthouse as Mr. Pickens explained the latest developments in his deal. One rancher had already signed a contract to sell water to Amarillo. Another group was looking for a customer to lease water rights on 190,000 acres. The regional Canadian River Municipal Water Authority, which provides water for much of the Panhandle, will next month become the first to actually start pumping in Roberts County.


The flurry of activity can be traced to both profit and fear. While there is water farming in most Western states, the level of regulation is relatively tight. In Texas, all surface water is considered public, while groundwater is private. Under the “rule of capture” in Texas law, a landowner can pump without regard for his neighbors. This can create a race to pump water before the aquifer goes dry, particularly with so much demand for it.


“All of us in the back of our minds are asking, `Is this the right thing to do?’ ” said Salem Abraham, the landowner who made the deal to sell water to Amarillo, albeit not for 25 years. “But you know you’ve got to do it or you’ll get zero.”


The safeguards to protect groundwater are local conservation districts, though their ability to restrict the pumping and export of water is limited. For example, Mr. Pickens’s plan calls for building a pipeline and pumping enough water for a million people a year. Panhandle Ground Water Conservation District No. 3, which oversees Roberts County, initially tried to cut that volume in half. But Mr. Pickens prevented reduction by arguing that his proposed pumping level was the same as that already granted to the Canadian River authority, and that by law he should be treated equally.


C. E. Williams, manager of the conservation district, said the district’s current policy allowed a landowner to pump the equivalent of 326,000 gallons annually for every acre. The Canadian River project controls 43,000 acres. Mr. Pickens controls 150,000 acres and is looking for 50,000 more, meaning that he could conceivably pump more than 60 billion gallons of water a year.


“We haven’t ever seen any huge projects like this,” Mr. Williams said, adding that the district could suspend pumping of all projects if the aquifer shows signs of undue depletion. “So it’s kind of a fear of the unknown. If we make a mistake on this one, we affect generations to come for a long time. That’s what makes me lay awake at night.”


Mr. Pickens said his project would not endanger the aquifer. He noted that his proposal represented only a fraction of the amount of water already pumped by farmers in the Panhandle (more than 80 percent of the groundwater pumped in Texas is for agriculture). He also called his decision to sell a protective measure to ensure that the Canadian River authority’s deal did not pump the water from beneath his land.


“When you hear people say Boone Pickens is going to turn Roberts County into a Dust Bowl,” he told the ranchers, “well, that’s wrong. We’re never going to be without water.”


That is a matter of debate. Mr. Pickens’s projections, which jibe with estimates by the local water district, show that his project would reduce the water in Roberts and three surrounding counties by 50 percent over the next 100 years. But state statistics show that the section of the Ogallala beneath the entire Panhandle is very stressed. There is little rainfall, and at the current consumption rate the Ogallala could be depleted in Texas in 70 years.


These sorts of regional water wars are percolating across Texas. El Paso has angered rural ranchers by buying or leasing several water ranches for possible future pumping. A private company, Metropolitan Water, is actively leasing water rights across central Texas. There are scores of such deals being cut or discussed. In response, at least 40 localities are asking the Legislature to create new groundwater districts.


“People are going after groundwater because it’s a lot quicker and cheaper than having to develop a reservoir project, which can take 30 years,” said Paul Sugg, a government liaison with the Texas Association of Counties, which represents all 254 Texas counties.


Mr. Sugg said some farmers in West Texas were talking about forming co-ops to sell water rights and, as a result, stop farming.


“What happens to land values, to local and regional economies that are often based on agriculture?” Mr. Sugg asked. “What happens to the tractor dealer and the local car dealer when a farmer says, `Heck, I can make more money selling my water and stopping farming’?”


Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company


April 13, 2001   (New York Times)

Florida, Low on Drinking Water, Asks E.P.A. to Waive Safety Rule



MIAMI, April 12 — In a bid to head off drinking-water shortages, Florida is nearing approval of a plan that would allow billions of gallons of untreated, partly contaminated water to be injected deep into the ground in what would serve as subterranean water banks.


Aides to Gov. Jeb Bush say that the approach, which would involve capturing rain water before it flows to the sea, would save the state hundreds of millions of dollars in treatment costs, and that extensive precautions would be taken to avoid any danger to human health.


With the aquifers that are Florida’s main source of fresh water already at dangerously low levels, the aides say the severity of the problem demands fresh solutions.


State officials say that bacteria in the tainted water could not survive underground or at least that the contamination would not spread through ground water.


Opponents say that studies are not conclusive and that the plan, which goes far beyond anything tried in the United States poses far too great a danger, particularly for private wells.


To proceed with the plan, state officials have asked the Environmental Protection Agency for a waiver of the federal rules that, under the Safe Drinking Water Act, require that any water pumped into the ground be treated first to meet drinking-water standards. The governor included such an appeal in a January letter to his brother President Bush.


The agency has not said whether it will approve the request.


In his letter, Governor Bush noted that Florida’s plan would require that the stored water be treated before it was made available for humans and he asked that the agency demonstrate “a willingness to abandon conventional processes as long as the environmental results are achieved.”


“E.P.A’s insistence that naturally occurring surface water should be treated to `drinking water standards’ prior to being placed underground,” the letter continued, “only to be retreated again to the same standard when pumped out of the ground for use, is nonsensical.”


Among the issues in dispute are whether the untreated water might contaminate private wells, where drinking water is typically not treated, and whether the high-pressure injection process might disturb the underground geology and affect the purity of the existing aquifers.


“This is something that really has not been studied yet with respect to the injection of untreated surface water,” said John Vecchioli, who recently retired as the district director in Florida of the United States Geological Survey. “I think the state could be opening the door to a lot of problems.”


To a limited extent, other states, like Arizona and Utah, have begun to use the underground water-banking procedure, which is known as aquifer storage and recovery. But they have followed the federal guidelines and pumped only treated water into the ground.


With hundreds of wells planned for South Florida and, potentially, in other parts of the state, Florida’s effort would be a departure in scope and substance, as the State Senate made clear on Thursday in approving a measure that would specifically authorize injection of untreated water.


The House is expected to follow suit, with Governor Bush prepared to sign the measure into law.


The plan, designed to capture as much as 1.7 billion gallons of water a day that would otherwise flow into the ocean in South Florida alone, would be the latest of several unusual approaches by Florida to the problem of adequate fresh water. A plan nearing final approval by state regulators calls for construction in the Tampa Bay area of a seawater-desalination plant that would be the second-largest such plant in the world.


“Clearly, we’re at the point where demand is creeping up and supply is not, and that’s why we’re beginning now to look at plans that will make sure that we look at plentiful supplies 20 years from now,” David Struhs, who heads Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, said in a telephone interview today.


The state is in the midst of a drought that is the worst in 50 years. With its population projected to grow to 20 million from 15 million over the next 20 years, forecasts say that without new sources of supply Florida by 2020 would face a water deficit of as much as 30 percent.


In large part, the decision to turn to aquifer storage and recovery is a product of the $7.8 billion state-federal plan to restore the Everglades, the vast natural ecosystem that is greatly in need of new supplies of fresh water. The plan calls for construction of 333 wells that would be used to store rain runoff, with the stored water to be pumped up during the dry season to flow across the Everglades.


Water users in South Florida would also benefit from that plan, because the new flows would help to recharge natural aquifers, adding as much as much as 20 percent to available supplies of drinking water.


Still, in a recent report, the National Academy of Sciences warned that many questions remained about the potential effects of water-banking, whether or not the water injected into the ground was treated first. And across the state, environmentalists and scientists have raised concerns that the injection of untreated water in particular could foul existing underground supplies.


“This is a resource that we shouldn’t mess up,” said Dr. Harold R. Wanless, chairman of the department of geological sciences at the University of Miami, who called the state’s plan “idiocy.”


Among the substances that would be introduced into ground water under the Florida plan is fecal coliform bacteria, which is commonly found in agricultural water runoff but could pose health hazards if ingested.


Some studies cited by the state have suggested that the bacteria would die underground, and the state’s plan calls for monitoring to ensure that.


The plan also calls for tests to detect toxic substances, which would not be permitted in any water to be injected underground.


It also envisions that the injected water would be kept separate from the Floridian and Biscayne aquifers, the state’s main sources of water, because fresh water tends not to mingle with the saltier ground water in the aquifers.


If drinking water supplies are fouled, existing treatment would purify it, state officials say.


And private wells would be monitored to guard against contamination.


Critics, including John H. Hankison Jr., who served under President Bill Clinton as the E.P.A.’s administrator for Region 4, which includes Florida, have expressed skepticism about claims that the bacteria would die underground. They have also suggested that the high-pressure injection process might disrupt the subterranean geology in a way that could cause unwanted mixing between fresh-water supplies in some aquifers and the brackish water that has begun to intrude into other aquifers near the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic coasts.


A safer, more conventional means of storing untreated water would be above the ground, in reservoirs or other surface impoundments. But Florida has shied from that approach because the state’s generally hot weather would cause much of the water to be lost to evaporation.


Under the current Everglades plan, about $1.7 billion of the total $7.8 billion cost is set aside for construction and maintenance of the underground water banks, and of that, about $700 million is set aside for water treatment. State officials say the latter cost, which would be split equally between the state and federal governments, could be reduced by $500 million if the pre-storage treatment is not carried out.


Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company


December 26, 2000

Private Sector May Sell Water to Southern California Agency



CADIZ, Calif. — In an agreement that would introduce a new level of market influence over the management of water in Southern California, the government agency that supplies roughly 17 million people in the Los Angeles area plans to buy large volumes of privately owned water for the first time.


The decision, which effectively relaxes the tight government controls that have always prevailed over this scarce and basic resource, comes after a shift in federal policy and projected shortages of water in the years ahead.


After years of planning and disputes, the Metropolitan Water District is within weeks of concluding its first contract to buy large volumes from one of the state’s largest farming companies, Cadiz Inc.


Under the terms of the nearly concluded contract, officials on both sides say, Cadiz Inc. (pronounced KAY-deez) will provide the agency each year with as much as 47 billion gallons (or in the industry measure, 145,000 acre-feet of water).


There have been many issues to overcome in this unusual deal — already some environmentalists are threatening litigation — but none are greater than the psychological hurdle of whether the private sector should be allowed to play such a large role in the management of this critical commodity.


About all the experts agree on is that the impact will be large, and that in time there are likely to be more private players and less government control.


“No question, this is introducing a whole new era,” said Norris Hundley, a professor emeritus of history at the University of California at Los Angeles and author of “The Great Thirst: Californians and Water, 1770’s-1990’s.” “The marketing of water is really new and will have a big impact. We’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg of what’s possible.”


The proposed deal comes at a time when Californians are already questioning the role of market forces in the delivery of basic resources. An unprecedented spike in power and natural gas prices, plus critical power shortages, have led many to wonder if the state’s experiment in energy deregulation was such a wise move.


But even as some state officials call for more government controls on energy, Southern California’s water planners feel they have no choice but to head down the road to a freer market to overcome what they describe as a sort of slow-motion supply crisis that will play out over the next two decades.


Federal government and court decisions have reduced how much water California will be able to take from the Colorado River. The Met, as the government agency is known, has changed only reluctantly, and had to take on a new general manager to carry out the new ideas, but it has now embraced the market-oriented approach.


“For years, the Met assumed the world would be a certain way,” said Ronald Gastelum, the new manager. “There was a certain arrogance. After the first court decisions, people were saying, `Well, at least we have the Colorado River surpluses.’ Then those got taken away. What we’re now saying is: `O.K., that’s reality. Let’s make the best business deal.’ ”


Cadiz is offering that deal, and it has almost no competition because it is the only known source of such large volumes so close to the region. That fact heartens the British entrepreneur who runs the company, Keith Brackpool.


“The one thing I don’t have to worry about when I wake up in the morning is that someone else has just solved California’s water problem,” Mr. Brackpool said. “If you do the math, the price of our water just soars.”


The water would be pumped from an aquifer deep under the Mojave Desert at this sun-blasted old rail stop about 200 miles east of Los Angeles, where Cadiz operates a farm of scientifically managed, laser-straight rows of bushy lemon and orange trees and grapevines.


The math is particularly cheering for Cadiz, which has been losing substantial amounts of money every year. It lost $8.6 million on $115 million in revenues in 1999, and is expected to be in the red again this year. The deal with the Met could make a gold mine of this site.


Achieving that will require tough negotiations and political savvy, something Cadiz has worked hard at. Mr. Brackpool was a large contributor to Gov. Gray Davis’s election campaign, and has been appointed by the governor to serve on several advisory boards related to natural resources and growth. In addition, the company named to its board last year Tony Coelho, formerly a powerful Democratic congressman and a former chairman of Vice President Al Gore’s presidential campaign.


“I don’t think anybody knows the value of that water, that’s how valuable it is,” said Mr. Coelho, whose district was the agricultural Central Valley of California. “Let me just be blunt,” he added. “Careers are made and lost in water politics, and that will be true here.”


Los Angeles, which lies in an arid coastal region, has always had growth ambitions far exceeding its meager indigenous water supply. The city pipes its water in from the Owens Valley in Northern California. The rest of Los Angeles County and the surrounding counties rely on the Met, which transports federal allocations of Colorado River water through an aqueduct that cuts across the desert 35 miles south of here.


The law now grants California 4.4 million acre-feet of water a year, but it has been taking about 5.3 million acre-feet, much of that at the expense of Arizona and Nevada.


That will not be possible for too many more years. As a result of the court decisions and a directive from the Interior Department, California and the Met will have to cut back to the official allotment before 2020.


Mr. Gastelum, the district’s new manager, took over last year with a mandate to ease the transfer of water, and to push much harder on plans to save it — though conservation and recycling have already reduced needs by some 700,000 acre- feet a year over the last decade.


The Met’s arrangement with Cadiz has two components. Under the first, surplus water would be diverted from the Met aqueduct in wet years and transferred through a pipeline to the Cadiz property for storage. The water would be sprinkled into shallow spreading ponds, where it would seep slowly underground.


Even environmentalists embrace this part of the plan, because water storage below ground in the sandy, porous soil here is considered less damaging to the surroundings than reservoirs. And in dry years, the stored water would be pumped back up. The Met would pay Cadiz about $90 for each acre-foot of water stored and then returned.


Under the second, more hotly disputed part of the plan, Cadiz would sell as needed to the Met up to 145,000 acre-feet a year of water pumped up from an existing aquifer deep under the desert here. The fee would initially be about $230 an acre-foot and would rise over the years.


Once the final deal has been negotiated and the Met and Cadiz boards have approved it, the two will face perhaps the most critical hurdle. An environmental impact statement would have to be approved by the federal Bureau of Land Management. Even if it is approved, environmental groups have vowed to fight in court. Environmentalists contend that the existing underground water would be pumped out faster than it could be replenished. If that happens, they argue, springs in the region may dry up, killing wildlife like bighorn sheep and coyotes.


They also fear that the briny water just below two huge dry lake beds in the area might sink, loosening the surface dust. Winds could whip that up, creating major pollution problems, which is precisely what has happened in the Owens Valley.


“The problems this is going to create are going to be very expensive to fix, more expensive than any benefits,” said Elden Hughes, a regional director of the Sierra Club.


The Met and Cadiz have proposed a system of monitoring wells to ensure that the water table does not drop sharply, but critics warn that the demands from the cities would overwhelm prudent management.


Mr. Gastelum of the Met, however, argues that the agency has to move forward. “Unfortunately,” he said, “we don’t have the luxury of lining up a bunch of projects and being able to just choose which one we want. There’s just one source of new water here. Cadiz is not a panacea. It’s a piece of the puzzle.”


Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company


June 15, 2000

As Atlanta Grows, Water Evaporates in Wilting Drought



ATLANTA, June 11 — Just after dawn they emerge onto their pillowy meadows of fescue and bluegrass, some with hoses and some with mighty irrigation systems, each squeezing out every last legal drop of water before the 10 a.m. cutoff arrives with its water police, tattling neighbors and dark civic guilt.


On every block in the region the desperation of these homeowners is almost palpable, as they will their lawns to soak it up and beat the drought that is parching Georgia and most of the Gulf Coast. But the most

thoughtful of them admit that it is hopeless and that Atlanta, with its famous forested canopy and brilliant

shrubs, has finally gardened itself into a corner.


“Hey, I admit it, I’m addicted to water,” said Caroline Gordon, a suburban Alpharetta resident who was

pushing a shopping cart laden with peonies and impatiens at a branch of Pike’s, a large local nursery chain. “Chances are, every one of these plants is going to die once they cut the water off. But I just don’t want to live in a big brown field. That’s not what I moved here for.”


There have been droughts before in Georgia, mostly affecting the peanut and cotton farmers in the southern part of the state. Those farmers are struggling dreadfully again this summer.  But something different is happening this year: a combination of uncontrollable forces that has state officials darkly warning about major changes on the horizon in lifestyle and        economy.   For one thing, the drought is worse this year than in most past summers; some parts of Georgia have received less rain in the last 25 months than at any time in recorded weather

history. Dr. David E. Stooksbury, the state climatologist, says the regional climate is changing               in a profound way, moving from many years of stability with predictable rainfall to a far more               variable climate that will veer between years of plenty and years of scarcity.  The Gulf Coast of Florida is experiencing the driest spring in a century, and the federal government’s National Drought Monitor lists the crescent from Tampa to New Orleans as experiencing extreme drought. There has been a similar lack of rain in West Texas and northwest Missouri, and drought conditions exist in many other parts of the West and Midwest as well.  But the situation in Atlanta is an example of what can happen when growth and a shortage of rainfall collide. At the same time the natural spigot has been closed here, the Atlanta region has continued to grow without respite, adding nearly 100,000 people a year who fully intend to take showers, drink iced tea and swim. Most of the growth is in suburban areas, where the lawns are bigger, greener and thirstier, when they are not interrupted by backyard pools. And native and newcomer alike expect their lives to be air-conditioned, which in the summer requires huge releases from reservoirs to generate hydroelectric power.   The unstoppable flow of new customers would have taxed municipal water systems even without the drought, but with it the situation has become dire. The streams that fill the region’s man-made reservoirs are flowing at less than half their usual rate, and the lakes would have dipped to dangerous levels if the Army Corps of Engineers had not agreed to cut back on power generation. But with the advent of summer, the electricity will have to be produced, the

demand for water will increase and the lakes are expected to reach record lows. That makes               water managers very nervous.  “Very soon, we’re going to have to start drawing down those lakes,” said Nowlton Johnson, the water resources chief at the state Environmental Protection Division. “But there’s a limit to how much we can deplete our entire water storage. Something has to give.”   That something is outdoor use. Water consumption nearly doubles here during the summer, and most of that increase feeds the sod, trees and gardens that have become the region’s pride and bane. Last week, the state banned all outdoor watering for the 15-county Atlanta region from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. On Monday the state tightened the restrictions to limit outdoor watering to every other day. Violators face fines and the ultimate threat of a water shut-off; neighbors are being encouraged to report water criminals. But most officials expect a         round-the-clock ban if these brilliant cloudless days continue, and then the great botanical               brownout will begin.  “Please don’t let it happen,” said Walt Chastain, production director at the Gibbs Landscape Company, one of the region’s many high-end lawn designers. “Most of our clients have invested well over $50,000 in their landscaping. You know what happens if they ban all watering? They’re toast, man. Toast.”  The loss of a lushly terraced oasis may seem a small price to pay in the face of a regional emergency, particularly considering what farmers farther south are experiencing. Tommy Irvin, who has been state agriculture commissioner since 1969, said this year’s drought appears to be the worst in his tenure.  “Farmers had to start irrigating earlier this year than I’ve ever seen them do,” said Mr. Irvin, whose office has been besieged with pleas for assistance. “The water tables are going down, and the ponds aren’t filling. We had farmers planting peanuts in dry dust just to meet the federal government’s June 1 deadline. And you know they’re just not going to germinate.”  But the potential water cutoff is no less threatening to those who work in metropolitan Atlanta’s billion-dollar green industry. The Metropolitan Atlanta Landscape and Turf Association counts 530 landscape, maintenance and nursery companies in its membership, and Jean Ray, the group’s executive director, estimated that the jobs of more than 3,000 people — many of them Hispanic immigrants — would be at risk if outdoor watering was cut off.  “The farmers tell me their cattle are eating brown grass, so why can’t we play golf on brown grass?” Ms. Ray said. “And that sounds reasonable, until you think about the economic  impact on our industry. It would be huge, a lot of layoffs.”  The current restrictions are the most serious since the drought of 1986, when 26 cities and counties imposed total watering bans, lawns went brown, trees toppled and landscapers went hungry. But the region has grown by more than a million people in those 14 years, and this year’s drought appears to be worse than that in 1986.The state has never imposed a total watering ban but is seriously considering doing so in the northern region if it does not rain soon.  At the rate the region is growing, demand for water will increase by 50 percent by 2020, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission, a planning body, which predicts that the demand will never be met without a 10 percent cutback in water use by customers. State officials and horticulturalists are warning homeowners that they will have to begin mastering the principles of xeriscaping — a kind of low-water landscaping — if they want to preserve enough water for outdoor growth.  “People don’t realize their lawns can look just as nice at one-third the size,” said Walter Reeves, a University of Georgia horticulturalist whose television and radio gardening programs are immensely popular here. “They can have islands of flowers instead of a whole row, and there are many species of plants that require less water than the ones people use now.”


Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company