As we publish, scientists are announcing that the last dozen years are the driest in more than a millennium. With the desert's cities ever more dependent on water from the Colorado River, how will southwestern society meet the challenge of hyper-aridity? Chris and Alicia get water wonky with Kyle Roerink of the Great Basin Water Network.
Kyle recommends the book Science be Dammed by Eric Kuhn and John Fleck, and we agree. That's available from the University of Arizona Press.
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Bouse Parker: The sun is a giant blow torch aimed at your face. There ain't no shade nowhere. Let's hope you brought enough water. It's time for 90 Miles from Needles, the desert protection podcast with your hosts, Chris Clarke and Alicia Pike.
News reel announcer: Although the swift flowing Colorado has raced through Boulder Canyon for countless centuries, it is conquered at last by means of giant diversion tunnels. Watch for the blast! With the stone barrier blown out the restless waters of the Colorado leave the age-old riverbed swirling into a channel cut through a mile of solid rock. The first major step in the construction of the 730-foot Hoover Dam…
Another old news reel plays: …Since the age of his ancestors, modern man has molded the earth to his liking, proud of his vast creative ability, he can boast of the grandeur of his achievement, and admire the scope of his own imagination…
Franklin Delano Roosevelt: …These United States to whom you Boulder Dam, are a symbol of greater things in the future, I call you to life…
Alicia: and moving right along.
Chris: Thanks for joining us. I'm Chris Clarke
Alicia: And I'm Alicia Pike. And this is 90 Miles from Needles.
Chris: In 1922, 7 states signed the Colorado River Compact, which parceled out the projected average amount of water in the Colorado River system among states in two groups, the upper and lower basins. The upper basin, consisting of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, is at the headwaters of the Colorado River system. The lower basin — that's Nevada, Arizona, and California — constitutes the largest number of people who want to use that water.
Also closely involved, but generally left out of the discussion is the country of Mexico, the destination of the Colorado River before it was dammed. Colorado River water reaches Mexico only due to a hard-fought contractual arrangement. And the once biologically rich Colorado River Delta, teeming with shellfish and sea life, birds and jaguars and wolves and other amazing animals is now just a fraction of its former self.
That was when the amount of water in the river system was about what people expected. Under the Colorado River Compact of 1922, the upper basin and the lower basin were each allocated 7.5 million acre-feet per year. An acre-foot is the amount of water it would take to cover one acre of land, one foot deep. Almost as soon as the compact was signed in 1922, a hundred years ago, this year. People started to notice that the average amount of water in the river was not quite that 15 million acre-feet, that the two basins had agreed to split, but there were enough wet years and eventually enough reservoirs on the river system that the states made do. And in any event, the allocations were set higher than the states needed at the time to account for growth. Well, that growth has happened. And so has climate change and now a hundred years on from the signing of the Colorado River Compact, we face a very, very different Southwest than our great grandparents did.
The science is now pretty unambiguous. Climate change is real, it's here, and its effect on the desert is already showing up. The desert is getting hotter and drier. And that's reflected nowhere more starkly than in water levels in the Colorado River system.
Kyle Roerink: My name's Kyle Roerink. I'm the Executive Director of the Great Basin Water Network. We work in the nation’s two driest states, Nevada and Utah. I have a home in Reno, but I feel like I live on highway 50 or highway 95 or highway 93. Thank you so much for having me here and letting me pontificate a little bit about this.
I think at the Centennial we find ourselves at a precarious juncture, which has been a long time coming, where the water that we once assumed existed doesn't exist. And I think really what makes this moment unique is that entities are starting to come to grips with that realization that the water that is on paper is not in the Colorado River and its tributaries in the upper and lower basin. A hundred years after the compact was signed, we're finding ourselves at this point where folks are saying that we're redoing the Colorado River Compact and that's a little bit hyperbolic, but it's not that far off of reality.
Chris: For people that aren't really familiar with the West — presumably we'll have some listeners who would like to be desert rats, but are temporarily stuck in Iowa or Maine or someplace like that — How many people depend on this water?
Kyle Roerink: 40 million. Give or take.
Alicia: And that includes businesses and residents, and the average resident is using somewhere between a hundred to 300 gallons per person per day, depending on if you're in Utah or California. And that doesn't even take into account the business use and industrial use and agriculture use and all the other ways that we use water.
Kyle Roerink: Yeah, I think if you wanted to look at just strictly residential, if you're in a community like St. George, Utah, you could be using more than 300 gallons per day. If you're in Las Vegas, you could be using 120 gallons per day. It's very well known that agriculture is the largest user and consumer of the Colorado River. There's a reason why Southern California is known as the salad bowl of the Southwest, the soils are essentially good for growing things. They had millennia of Colorado River sediments, just dumping out into the deserts, and so when you put a little water on that desert, things can grow pretty quickly. 75, 80% of the river give or take is used for agriculture.
\It puts things into perspective a little bit when 90% of your winter lettuce crops come from around Yuma, Arizona. And some guy in Boston goes in and buys a couple of heads of iceberg in February. It's likely grown with Colorado River water.
These dams were largely constructed for agriculture. They didn't build Hoover Dam so you could put a couple million people in present day Las Vegas. They built Hoover Dam for flood control in the Imperial Valley. And that can be said for other reservoirs as well throughout the river system. And for reference, we're talking about billions and billions of gallons of water here at one acre-foot being 325,851 gallons. You all can do the back of the envelope math there to understand the quantities of water that's there. 40 million people across two countries. The big takeaway is that nobody ever thought that this day would come. Everybody thought that it was just another big winter, and our reservoirs will be full again. But we're at a point where some of our reservoirs are essentially 30 or 40% full, and we're going to need 300% runoff events if we wanted them filled next year. It's precarious times.
Chris: Have we faced a situation like this in the last hundred years or is this kind of an unprecedented dry period?
Kyle Roerink: I think the interesting thing is that before the compact was signed in 1922, there were some Canary in the coal mine, hydrologists who had done enough preliminary research and had enough of an understanding to see that the river system has gone through dry cycles before, but we didn't have an Anthropocene back then, we didn't have human caused climate change, and so we've never been at this precipice before because the planet has never experienced what it's currently going through as it relates to human caused climate change and the effects that has on the water cycle, especially in the arid west. There are accounts of the hydrologist I just mentioned, his name was E.C. LaRue. For anyone that's interested. And there's a good chapter on him in Science Be Damned by Eric Kuhn and John Fleck. The latest must read in the canon of the Cadillac Deserts, and Beyond The 100th Meridian, and beyond the 100th Meridian, there's a passage that I can recall that when John Wesley Powell came out and got spit out of the Grand Canyon, not too far away from where Vegas is these days and looked around and said, I just don't know if this place is going to be habitable for civilization in the long run. But there were premonitions and predictions about this, but I don't know if they ever could have imagined the scale at which we're seeing reductions where the Colorado River, essentially, since the year 2000 has lost 20% of its average flows, and you can see an additional 20% tacked onto that, in the coming decades. It seems like an overall consensus by the end of this century, that's a possibility. The worst has yet to come. And that's one of the scary things.
Alicia: Didn't the federal government recently declare a state of emergency for the water level and condition of the Colorado River?
Kyle Roerink: It was in August. A tier one shortage was declared by the Bureau of Reclamation. Lake Mead dropped below elevation 1075. That triggered a shortage declaration. And what that meant in practice was that Nevada and Arizona would take cuts of their allocations. Nevada has the smallest share of the Colorado river at about 300,000 acre-feet. And Arizona is at 2.8 million acre-feet a year. Nevada had to take a haircut and Arizona took a haircut. That's what that declaration meant.
Alicia: So, is there still more water that has been allocated, then there is actually in the river?
Kyle Roerink: Yes. And what we're seeing, number one is this structural deficit where more water was being used and consumed than was coming into the river system. The structural deficit is 1.2. million acre-feet a year, but I think what we've seen more recently is we're even blowing past that. We have to think about our reservoirs like savings accounts and in big water years, it's like hitting a big pay day and the reservoirs are filling up and you're going to have fluctuations year by year. And that was one of the driving forces behind building reservoir systems all throughout the Colorado River Basin was that we need to have savings accounts for the future, but we're just blowing through our savings. You got gambling addicts here with carte blanche access to the bank accounts and Lakes Mead and Powell, for example, are 30, 40% full because we're spending, spending, and nothing's getting filled up.
Chris: So you had mentioned that the lower basin states, except for California, got handed some restrictions on their water supply. Is there a reason that California wasn't included?
Kyle Roerink: Yeah, California's a big elephant in the room. I think a lot of it is based on priority rights and negotiating positions, California will ultimately be subject to cuts. 15 years ago, there were scientists from Scripps and the Pacific Institute who were basically predicting what we are dealing with today, with pretty darn good accuracy. But I think all the water buffalos’ heads were in the sand back then, and they were just keeping their fingers crossed and doing the snow dances hoping for the next big winter after next big winter. And those didn't come. And there was that period and 2013, 2014, 2015, very dry. Had a couple of decent winters following, and then we got a little dry again, and so in 2019 they passed this drought contingency plan, DCP, and the centerpiece of the lower basin DCP, there is an upper basin DCP as well, but the lower basin DCP, the centerpiece of that are these cuts that everyone is talking about, especially in relation with that tier one shortage, which happened in August of 2021. And it's likely we'll hit a tier two shortage this summer and in August we'll be teetering there. Things were looking really good in late December and now we’re, we hit a dry spell in January. And we need that fantastic February, that miracle March, that amazing April, that to pull us through, but some of the grizzled veterans on the river. Like some of the thinking is that could be the worst thing possible because then it just gives decision makers and others time to kick the can down the road. Since about the year 2000, we've lost 20% of flows and that trend is likely to continue in the coming decades. And. You know, I think what we really haven't discussed today is we keep on talking about these cuts in the lower basin. There's a major divide right now between what the lower basin is doing and what the upper basin is doing, and I think that is exemplified by the schedule of cuts in the DCP, and also a couple other things that have happened in recent months. We've heard about this 500 Plus Plan where lower basin states are, they’re gonna find another 500,000 acre-feet to cut in order to prop up Lake Mead's levels in order to try their darndest, to prevent Lake Mead from getting below that 1050 figure, that tier two. But, in the upper basin, we're hearing about things like the Lake Powell Pipeline and the Green River Block Exchange and a number of dams and diversions in Colorado. And the upper basin is already overusing its allocation, and that contributes to why our reservoirs are also sinking. It's a mix of, a lack of water and greater consumption and demand and use. And the Utah Rivers Council, succinctly, tactfully, and remarkably with a lot of great research done by their team. Put out a report in early December. That essentially says it is bananas to even talk about adding new dams, new pipelines, new infrastructure that is consumptive in its nature, because they're already using more than its allocation. Like in, in reality, there's always a fight about what's on paper and what's actually in the system.
Alicia: We'll be back after the break.
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Kyle Roerink: There's always a fight about what's on paper and what's actually in the system.
Alicia: I just find that so confusing. Why are you going to stick to a piece of paper? It's a precious resource that is rapidly going away. As someone who's not a trained scientist, you don't have to be, to see that this is a real problem, and we need to change the way we use water. I just don't know where that disconnect is and why we're having such a hard time saying. There's not enough water left. We need to change the way we use water.
Kyle Roerink: These are extremely difficult conversations. We can continue to do nothing and then we can just let everybody sue each other. And ultimately let the federal government take a much heavier handed approach to management. We can say to hell with the farmers, we need this water to keep our cities and our more modern-day businesses. We need that money to build homes and warehouses and things like that. We can say hell no to sprawl. We can say hell no to new dams, pipelines, and diversions. Or there's ah, this notion of some shared sacrifice. I think all of the states and the federal government, and the NGOs want to give the appearance that shared sacrifice is going to be the way forward, but we are dealing in a lot of cases where water is a private property right. And as we know for better, for worse property rights are a pillar of the American economy. But. Not to just be a pessimist, looking at communities like
Las Vegas and Tucson and what they have done to conserve water. Things like tearing out lawn, time of day, and day of use watering restrictions at the residential level, taking a hard look at how many golf courses you need in any given community. I think also, ordinances. Not just incentives, not just paying John and Sally Q homeowner to remove their turf and put in more desert friendly landscaping, but literally having ordinances in municipal codes. For example, to say any new construction, no way, no green lawns. And in Nevada, we passed a law in the state legislature last year, that outlawed what was cast as useless turf. And that's the type of lawn that you see in a business park or in an
Chris: Yeah, it would exclude things like soccer fields and baseball diamonds and et cetera.
Kyle Roerink: Exactly. They're also having conversations about what businesses do desert communities want to bring in. And I think for a while it was, everybody had to have cloud data warehouses, but it turns out that they need a lot of water. To just cool these cloud servers, they're like toasters that never pop. They're just constantly, burning electricity to provide cooler air. Should desert communities be inviting those types of businesses that are high in consumptive uses into their communities? Maybe not. I think it is, it's time to get creative, but it's also time for communities to take a hard look in the mirror, and say, what do we really want to prioritize? Do we want to keep on building homes and just expanding society in the desert?
Alicia: Would you consider that profits off of water are put above human rights at this point?
Kyle Roerink: I think profits off of water are a product of our current system. And I think there is a struggle going on right now. And I think it's a tiered struggle. Now you could describe the farmers that grow alfalfa that is exported or all the US grown vegetables that we eat in the winter. There are people making profits off of that. I think the same can be said about real estate developers. I think anyone that buys property anywhere, whether it's for their residence or their business, there is an understanding that there's going to be water available and they're profiting off of it in that way, or the power company that gets cheap subsidized hydro power from Hoover Dam or Lake Powell. I know I'm dancing around your question, but I think there's tiers to it, and there's levels of understanding that we all have to have. There are what we would consider modern day human rights associated with that. So, it's complex.
Alicia: It’s access to clean water, is a basic, access to clean water without having to pay an exorbitant amount of money to have access to clean water. And it seems to me like, a lot of the battles that we've discussed and anywhere in the news of water in the Southwest, it comes down to profits over access to clean water, and it's rapidly running out. So just like gasoline, the price just keeps going up.
Kyle Roerink: That’s right.
Alicia: Until it's gone?
Kyle Roerink: Even, you know if we think about how we, how our water says, if your water supply comes from Lake Powell or Lake Mead, largely right now, that's either being pumped with the hydro power from a dam that was built on that river system or, the electricity is coming from a natural gas plant. It's yeah. I like, I don't even know what access to clean water even means anymore.
Kyle Roerink: Because of the way our society is structured.
Chris: You had mentioned a couple of projects that might make things worse. And, uh, wondered if you could talk a little about at least one of them, the Lake Powell Pipeline. Can you tell us what that is and what the problem is with it?
Kyle Roerink: Yeah. Lake Powell Pipeline is a bonkers idea where folks in
Southern Utah wants to put a new straw in Lake Powell to serve Washington County in Southwestern, Utah, and Kane County as well, would inevitably be a part of it. That project is essentially designed to serve St. George, the worst water wasting community in the Western US and everybody there has a green lawn. There's a number of golf courses and they wanted to take out 28 billion gallons of water a year from the Colorado River.
Chris: Let's listen to how the Utah Rivers Council's Executive Director, Zach Frankel put it at an outdoor press conference at the relatively noisy Hoover Dam in July of 2021. I was privileged to attend that, said a few words myself, but I was a little distracted by just how low the water was in the reservoir of Lake Mead. Really brought home just what we're talking about here. Here’s Zach.
Zach Frankel: The proposed Lake Powell Pipeline is the largest new water diversion being proposed in the entire Colorado River Basin. This 140-mile-long, $3-billion-dollar water project represents the boondoggle of our past. It is a completely unnecessary water project. The Lake Powell Pipeline would deliver water to some of America's most wasteful water users in Washington County, Utah. This region slated to receive Lake Powell Pipeline water uses more than 306 gallons per person, per day, more than twice the US average and almost three times the water use of Las Vegas and Phoenix residents.
Kyle Roerink: There was a federal environmental review that came out in the summer of 2020, and there still hasn't been a record of decision or a supplemental environmental review released on that because the opposition to it was so overwhelming. Nevada and California and Arizona were commenting. When you see all the other Colorado River states, writing letters and extensive comments about the dangers of that project, that was an eye opener. And then I think that the past couple of winters have not helped. I think I would be remiss if I said the change in administration, hasn't been a factor in releasing new or updated environmental reviews, but, as we say, our victories are temporary. There's our permanent, no project is ever dead. And that's just something we got to keep an eye on. When you look at a community like St. George, where everybody's got a green lawn, they're using more than 300 gallons per capita per day, and they want to become a little metropolis. Something's got to give, you can't have everything you want. You got to take a hard look in the mirror. And I think as I mentioned earlier, there's a lot of different scenarios that could play out, but everybody needs to have a look in the mirror and just be honest with themselves. It would be unfair to say we can't build any new homes anywhere in the desert Southwest, but we can keep farming. I do think that there needs to be some balance there, but there does also have to be a respect for the system itself and the history, and the development of it, but there also needs to be a respect for public trust and public interest resources, whether you're a lover of endangered species or you're a river guide.
One thing that has folks excited was in the major infrastructure bill that passed last fall, in Congress. There was a provision in the Western water title of that bill, and it was $450 million dollars for a water treatment plant for Southern California. And the idea is the federal government shelled out 450 million. And you have promises from Southern Nevada and from Arizona and water purveyors in Southern California to pick up the tab for an additional six, 700 million to build this giant reuse plant in Southern California, that would then allow Nevada and Arizona to get a piece of Southern California's Colorado River water.
Chris: This water recycling plant, uh, reclaiming that water California could then use that water and that frees up water for the other states.
Kyle Roerink: Yes. Yep. That's the agreement and everybody has a little buy-in there. Everybody's got a stake in the game and the Southern Nevada Water Authority is essentially already including that in their 50-year planning and modeling. And I think that's another thing we could talk about when we look back on, on the past 100 years, is just planning down the road. And we have in the upper basin, where entities like in Southern Utah, where they're planning for the future, but with a pipeline with some paper water rights, but then you have entities like Southern Nevada and then Southern California. Where they're out, hustling Congress and the administration, and lining up money to build a water recycling plant. Like it's night and day right now. But, in the Utah legislature, there have been hints at a couple of decent projects to help come to grips with reality.
Chris: It's reassuring to hear you say that because you mentioned shared sacrifice being possibly the optimal way of proceeding from here and I just was thinking, we can't even get everybody to agree to wear masks in the supermarket, but it sounds like good news. Well, if there are some good ideas coming out of Utah, which is one of the more conservative states in the basin.
Kyle Roerink: It is. But I think at the same time where they're doing some planning on some good things, they have, they are not relinquishing the idea of that project. I think likely they're waiting for a new administration. I certainly don't want to make it seem like they're doing the right thing on all fronts, but you have to give entities credit when they're at least not just solely resigning themselves to a wasteful project. I'm fighting a new pipeline. It's for the community of Cedar City, which is a gateway community to, like Bryce Canyon. They want to export water from valleys, right by Great Basin National Park to feed sprawl development, to placate certain business interests, just to continue business as usual. We've been able to put together a strange bedfellows’ coalition and it's the key to ending any water dispute. I love fighting. I think anyone that knows me knows that I won't turn away from a good water fight, but I'd rather not do it, I lose sleep, you know, I don't eat. It's terrible. We got to do it. We're at the precipice.
Chris: As someone who fights the Cadiz project in his day job, I, I feel ya.
Kyle Roerink: Thank you for that work. It's incredible what you've done, and I think you can certainly speak to the uncanny coalitions there and in some respects and also a lot of good science leading the way. And also, just time.
Alicia: I just can't help but think about, it just seems as a society, we're cruising down the freeway and looking at the gas gauge and it's like, "oh, we're about to run out of gas" and the drivers just, "nah, we're good. Can we just keep going?" And I don't understand how we're even having this conversation. It's so frustrating to me that people don't seem to care and people aren't really paying attention. And I just want to get on the mountain tops and scream. We're running out of water.
Chris: We should have maybe named this podcast "The Mountaintop."
Kyle Roerink: *chuckles*
Kyle Roerink: I think you have every right to do that. And we're certainly, we're not in the clear yet. I think there's a lot of different approaches happening on the Colorado River, but everywhere else too in the west. State water project deliveries, even though we, even though there was a good, big snow in the Sierra, like, still predicting 5%. That's crazy.
Chris: Among a certain subset of people that I on alternate Tuesdays tend to belong to, there’s this apocalyptic long-range view of the Southwest and droughts and climate change, a tumbleweeds going through city hall and Phoenix and Vegas, having a bunch of half broken buildings all over the place.
And just that apocalyptic vision of a depopulation of the Southwest, or at least, trhe cities that don't have small, sustainable sources of local water and do you see a way around that? Is that even the worst-case scenario? Is that something that we could avoid without doing too much damage to the hydrological environment in the Southwest or causing untold human or non-human suffering? What do you see for the Southwest a hundred years from now?
Kyle Roerink: If you read the last IPCC report it doesn’t look good. But that doesn’t leave me hopeless. It's terrifying because when I speak with people who work in the Mojave. I speak with folks who are out in the west desert of Utah and speak with folks who are in the heart of the great basin and what they knew to be the water landscape 20 years ago, a lot has changed, and not for the better. I don't like to think about those scenarios because we have so much to deal with right now. What happens with aridity and the water cycle 50 or 100 years from now is out of my control, but I have opportunities today to just fight like hell for what I believe in. I think we all have to put ourselves in positions where we're not just comfortable and sitting in the echo chamber and we got to get out and at a time where we are so divided., and I think anybody admits that no matter what side of any issue they're on. I think that is the world telling us that we got to build bridges and we got to find common ground and that's where the magic happens. And when you do it in a way that just isn't self-serving for your most immediate interests, but future generations, so that's what we need to do in my opinion.
Chris: Kyle, thanks so much for joining us.
Kyle Roerink: Thank you.
Alicia: All right. That's all for this time. I'm Alicia Pike.
Chris: and I'm Chris Clarke.
Alicia: This has been 90 Miles from Needles.
Bouse Parker: This episode of 90 Miles from Needles was produced by Alicia Pike and Chris Clarke. Editing by Chris. Thanks to Kyle Roerink for the interview. To find out more about the Great Basin Water Network, the Utah Rivers Council and the Lake Powell Pipeline, see our show notes. Podcast artwork by the put complimentary adjective here, Martin Mancha. Intro and outro music is by Brightside Studio. Other music by Slipstream. Follow us on Twitter at, @90mifromneedles and on Facebook at facebook.com/ninetymilesfromneedles. Find us at ninetymilesfromneedles.com or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you to our newest Patreon supporters, Kathy Davis, Allen Mason, and Moses Cisneros join them and support this podcast by visiting us at zeromilesfromneedles.com/patreon and making a monthly pledge of as little as five bucks. Crucial support for this podcast came from Tad Coffin and Lara Rozzell. All characters on this podcast fade away before my eyes, nothing is there, nothing but desert sand, dim in the distance against the sky. A Haven of rest. The mountains woke. I’m Bouse Parker.