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Waste Water

Don’t like all that snow and ice? Hate all that rain? We’ve got a plan for you. We’ll take tens of millions of people and relocate them to the southwestern desert. Sure it’s hot and dry, but we’ll build lakes, fountains, golf courses and water parks to make it livable. Water? Not to worry, we’ve got this big irrigation ditch called the Colorado River with lots of dams flowing right through the middle of our desert. We’ll just suck out what we need.

Lake Mead at Hoover Dam in 2007

Lake Mead at Hoover Dam in 2007

Oops, forgot to tell ya, there’s a 50-50 chance that the reservoir system will dry up by 2021! The Colorado River system is entering it’s tenth consecutive year of drought. Researchers from the University of Colorado and others have released a report predicting that all the reservoirs, serving 30 million people, could be dry by mid-century. In 2000, Lake Mead was near it’s historic high level. It’s dropped about 100 feet since then. Last year it dropped by 14 feet and it’s expected to drop another 14 feet this year. Last year, the Scripps Institute released a report concluding that the Lake Mead/Lake Powell system is currently at only half capacity due to climate change and over-allocation and is forecast to loose another 10-30 percent in the next 30 to 50 years. They reported that there is a 10% chance that Lake Mead could be dry by 2014 and a 50% chance that the reservoir will be too low to provide power generation by 2017. Hoover Dam generates enough electricity for a half-million homes. “Today, we are at or beyond the sustainable limit of the Colorado system“, the authors noted.

sweetgrassSo, where do we go from here? Can we conserve our way out? Probably not. Southern Nevada gets 90% of its water from the Colorado River. Las Vegas water users have already reduced their use of Colorado River water by almost 20%, but they still draw more than their allocation. In an interesting interview in the Las Vegas Sun, the General Manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority noted that they are already considering piping water from Utah rivers to Lake Mead at a cost of $3.5 billion, and even getting water from flooded eastern states. “We’ve taken water from the West now for a 100 years, maybe it’s time to start taking water from the East, rather than from the West“, she says.

Adding to these, seemingly insurmountable problems, new energy development in the basin is using up billions of gallons of water and releasing toxins into the river system at an ever-increasing rate. A report by ProPublica notes that “Oil and natural-gas drilling in Colorado requires so much water that if its annual demand were satisfied all at once, it would be the equivalent of shutting off most of Southern California’s water for five days“. So, if things look dire for the Colorado River, that’s only because they are.

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