The Water Crisis | Hitting the Peak

watercrisis 01 The Water Crisis | Hitting the Peak

It’s a fact that humans need about 100,000 gallons of water per person / per year to survive. But that number is easily outstripped by our various collateral activities. Maintaining nice lawns, using water for motorized recreation, creating extravagant water shows – even over-running the tap while brushing our teeth – has thrown the sustainability loop well out of orbit – especially when these activities happen in a desert environment.

It’s no secret that many of the large cities in the Southwestern U.S. wouldn’t be around without significant human engineering and its accompanying environmental impact. Mark Reisner’s Cadillac Desert follows the transformation of the American West in detail, decrying the loss of important habitat for farming and wildlife, geographic beauty, and archaeological records of the area’s first inhabitants. Cadillac is a sad, yet important story because so many inhabitants of the Southwest take their water for granted, not for the scarce commodity it truly is.

A Brief History of Southwestern Water Issues

American Indians (aka Native Americans) were the first to live in the area, and they prospered or perished as a result of water. Then came Los Angeles and its European ideas of man dominating the environment. Through political maneuvering and the secret gobbling up of water rights, William Mulholland solved LA’s thirst for water by draining the Owens Valley, allowing the to grow exponentially from the 1920s on. Fifteen years later in 1928, his career ended in the worst civil engineering disaster in U.S. history when his St. Francis dam broke, flooding an area north of Los Angeles with an unimaginable 12.5 billion gallons. The catastrophe created a wall of water 10 stories high that whisked down the Santa Clara riverbed, overnight covering the town of Santa Paula with 20 feet of mud and debris and burying nearby areas up to 70 feet. An estimated 450 people lost their lives, including 42 children. Mulholland took full responsibility.

Meanwhile, LA got bigger and needed more water, forcing the federal Bureau of Reclamation (who took over the water game after Mulholland) to drain Mono Lake, the Feather River in northern California and the Colorado River in Nevada and Arizona.

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Thus issued in the era of great dam building to “reclaim” the land – started during the Depression with Hoover Dam and continuing until the 1980s. In the end, the Colorado, once called the Nile of the West, became the most regulated, and over-allocated river in the world, drying up before reaching its delta in the Gulf of California.

Man certainly dominated the environment, but at what cost?

Originally the diverted water was used to sustain human thirst, but as the population became more accustomed to turning on the tap (and more disconnected from the natural desert environment), water lost its important historical meaning. Eventually the dams on the Colorado system allowed for large cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix to grow, and as a result, river water now fills swimming pools and fountains and sustains lawns and golf courses.

Evaporation and pollution are evil twins. Although estimates vary on the amount of evaporation in the Colorado’s two major reservoirs (Lake Mead and Lake Powell), it doesn’t take a scientist to understand that water evaporates quickly in hot, dry environments, and that evaporation has been a problem since the first canals were cut across the California desert to bring Owens River water to LA. Another growing problem for the Colorado – and other rivers across the West – is pollution from agriculture (chemicals and animal waste), human habitation, mining and even nuclear testing. All these issues degrade water quality and toxic sediments often build up behind dams and in reservoirs.

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Phoenix has been somewhat proactive in its efforts to solve the water problem by initiating a plan to store water in underground artificial “aquifers” in a scheme called water banking. The entire system is measured and controlled by computers, supplying only as much water as the city needs and not a drop more. Although Arizona is ahead of the water game with respect to Nevada, water banking still siphons water from the Colorado system, leaving less water for those downstream. And the plan doesn’t effectively addresses pollution and environmental impacts of charging artificial underground aquifers. Neither does the plan focus on what can be done on the individual level, such as collecting water during monsoon season.

The Bigger Problem

What happened in the American West was modeled in developing countries, creating gigantic dams transporting water to drier locations with the intent of sustaining populations on otherwise-uninhabitable land. Running Dry is one of many organizations keeping an eye on global water issues – especially for the poor because they are often left behind as water is drawn from one system to feed another. And this leads to the greatest irony of human impacts: as the planet warms and sea levels rise, clean, fresh water becomes more scarce. Many of the world’s great (and dammed) rivers are fed by melting ice and snow. And when the snow doesn’t come, neither does the water.

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The bottom line is, no matter where you are, you’re in a watershed – whether you live in the desert or live in the rainforest. It is the responsibility of all of us to conserve fresh water, promote sustainable practices, and monitor our impacts with respect to both water use and water quality.

Water sustains us, so we must sustain the water.

Click here for some river facts. is good starting point for information on American Rivers and offers an opportunity to get involved.
To read about the issues with Lake Powell, click here and here.
For a list of important resources on the Colorado System, click here.

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