Monday, April 2, 2012

What a Waste, Or Why Southern Nevada's "Water Crisis" Doesn't Have to Be One

Over the weekend, Will Doig wrote this article for on the coming Sun Belt water crisis. Across the once fast growing "Sun Belt" of Southern and Southwestern cities, local governments are running into trouble as they're realizing the water is running out... Or is it?

“When I talk to water utility people, one of the things I say to them is, ‘I bet most of you aren’t planning how to manage your water demands with 20 percent less than what you have now,’” says Charles Fishman, author of “The Big Thirst.” “If you don’t have a plan for that, you’re in trouble.”

You’ll find Fishman’s book in the nature section at Barnes & Noble, but it’s really about urban planning. Because the creeping hydro-crisis has nothing to do with “running out of water.” The earth has the same amount of water as it had 4 billion years ago, and it always will. “It’s all Tyrannosaurus rex pee,” says Fishman with a laugh. The water’s recycled endlessly through the clouds, but it’s the way we’ve built that’s made it seem scarce — with industry, farming and cities in places where there’s not enough water to support them, but still demanding more every year.

Luckily, an urban-planning problem can be mitigated with urban-planning solutions, and cities are blazing the trail — including, believe it or not, Sin City itself. Today, Vegas is soaked in “reclaimed water,” water that’s been used once and then purified for another go-round. It waters the golf courses and washes the thousands of hotel bed sheets. Even the pond at Treasure Island, where the nightly pirate-ship battles take place, is filled with water that the hotel’s guests have brushed their teeth with. (It gets run through a treatment plant under the casino.)

But even reclaimed water has a way of vanishing in a place where the sun shines 300 days a year — some estimates suggest Lake Mead loses half its water to evaporation. One solution? Store it underground, says Tom Brikowski, professor of hydrology at the University of Texas-Dallas. “It could work in a lot of places and it’s starting to be done now.” For instance, Tampa, Fla., is trying it out with a method called aquifer storage and recovery, pumping water into the earth when it rains, then extracting it during the drier months.

SNWA - THIRSTY from Kurt Rauf on Vimeo.

Funny enough, SNWA produced that ad years ago. And funny enough, SNWA looked poised last decade to lead the nation in forming innovative and progressive water conservation measures. But now that Nevada State Engineer Jason King has green-lighted the proposed Snake Valley "water grab" from rural Eastern Nevada and Western Utah, SNWA seems to be slacking off in the conservation department as it rewards the region's biggest "water hogs" over small users in Clark County who have been working to conserve water. And now that SNWA is feeling emboldened by recent news, it's raising rates disproportionately on small users in order to fund the Snake Valley Pipeline.

Remember that the Snake Valley Pipeline began as a scheme way to make feasible Harvey Whittemore's proposed Coyote Springs exurban development that he wanted to stretch all the way to Lincoln County. Yet despite all the political and legal fallout over Harvey Whittemore and the budding scandals surrounding him, SNWA still plans to proceed with this pipeline. Why?

SNWA "Water Czar" Pat Mulroy has claimed this is all about preparing for the future. Tensions are rising over negotiations for Colorado River water, and Mulroy continues to say Southern Nevada must prepare for the worst, which would be Lake Mead's water level dropping below 1,050 feet. This would force Hoover Dam to shut off its hydroelectric plant, and it would throw Clark County's primary supply of drinking water into severe doubt.

So why pump in water from 300-400 miles away? That's where Mulroy's case gets weak. If Clark County has been able to avoid catastrophe for the past two decades by employing intense conservation efforts, why is SNWA now poised to drop at least some of those conservation efforts? Strangely enough, a smarter option for Greater Las Vegas' future may lie right in the heart of TEXAS.

Yes, you read me right. Let's go back to that article for a moment to see how.

[... I]n San Antonio, conserving water is a religion. In the ’90s, the city was sued by the Sierra Club for draining the Edwards Aquifer. The aquifer happens to be the home of the Texas blind salamander, an endangered amphibian. A small culture war ensued, but after a few years of predictable hippies-versus-cowboys animus, something incredible happened: San Antonio became a capital of conservation chic. Low-flush toilets became status symbols, and overwatering your lawn could get a person ostracized. Water consumption dropped from 200 to 130 gallons per person per day. And suddenly, droughts that crippled neighboring cities weren’t affecting San Antonians. “I hate to say ‘big government,’” says [Tom Brikowski, professor of hydrology at the University of Texas-Dallas], “but these regional plans where everyone shares the sacrifice are pretty effective.”

Compare that to Brikowski’s hometown of Dallas, the “water hog” of Texas, where no such stigma exists, and the average resident uses more than twice as much water as a San Antonian. Between 1980 and 1999, as other big Texas cities slashed their water consumption, Dallas’ grew by 35 percent. And now Dallas, like Vegas, is looking for water elsewhere — specifically, east Texas and Oklahoma. “It’s not that they need the water to survive,” one irate east Texan told the Wall Street Journal. “What they want is to destroy our wildlife so they’ll have enough water for their grass.”

Like us, Dallas is looking for water... And now lusting after water found in East Texas and Oklahoma. Yet even as some Dallas officials are whining about ongoing drought conditions affecting the whole State of Texas, San Antonio doesn't seem to be worrying about any drought crisis. Simply because San Antonio made smart decisions early on in turning to conservation instead of "water grab" boondoggles, San Antonio is humming along just fine.

And here's the kicker. Even with drought conditions, Dallas still got 26 inches of rain last year. And even with that drought, Dallas still dumped tons of wastewater into the Trinity River... That the City of Houston is now recycling and reusing for its local water needs!

Wow. What a waste.

So if San Antonio and Houston can work on innovative solutions to water shortages brought on by past suburban development as well as the present reality of climate change, why can't Las Vegas?

Last week, The Salt Lake Tribune posted a stinging editorial rebuking the Nevada State Engineer's approval of the Snake Valley Pipeline. Believe it or not, the water there affects Utah's health, environment, and well-being in more ways than Pat Mulroy is willing to admit.

The trouble with this approach is that, unlike surface water in a river, the effects of underground pumping often are not immediately seen. Plants could die off only slowly. Once the damage is apparent, however, it may be irreversible, and the political pressure to keep pumping water south, particularly after Las Vegas had invested billions in the pipeline project, would be enormous. The complaints of a few ranchers in Nevada and the people of Utah would not count for much. [...]

There’s not a lot of water in the Great Basin to begin with, and it’s not like Las Vegas could give it back to be pumped into the ground again. Monetary damages could not undo the mischief, and there’s nowhere else to go to get replacement water.

If predictions about climate change are correct, and the amount of snowpack that provides groundwater to the Great Basin is on the decline, then there’s even worse trouble.

In his ruling in favor of the water district that serves Las Vegas, Nevada State Engineer Jason King dismissed the objections of people who worry about climate change because no evidence was submitted. However, the scientific consensus for climate change argues against going forward instead of plowing ahead.

We throw in with Utahns who worry about dust clouds enveloping Utah from denuded valleys to the west. We also believe the warnings of Snake Valley ranchers who say that well levels already are falling. Sucking more water from this environment is folly.

So why again is SNWA doing this? It would destroy the ecosystem of rural Eastern Nevada and Western Utah, as well as destroy the livelihood of local farmers and ranchers there. It could harm air quality in and around Salt Lake City. It would cost Clark County taxpayers many billions of dollars when we desperately need money for local schools, parks, transportation, and community services. And it just looks like pure folly when we have better options right in our own back yard (in some cases, literally!).

So why is SNWA doing this? All I see here is waste.

1 comment:

  1. Great column, Andrew!!! You NAILED it. SNWA is sabotaging our conservation efforts - including, last year, telling homeowners it would be fine to replace desert landscaping with turf! - in order to justify the unjustifiable.