Where Have All The Rivers Gone?

shutterstock_107999030 The US The US southwest and west are experiencing severe drought – in some cases, perhaps, the worst ever recorded.  For example, in California experts have characterized it as a 500-year drought.   Over 40,000 people in California will have no water supplies in the next few months, and state officials acknowledge the figure will rise.  While this is a drought-driven problem failure to anticipate and prepare for drought is also playing a role . This is a major threat to the farming industry of the state – and to the agricultural production of the US as a whole given that California’s output is a substantial portion of US total output.   Winter-based industries such as ski resorts are also facing a declining future as snowpack falls – only 15% of normal in the Sierra Nevada, to take one US example.   (This is happening worldwide, highlighted this year by the Winter Olympics in Russia, made possible only by saving snow from last year and by massive snow-making.)

 Some begin to foresee the return of the great Dust Bowl of the 1930s, but in most parts of the country there is not yet enough concern about this to change water usage practices much, if at all.  Issues such as the sustainability of huge cities (think Phoenix or Las Vegas) in the desert have yet to be raised as serious political concerns for this century.   The US Congress has just passed a farm bill that shifts subsidies into insurance programs, but otherwise continues massive financial supports for water-thirsty crops such as cotton (a practice for which we have been paying yearly fines of $147 million to Brazil after losing a case in the World Trade Organization in 2005).   Prohibiting such crops in drought-stricken areas has yet to be even discussed as a remote possibility.

 Indeed, there is no national consideration of water issues as a long-term sustainability question, although President Obama recently noted during a visit to the drought-stricken regions of California that we must “all come together and figure out how we are all going to make sure that agricultural needs, urban needs, industrial needs, environmental and conservation concerns are all addressed.”

Reservoir in Southern California

Reservoir in Southern California

Yep, we just have to figure this out and everyone will get what they want.   While we wait for that national discussion, coping with drought, or just limited water supplies, is largely left to states or cities to grapple with as they can.  Where rivers cross state lines, or even national boundaries, collaboration between political entities is required – but may well aggravate the problem in the long-term.  One stark example is the Colorado River, whose waters were divided up among the seven bordering states nearly a century ago by a federal Commission.   Numerous issues regarding Native American and Mexican rights were left unanswered, and the known history of “dry cycles” was not taken into account, making the Colorado River Compact an anachronism before the ink was dry.  Its allocations were based on the flow at the time the document was drawn up, the most sustained high-flow level of the previous four and a half centuries.  The result today is visible in the empty riverbed that used to deliver water to the Sea of Cortez.  And in forty years or so, many millions more will live in the river’s watershed and compete for this water.

Similar, if smaller, battles have occurred along the Rio Grande, which rises in southern Colorado and travels through New Mexico before entering Texas, where it shortly becomes the international boundary with Mexico.

Years of drought and rising populations along the river have led to an empty riverbed in southern New Mexico and west Texas, and again as the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo reaches – or fails to reach – the Gulf of Mexico.  The river’s water is governed by a 1944 international agreement that requires certain amounts of water to be delivered to Mexico from the US, and from Mexico to the river further south.  Prolonged drought in Texas and Chihuahua has effectively negated these requirements, and a renegotiation of the agreements appears inevitable.

 Meantime, the state of Texas is suing New Mexico for practices it says deprive Texas of its rightful share of water from the river. The recent explosion (in some cases, literally) of hydraulic fracking for oil and gas threatens further depletion of groundwater resources, particularly in Texas.

Mexican children playing in the Rio Grande riverbed near Juarez

Mexican children playing in the Rio Grande riverbed near Juarez. Photograph: John Moore/AP

While these battles continue, let’s narrow the focus to what is happening in El Paso.  The city’s population has reached nearly 700,000 (and while Cd. Juárez has lost some population during the recent years of violence, it is still nearly three times larger – and using the same river and aquifer for water).  Conservation practices over the years (including at one time reimbursements for installation of low-flow toilets and replacement of evaporative cooling with refrigerated air, and for replacement of sod with native plants) has reduced per capita water use substantially (although not to levels of other water-short places such as Israel or Jordan). 

The per capita use now is about 133 gallons per day.  The water authorities in El Paso foresee no further substantial reductions, and look to going far afield to pipe in water as the city continues to grow (similarly to Phoenix and Las Vegas, among others).   There are even proposals from members of the governing board for major expansions of wastewater treatment, not for recharging aquifers but for household use. 

 River water has not been a significant contributor to El Paso water supplies for several years, which is a good thing given the empty river!  Extensive farming continues along the riverbed of what used to be called the Big River or the Wild River – a new name seems to be in order!  In southern New Mexico and El Paso key crops include cotton, alfalfa, and pecans, along with chilies.  Cotton and alfalfa are high water users, along with pesticides and fertilizers (and cotton benefits from taxpayer support, as noted earlier).  Pecans are also high water users – increased by the practice of simply flooding the pecan groves.  The result is that very large amounts of water from the river go to these crops.

 Curiously, rather than begin an assessment of how to assist farmers to transition to more sustainable crops (desert-adapted pistachios, for example, instead of pecans), local officials are urging an increase in dairy-farming, to ensure better soil for cotton farming!  Dairy farming was phased out in the eastern part of El Paso County, the so-called “lower valley,” due to bovine TB.  Now the county agricultural agent, and the state representative from the area, are pressing for a resumption of dairy-farming – not just because milk has a high financial return, but because it will increase demand for crops to feed the cows that will in turn make the soil better for cotton growing!  The local newspaper applauded this effort.

 Unless this attitude changes, it seems unlikely that the Rio Grande will merit that name again any time in the near future.  John Wesley Powell warned us over a century ago:  When all the rivers are used, when all the creeks in the ravines, when all the brooks, when all the springs are used, when all the reservoirs along the streams are used, when all the canyon waters are taken up, when all the artesian waters are taken up, when all the wells are sunk or dug in all this arid region, there is still not sufficient water to irrigate all this arid region.”1-–Marshall Carter-Tripp

1Quoted in Brian Fagan, Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind, Bloomsbury Press, 2011

One thought on “Where Have All The Rivers Gone?

  1. There’s no shortage of water. But what water is available is in the wrong place, of the wrong quality, used for the wrong purposes and owned by the wrong interests. Other than that, life is good.

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