Lack of Rain Isn’t the Only Story Behind the West’s Brutal Drought

Posted in: Drinking Water News, Drought, Fracking, Ground Water News, Misc Water Issues, United States Water News, Water Contamination
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Photo credit: Jae C. Hong/AP

Article courtesy of Nick Stockton | February 3, 2015 | Wired | Shared as educational material

This weekend’s impending storm notwithstanding, 2015 is already looking like another bad year for the parched West. One rainstorm won’t change the fact that nobody’s getting enough rain or snow. But the region’s problems only begin with its mutant water cycle. The real dramas come from the difficulty in managing what water remains. From the tension between big ag and big oil to the irony of low precipitation in Oregon, here are five stories to watch while you’re waiting for rain.

California fracks itself up

Kern County—located at the southernmost end of California’s ag-centric Central Valley—is as rich in petroleum as it is in crops. And recently the county’s oil interests have been cashing in on the hydraulic fracturing boom. Squirt chemicals into the ground, and oil and natural gas come out. Water gets burped up in the fracking process, too, but it’s too loaded with salt, hydrocarbons, and other chemicals for irrigation or drinking. Standard practice is to pump it back into the ground.

Technically this is OK because frackers inject the water into deep aquifers unsuitable for human use–either because they’re too deep or too contaminated. In that sense, at least, this solution is the most environmentally responsible option (for now). So why bring it up? Oil companies in the Central Valley have been injecting their fracking water into wells with drinkable water. The crazy thing is, it was all kind of legal.

The problem stems from a bureaucratic—it’s safe to say—error, involving two copies of a document that described which wells were dirty enough to store waste water. One of the copies mistakenly included aquifers that contained potable water. And, big shock, that’s the copy that everybody used. This mis-injection issue dates back to the early 1980s, and now after years of negligence and bureaucratic inertia, hundreds of wells are now affected. But even if they do contain drinkable water, these wells are currently too deep to make a dent in the state’s water balance, says Jared Blumenthal, the EPA’s top representative in the region. “But in the future,” Blumenthal says, “that could change.” Remember, this is the part of the valley where farmers are sucking out so much groundwater that the valley floor is beginning to sink.

The EPA has finally stepped in to sort out the state’s mess. The agency is still in the early stages of testing the wells for contamination, and so far everything has turned out to be pretty safe. That’s a bright side to a nasty, drawn out gaffe. Still, it’s a little disappointing that this all stems from an honest bungle by California’s oil regulators, and not a Golden State gas conspiracy. It would be great backstory for a Chinatown reboot based in Bakersfield.

Colorado pinches it off

California gets most of the press for the west’s stressed out water situation, but Colorado is the historical hub of Western water politics. It’s the headwater state for the namesake river that provides water to 40 million people. Historically, Colorado has needed less than its actually used, and other states have taken up the surplus. But Colorado’s reservoirs have been drying up, and now the state is ready to reclaim it’s excess flow.

Under an agreement among the seven states that share the river’s water, each state is allocated a certain number of gallons every year. The problem is, this document comes from nearly 100 years ago and used data from a 20-year period that happened to be among the wettest in the Southwest’s recent history. “It was an honest mistake, really,” says Douglas Kinney, a water rights expert at Colorado State University. Too bad honest mistakes are just as much of a pain in the butt to fix as regular mistakes.

Despite numerous attempts to reconcile the water-sharing agreement with reality, Colorado keeps coming up short. “What we’ve done over the past fifteen years is take out more water than is put back. You can’t do that forever, and now the reservoirs are more than half empty,” Kinney says. The state is looking to rebuild its reservoir resources, and that means less water runs downstream to other places. For what it’s worth, California saw this coming, and has done a relatively good job weaning itself off Colorado’s surplus flow. But other places are going to be somewhat less prepared for what happens.

Public works in America’s driest city

Lawns are against the law for new homes being built in Las Vegas. This is good, because the third-fastest growing city in America is also one of the most precariously planted in terms of water availability. Lake Mead, 24 miles southeast of the Strip, is a reservoir on the Colorado River and for many years after it was built was the largest body of water west of the Mississippi. But because of the shriveling flow from the Colorado River (see above), Lake Mead has lost 5.6 trillion gallons since 1998. This is serious, but Las Vegas hasn’t been acting like it.

Here is the city’s current strategy for surviving the drought:

A) Cut back water usage at parks and government facilities,

B) Restrict hose tips for car washes,

C) Pipe in water from the far ends of the state, and

D) Dig a pipe into the bottom of Lake Mead, so they can suck out all the water.

Every day, Las Vegas uses 222 gallons of water per person. The city set an optimistic goal of cutting back to 199 gallons per person by 2035, but that’s still over twice as much as the amount of water people currently use in Los Angeles. Their best plan for lowering per-capita water usage by 24 gallons is to get more people to move to Las Vegas, because if more people move to the city, each person’s share of water will be smaller. Which sounds like a piece of prank legislation drafted by Joseph Heller and signed into law by John Kennedy Toole.

Please note that the city’s water saving plans do not significantly limit water used in:

A) Swimming pools,

B) Golf courses,

C) The area’s two water slide parks,

D) The 22-million gallon fountains at the Bellagio.

It’s going to be important to watch how Vegas’ plan works out for them. The city is hungry to grow, but demographically wrangling the drought into submission can only work for so long.

Cottonmouth kings

California is rife with water rights drama, but the most entertaining by far is the saga of water theft by illegal pot farms. (Surprise! Not all of the state’s pot farms are legal.) A single bud plant drinks about about six gallons a day, and the National Park Service estimates that there are 800,000 plants growing illegally on public lands in the northern part of the state. Many of these growers tap into local streams or irrigation systems set up by established farmers (growing both pot and normal crops).

Statewide, that’s a drop in the bucket. Weed is certainly far less of a strain, water-wise, than the Central Valley’s almond crop. But water politics are predominantly local, and while NorCal isn’t as rain-strapped as the rest of the state, it is starting to feel the pinch. The voices of pissed-off farmers and pissed-off Feds are increasingly being joined by pissed-off fishermen, whose salmon runs are suffering from the chemical runoff from illegal grow operations. Could this crucible of fed-upedness put the final squeeze on NorCal’s pirate pot culture?

The world’s wettest water shortage

Snow-starvation might seem like a PR tactic invented by Oregonians to dissuade out-of-staters keen on moving in, but it’s a real problem. Though known for rain, most of the state relies on snowpack to sate its thirst throughout the year. But Oregon’s last three winters have been too warm, and the much of the expected snow has instead fallen as rain, devastating more than just the state’s ski industry. (To be fair to Oregonians, a busted ski season is a huge bummer.) Without melting snow, the rivers are coming up short, and many farmers are having to rely on groundwater. But even in soggy Oregon, there isn’t always enough to go around.”The way water is portioned out in the American west is that if you got here first you get to use it first,” says Kathie Dello, a climate researcher at Oregon State University. When there’s a shortage, then farmers with so-called “junior rights” get their water use cut off early in the season. This has led some farmers to look south for clues about what their future might be like.

All this comes to a head because Oregon is currently the peak influx of any state in the nation. “The biggest fear of most Oregonians that Californians are going to flood the state,” says Dello. (Not a water-flood; a people-flood.) But the fear of being bred out by Golden State refugees might soon be supplanted by an even worse threat: being invaded by California’s drying climate.

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