Saving the parched West

Last year, when the House passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act, more than half of the representatives from the mountain West voted against the comprehensive climate and energy legislation.  Given that extensive research predicts the West will experience some of the worst impacts of climate change in the U.S., including a permanent drought with Dust-bowl like conditions by mid-century — and an increase of wildfire burn area by as much as 175% — the resistance among western lawmakers to legislation that could save their region borders on self-destructive, as CAP’s Tom Kenworthy explains.

As the U.S. Global Change Research Program noted, “climate change appears to be well underway in the Southwest,” and future even more severe droughts than have occurred in the last decade are “a significant concern” in part because of population pressures in the arid region that are already stressing scarce water supplies.

Now comes a new report from Western Resource Advocates and the Environmental Defense Fund that ought to be required reading for those western politicians. “Protecting the Lifeline of the West: How Climate and Clean Energy Policies Can Safeguard Water” should make it abundantly clear even to western dunderheads that without comprehensive energy and climate legislation the West’s way of life – dependent on fragile water sources — is in peril.

“A well-designed national climate policy is vital to protect the lifeline of the West’s environment and its economy, ensuring that westerners continue to have clean, safe, reliable water supplies for decades to come,” concludes the report:

A national climate policy would protect the West’s water supplies and create important incentives for energy efficiency and electricity sources, such as wind and solar photovoltaics, that do not emit greenhouse gases and use no water. Likewise, these policies could incentivize innovative, resilient water supply strategies “” including water conservation, re-use, and smart projects “” that provide a steady flow of affordable water while minimizing new energy demands.

For what’s at risk under most climate change scenarios, consider the Colorado River, which supplies water for 30 million people and 1.4 million acres of farmland. A prolonged regional drought has reduced the river’s two main storage facilities, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, to 55% of their capacity. Future runoff under most models is expected to decline by 5% to 20%. Actual water use from the river already exceeds the ten-year average of what is available.

Conventional electric power plants using coal, natural gas and nuclear power, plus oil and gas development, consume large quantities of the West’s water resources. The water consumed every day by thermoelectric power plants in the region, according to the report, equals the amounts used by the cities of Denver, Albuquerque, Phoenix and Tucson combined. Without a change in direction towards renewable power, that water use could increase by two-thirds by 2030, to 500 million gallons per day. Oil and gas production uses another 500 million gallons of water per day, and could rise to 700 million gallons by 2030. Full-scale development of the West’s oil shale resources would consume up to 340 million gallons of water a day – enough to meet the daily requirements of nearly two million residents.

A sensible national energy policy that emphasizes renewable electricity development could cut those demands on the West’s water. Replacing one 500 megawatt coal plant with wind or solar photovoltaic power, the report estimates, could save 1.6 billion gallons a year, or enough to supply 50,000 people.

Moving water in the West is often extremely energy intensive, notes the report, and more aggressive water conservation and efficiency measures, combined with abandoning some of the new water projects under consideration in the region could slow the growth in energy demand.

— Tom Kenworthy

15 Responses to Saving the parched West

  1. Greg Moschetti says:

    Is there no limit to shortsightedness? The first step is to raise the knowledge and consciousness of the voters in these states regarding water and climate change issues. Since politicians these days chose to follow rather than lead, they’ll eventually get the message and, hopefully, not too late. Without in-state voter support, it is a useless venture to try to persuade the politicos.

  2. Daniel Ives says:

    Here in Colorado with the continental divide, water is a big, divisive issue. This is a very interesting article because it brings forth a new argument for clean energy that could possibly win over conservatives: clean energy will ensure more water is available in a drought-sticken area. I’ll have to remember this the next time I argue with conservative friends and family over clean energy. Thanks!

  3. Peter Mizla says:

    Climatic predictions into the future look bleak for the western great plains and the intermontane region -increasing drought & heat.

    When this all hits the fan——oops

  4. Coyote Waits says:

    Well, at least some of the government planners who are in charge of planning/managing/delivering water resources are thinking about climate change in the western states, e.g.: As drought becomes a more permanent condition, I firmly expect the western political hacks to beat an ever-louder drum for digging a trench from the Rockies to the Pacific, thereby allowing seawater in for whatever benefit they imagine that would bring. That, plus a new service aimed at would-be western republicans: “Special–Half Price on Lobotomies. We’ll Throw in Western Values for no Extra Charge.”

  5. llewelly says:

    As drought becomes a more permanent condition, I firmly expect the western political hacks to beat an ever-louder drum for digging a trench from the Rockies to the Pacific, thereby allowing seawater in for whatever benefit they imagine that would bring.

    Well. You never know. They might boost NAWAPA instead. (Or here.)

  6. Michael Tucker says:

    Absolutely! The “…West’s way of life – dependent on fragile water sources — is in peril.” RIGHT NOW! Just ask the farmers of Nevada how the Las Vegas water demand is working out for them.

    We must a national energy policy that protects this most necessary resource and energy is key. California uses more energy to move water around than for any other single purpose and the cost of that water does not reflect the true cost of delivery; the true energy cost is subsidized. AND, as is pointed out, that energy requires a large water investment. Coal, oil, and nuclear power cannot happen without using water and nuclear uses the most. Of course hydro uses water and, if the drought trend continues, Hoover Dam may have to stop generating electricity.

    Correctly pricing water will encourage its largest users, agriculture and industry, to be more efficient with its use. An energy policy that only limits carbon will not help the desert southwest with its water issues. We have to end water waste and transfer to wind and solar power now. We have wasted enough time.

  7. mike roddy says:

    Resistance to clean energy legislation from Western lawmakers is only self destructive if you assume that they care about the future. People like Borasso and Kyl consider future droughts and desertification to be problems for the little people. They think that their money will inoculate them and their descendants.

  8. James Newberry says:

    Politicos are substantially bought and paid for in corrupt America by corporate special interests, especially resource extractors like uranium, coal, petroleum mining. Until we end paid lobbying and large corporate campaign cash, we are on the road to ecologic doom through corrupt plutocracy or worse. Climate collapse is a symptom, the disease is in our culture of governance and corporatism (socialized costs and privatised profits).

  9. Bob Wright says:

    Don’t forget the damage oil shale extraction will do to the Colorado watershed and millenia-old aquifers being drained like there is no tomorrow.

  10. Ron Broberg says:

    *Things* start to happen if Mead falls to 1075′. Things like reductions to downstream consumers.

    If it drops to 1050′, Las Vegas will have one of its two water supply intakes rendered useless.

  11. Fire Mountain says:

    The “Winning of the West” is the archtypal American tale. Ironic that the future American story could well be the retreat from the West. Pile all the family possessions into the car and move back to where there still is some water. The sand-dune covered ruins of Las Vegas will make a great dig for future archeologists, assuming there’s anyone left to be an archeologist (or anything else for that matter).

  12. riverat says:

    The sand-dune covered ruins of Las Vegas will make a great dig for future archeologists

    It even has its own pyramid.

  13. Excellent article. I’ll try to use some of this material for a future newspaper column. Water problems are not just a problem in the American West, of course. China and India face potentially severe problems as do any region fed by rivers from mountain glaciers.

    Note that nuclear reactors can be sited on the ocean shore, or on salt water estuaries, where they do not have to worry about using fresh water. Most of the big cities in the world are close to the ocean also, so that their electric power needs can be met by nuclear power plants.

  14. Sorry about the “do”; should be “does any region….”