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