Saving the Colorado

The seven states that draw water from the Colorado River have reached an agreement. Daniel Trotta and Brad Brooks report at Reuters:

May 22 (Reuters) – Seven U.S. states that depend on the overused Colorado River on Monday reached agreement to cut consumption and help save a river that provides drinking water for 40 million people and irrigation for some of the country’s most bountiful farmland.

Arizona, California and Nevada will reduce intake by 3 million acre-feet (3.7 billion cubic meters) through the end of 2026, an amount equal to 13% of their river allotment, under a deal brokered and announced by the Biden administration.

Those three make up the Lower Basin states of the century-old Colorado River Compact, which assigns water rights to them plus the four Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

While the Upper Basin states draw their water directly from the river and its tributaries, the Lower Basin states depend on Lake Mead, the reservoir created by the Hoover Dam and whose spigot is controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Californians are already kvetching that they got the short end of the stick while the Coloradans have done well.

This agreement doesn’t solve the problem; it just kicks the can down the road for a few years. The fundamental problem is too much demand for water and not enough water. Since all three of the “Lower Basin” states depend disproportionately on growing populations for their economic health, it will only get tougher from here on out.

Changing agricultural practices is part of the problem as well. For example, California’s production of almonds has doubled over the last decade and almonds take a lot of water. California’s share of the $1.3 billion dole from the federal government will effectively subsidize almond production and building houses.

Unlimited cheap power would allow California to extract fresh water via desalinization rather than than taking it from the Colorado but that doesn’t seem to be the direction in which the state is heading.

72% of Arizona’s water utilization is by agriculture, mostly produce but increaingly pistachios and pecans—once again, substantial consumers of water. In Nevada it’s 69% and its top crop is alfalfa.

9 comments… add one
  • steve Link

    Wind power would be cheapest but solar should do well also in CA. Looking at reports from states heavy in wind power they sometimes have to decrease output ie change the tilt on the blades so they are not feeding too much into the system. That excess could be used for desalination. Solar without the need for storage or back up has also gotten pretty cheap so you could de-salt during the day. Nuclear could be used also but it seems best for baseload, though maybe the small plants are better at varying output? Would think since they are used on ships that problem would have been solved.


  • TastyBits Link

    For a nuclear reactor, varying output is accomplished by adjusting the control rods.

    The technology that improved windmills and waterwheels was the steam engine. The steam powered locomotive was replaced by an electric powered locomotive, and the electricity is produced by a diesel alternator. Eventually, the diesel alternator will be replaced with fuel cells, and for this application, hydrogen would be best.

    (It takes multiple diesel-electric locomotives to replace a single steam locomotive. Again, energy density.)

  • jan Link

    Even in a year with extraordinary rain and snow, California’s environmental extremists have done their utmost to prevent water managers from filling reservoirs, allow pumps to operate at capacity to fill the southbound aqueducts, and allow farmers to get their full water allocations so they can use runoff to irrigate instead of pumping already depleted groundwater. But even if California’s state government weren’t dominated by extremists, California’s water infrastructure would be stretched to the limit.

    The second major project, then, would be for Californians to build new ways to extract and store water from the delta during atmospheric river events. A new technique, already demonstrated on the Tuolumne River, creates channels in some of the delta islands so that huge perforated pipes can be installed under a gravel bed. Fish aren’t endangered by such installations. This water could be rapidly transferred to aquifers south of the delta via surface percolation and deep injection. Unused aquifer capacity in the San Joaquin Valley is conservatively estimated at more than 50 million acre feet.

    If Californians were willing to harvest additional millions of acre-feet from storm runoff in the Sacramento-San Joaquin watershed, and had the means to do so, they might not need any water from the Colorado River. This is how California can give back not only its share of Colorado River water, but cover its annual deficit of 2 million to 4 million acre-feet. Other states in the Colorado Basin might help fund these projects. Thinking big solves big problems. It’s time for California’s state Legislature permanently to solve the challenge of water scarcity in the American Southwest.

  • bob sykes Link

    Back in the 60’s, when I was studying civil engineering, we took courses in hydrology. It was back then, 60 years ago, that the allocations of Colorado River water were based on a short record of rather wet years. The allocations exceeded the long term river flow.

    It was also noted that in a desert climate, which is the whole Southwest, the best economic use of water was industry; agriculture was the worst economic use. In part, this because agriculture in a desert is a consumptive use; the water is evaporated (the basic fact of plant life), whereas industry is a nonconsumptive use; the water, albeit contaminated (a solvable problem) goes back to its source.

    There is also an enormous aquifer underling several western/southwestern states that being seriously depleted. It is the product of the the last ice and is not being replenished.

    In the long run, irrigated agriculture will end.

  • Andy Link

    This NYT article has a good chart on water use.

  • Drew Link

    Seems like a total rethinking of supply and demand assumptions is in order. Goodluck with that.

    Andy’s article should bode well for the midwest and TX.

    I’d go with steve’s notion of wind, but I was talking to a one legged bird the other day about the rise in “sudden intervertebral somatic separation” events………..

  • steve Link

    “Nuclear reactors are known for their ability to provide constant power but their output can also be modified to meet certain grid demands.

    Operators can reduce power output by limiting the amount of steam that goes through a turbine to create electricity, or they can use control systems to slow down the nuclear reaction in the reactor.

    France has been doing this for years to match daily and seasonal power demands and reactors in the U.S. Northwest and Canada flexibly operate each spring to accommodate additional hydropower on the grid.

    While there are no technical or safety-related impacts in operating power reactors this way, there are some limitations. Operators can’t flex power output as much toward the end of the fuel cycle and it takes a lot of planning, forecasting and time to decrease the power output.”


    “Estimates of up to a million or more birds a year are killed by turbines in the US but that is far exceeded by collisions with communications towers (6.5 million); power lines, (25 million); windows (up to 1 billion); and cats (1.3 to 4.0 billion) and those lost due to habitat loss, pollution and climate change (American Bird Conservancy, Nature). Even if there were twenty times more wind turbines, enough to supply the US with electricity, the number of birds killed, assuming no improvement in wind turbine design, would be about 10 million–still far less than most other causes of bird deaths.”


  • Drew Link

    I see. So no wonder your callous attitude about a few more murders in places like Chicago or Baltimore.

    A billion here, a billion there…


  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    This post is missing a map of California and the Colarado river basin.

    The key observation is how little of California is actually part of the Colorado river basin, even through its water services Los Angeles, San Diego and Imperial counties.

    Actually California gets a lot of water, it is just concentrated in the northern part of the state whose climate is similar to the Pacific Northwest.

    If California voters and politicians had the will, they don’t need desalination plants with nuclear power or wind power or solar power; they just need to build more dams and engage in hydro engineering to transport the water from Northern California to Southern California.

    Indeed the previous Governor Jerry Brown pushed for this, but hit the brick wall of “BANANA” and hasn’t been built. Note, this was a project that Jerry Brown Sr had pushed over 50 years ago, and still not built.

    If California isn’t willing to build infrastructure to transport water, what makes one believe they are willing to build desalination plants on the coast, or build wind turbines offshore that would ruin views, never mind nuclear power plants?

    One should respect California’s choices, for those who say California’s model depends on growth; the facts on the ground is California has lost population for 2 years, and grown slower then the nation for at least 10 years. That’s a sign California is not following that old model.

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