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February 2023

It's Critical:  Southwest Water Crisis
This year heralded the 72nd celebration of National Engineers Week, February 19-25 with the theme "Creating the Future." The Credential believes creating a future for the U.S. includes saving our water, especially in the Southwest.
We welcome back guest author Michael S. Ellegood, PE, who can speak directly to this serious, life- sustaining issue, having lived and practiced civil engineering in the Southwest. Michael has held positions ranging from Project Engineer through Senior Executive in major consulting engineering firms. He joined the public sector as an agency head, ultimately retiring as County Engineer, Public Works Director, and Transportation Director of Maricopa County, Arizona. Currently, Michael serves as  Senior Consulting Engineer with E + E LLC. Read on to learn from Michael about a life-and-earth saving call to action. 
By now the entire United States is aware that the Southwest is in the midst of a water crisis. Decades of drought on top of antiquated and over-optimistic water rights plus enormous growth has put the region at risk of simply running out of water. How did this happen and what can be done? Or more correctly stated, what should be done?
To understand the genesis of this crisis, several factors need to be understood:
  1. The Southwest is a dry place; annual rainfall varies from place to place and year to year, but it is about 13 inches. Compare this with the average across the U.S. of about 34 inches.
  2. There are two primary sources of water: the Colorado River and groundwater. The Colorado River water has been divided up by the states that it serves by legal agreement without regard to highest and best use.
  3. There are two kinds of water in the west:
              a. Paper Water: water to which a user has a
              b. Real Water: water that is available to
        4.  Paper water far exceeds real water.
      5. Certain users, including both agriculture and
           municipal users, have long-established rights
           to water to use as they see fit (including
           users that might be considered "wasteful"
           by others)
      6. Water is almost never in the place where it
           needs to be used. Therefore, it is often
           transported in open channels, subject to
           substantial evaporative loss.
The old West adage, "Whiskey's fer drinkin, water's fer fightin" holds true in today's West, with whole battalions of well-compensated attorneys lined up to represent all sides in this battle. It is state vs state, user vs user. Recently, in response to a federal mandate to reduce water usage among the seven states that use Colorado River water, six of the seven states agreed on a plan; the lone holdout, California, is by far the largest user. California has long argued that the "Law of the River" based on a 1922 compact gives them senior rights and they have no intention of surrendering any of them.
While the issue of water availability looms large, the two largest reservoirs on the Colorado River, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, now at about 23 percent of capacity, are close to being unable to generate electricity. This electricity not only provides power to urban areas, such as Las Vegas, but also powers the pumps used to transport water to the ultimate user.
So what to do about this pending crisis? Suggestions have been made such as construction of de-salinization plants, covering all water convenance channels to reduce evaporation losses, more conservation including removing lawns and encouraging desert landscaping. All of these will take time and cost money.
There are other alternatives as well, each of which have significant political or fiscal costs.
  • Stop growing crops that are not needed:  Cotton, a major water user, is heavily subsidized by the federal government and yet is in surplus and is often "dumped" causing financial upheavals in parts of the world where there is no subsidy.
  • Recycle wastewater into potable water supplies: This recycling approach is used in Isreal and other parts of the arid world. Care must be taken to remove all traces of drugs in the water that escape normal water refinement processes.
  • Revisit the "Law of the River": The 1922 Compact was based on false assumptions and was intended to prioritize agriculture over other uses. While we still are dependent on a robust agriculture industry, urban and municipal users need parity as well. Moreover, water law is based on historical usage that may or may not reflect 21st century realities and needs.
  • Discourage nonessential water users: Residential swimming pools, a plethora of golf courses, decorative "water features." Expansive lawns may add to a perceived quality of life but are water wasters.
  • Price water to reflect its true cost: Municipal and agricultural water is subsidized, directly or indirectly, and thus the true cost of purifying and supplying water is obscurred from the user. This will create economic hardship for some but should also reduce water usage.
Water availability will continue to vex politicians and users for the forseeable future here in the Southwest. The question is whether we have the collective will to resolve this problem.
The Credential encourages all of our readers to step forward and answer the call to action to save our water. Do what you can to help. YOU can make a difference.
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