Use begins to shift from farmland to cities
THE water, sparkling pale-blue in a southern California swimming pool, may once have run down cold rivers hundreds of miles north of San Francisco, or fallen as snow in the Rockies to flow down the Colorado River. This water from afar lies behind much of the development in the western United States. To settle the dry region west of the 100th meridian, Americans have built the most extensive and far-flung waterworks projects in world history.Skip to next paragraph
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But the era of plumbing untapped water resources to flood new furrows or fill new faucets and swimming pools is nearly over, according to a wide array of Western water engineers, economists, political scientists, and environmentalists.
The coming era will be one of more efficiency and flexibility in managing an increasingly scarce, increasingly expensive commodity.
For nearly a century, water projects have been used as a federal subsidy of grand proportions for building a civilization, through irrigated agriculture, in the American Southwest. It has worked.
The Southwest contains many of the nation's largest and fastest growing cities. Irrigation has made California the nation's top agricultural producer, and it boasts many of the largest manmade water projects in the nation. Although the 17 Western states receive, on the average, less than 20 inches of annual rainfall, they account for 84 percent of all the fresh water used in the country.
But water is increasingly scarce in the Southwest, as the region runs out of inexpensive new water sources:
Denver predicts that by the end of next year it won't have enough water to add any new residential or commercial taps to its system.
Phoenix and Tucson are draining their underground water supplies and need to cut water use substantially.
In the panhandle region of Texas, farmers have emptied, by one half, the Ogallala. This is a massive aquifer that provides different regions of eight Midwestern states with the water they need to irrigate cotton and sorghum crops.
When the Central Arizona Project opens next year, southern California will lose roughly half the water it acquires from the Colorado River.
This makes San Diego, which imports 90 percent of its water and depends heavily on the Colorado, especially vulnerable to water shortages.
So, will the West have the water it needs to sustain its urban growth?
Most analysts believe it will. The deciding factor will be the future use and allocation of the 85 to 90 percent of water used for irrigation in the Southwest. Cutting back irrigation useage in many regions by even 10 percent -- through more efficient water practices or by allowing less-productive land to go fallow -- would double the water available for residential and industrial use.
``We're not facing a water crisis in the West, because what's gradually happening is we're taking water away from agriculture and shifting it to more urban uses,'' says Henry Caulfield, a political scientist at Colorado State University and former director of the US Water Resources Council.
A symbol of the times may be the current negotiations of a water deal between southern California's Metropolitan Water District (MWD) and the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), a desert farming region next to the Colorado River and Mexico. MWD will pay IID $10 million a year if IID agrees to line its dirt irrigation canals. IID would pass along the water saved -- estimated to be at least 100,000 acre-feet per year.