The fight for water: Can the mighty Mississippi save the West?

Published: Sunday, May 13 2012 6:21 p.m. MDT

A dam consisting of a sunken barge and sheet piling is seen under construction on Bayou Chene in near Amelia, La., Monday, May 16, 2011, in an effort to prevent flooding from the Morganza Spillway's opening in Amelia and nearby Morgan City. Tapping the excess water of the Mississippi and piping it to the West is among the suggestions to solve growing water needs in Utah and the Western States.

Patrick Semansky, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Related list: Dam locations that comprise the Colorado River Basin area

Read more: Lake Powell Pipeline: Albatross or golden goose?

Editor's note: This is the second in a three-part series on the impacts of the West's shrinking water supply and the costly battle to find solutions. Read the first part: The fight for water: Here's why the West's oldest battle could hit you at the tap

SALT LAKE CITY — Towing icebergs to California, diverting Mississippi River water to the Colorado Front Range or building massive plants to desalinize water from the Sea of Cortez are among the options to counter future water shortages in the two basins of the Colorado River.

Other considerations include tearing down all the dams along the system to force groundwater recharge, prohibit new golf courses and place bans on man-made lakes, water parks or swimming pools for single-family homes.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is nearing the final stages of a study that for the first time in more than 40 years is charting projected supply and demand "imbalances" of Colorado River water — which was over-allocated some 90 years ago through a water-sharing agreement among Utah, six other Western states and Mexico. A draft of the study is slated to be released next month, with a final report scheduled for July.

An early analysis by the federal agency predicts that large-scale deficits of water in the river system — greater than 3.5 million acre-feet  — are likely over the next 50 years. It translates into an inability to meet the needs of millions of households, businesses or agricultural operations unless solutions can be found to cut use or increase supply.

The grim scenario is especially plausible given the volatile impacts of climate change, leading the agency for the first time to incorporate how weather changes will play out in specific impacts to the seven states that depend on the river.

"This is a pretty careful scrub of how water demands will unfold over the next couple of decades," said Dave Trueman, the bureau's division chief over resource management.

"The water supply will be different, dramatically different," he said.

Searching for a good idea

As part of its study launched more than two years ago, the bureau solicited public proposals on ways to boost the availability of water, such as building new pipelines from other water sources, increasing conservation efforts, undergoing a massive overhaul of government regulations for the river or seeking prohibitions on large-scale diversions.

The bureau received more than 140 ideas, with some that are drastic, prohibitively expensive, operationally impossible or downright implausible, such as wrapping icebergs in plastic and towing them to California to be melted and used by the West Coasters.

Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority in Las Vegas, doesn't laugh at the proposals.

"I don't think any solution, opportunity, should be rejected out of hand right now," she said. "I think this is not a time to put up barriers and say, 'No, this is off the table.' Everything is on the table."

Mulroy knows what it is like to steer a booming desert metropolis through more than a decade of relentless drought that she said was inconceivable in the early 1990s.

"There was a zero probability of drought of this magnitude," Mulroy said. "And climate change was something no one was talking about."

In 1999, the water district that serves two-thirds of the state's population began paying people to pull up lawns in favor of water-smart landscaping. To date, the district has spent nearly $178 million to replace 159 million square feet of turf, according to district spokesman J.C. Davis, saving 8.7 trillion gallons of water.

Other desert water districts like the Washington County Water Conservancy District in St. George have implemented turf-replacement programs. Similar programs are in place in California, but many Utah cities have yet to encourage that practice and in fact impede it, according to some critics.

"We've had people tell us they've been fined for ripping out their grass," said Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council.

In contrast, among the water-saving proposals submitted to the Bureau of Reclamation are complete prohibitions on having lawns in the first place. Las Vegas has already instituted that ban, prohibiting lawn in front yards.

One submission includes tearing up turf in both the front and back of homes, eliminating private swimming pools and limiting landscaping to vegetation that naturally grows in that climate.

Draconian approaches like that are disturbing from a philosophical and practical standpoint to some water managers.

Washington County's Ron Thompson said if all the grass and trees were removed in St. George, it would save 30,000 acre-feet of water per year and the result would be an ugly, barren heat island.

Both Thompson and Dennis Strong, director of Utah's Division of Water Resources, said how a community looks should be a community choice and that of its political leaders.

"I would hate to see us get into the situation where water rates are so expensive that only the people who have a lot of money can have grass and trees," Strong said.

Costly water bills

Dave Trueman, manager of the Bureau of Reclamation's resources management division, concedes there may come a time when a homeowner's water bill is on par with utilities like natural gas or electricity, which will drive consumers to take larger strides in conservation.

"The value of water is changing quickly," he said. "As the value of water goes up, it will  drive people to be more conscientious and we will slide toward more efficient landscapes."

For Frankel, that type of pricing for water rates would be a welcome change in Utah, where he said water is priced artificially low because it is subsidized through property and sales tax, which doesn't reward conservation.

Frankel's group offers tips for turf removal through a program called "Rip Your Strip," but it depends on people taking the initiative.

Trueman, for example, noted that he's taking out a small section of lawn at his home that he never really sees, and pondered aloud that maybe in 100 years, "the Salt Lake Valley looks like Tucson. That may be far, far in the future."

If warming temperatures and decreased water availability do give the Wasatch Front a makeover, Trueman said that may impact population increases.

"Maybe that will slow our growth in the future, as water becomes more difficult for Utah," he said. "The amount of water available to us from Mother Nature is not increasing and we have pretty much harnessed that supply."

Meanwhile, growth projections compiled by the Utah Governor's Office of Planning and Budget prior to the recession shows the Wasatch Front population increasing by more than a third by 2030. It is even more drastic for the southwest area of the state like Kane, Iron and Washington counties, where the population is expected to more than double.

While those projections are expected to be downgraded with new numbers due out later this year, proponents who favor projects like the Lake Powell Pipeline still insist the inevitable growth justifies building water projects to serve the future.

No more straws

Environmental groups protective of the Colorado River assert the first thing to go ought to be any additional straws in the river and its tributaries such as large-scale diversions that would reduce its flows even more.

"The Colorado River doesn't have anything left to give," said John Weisheit, conservation director of Moab-based Living Rivers. He said proposed diversions such as water for a planned nuclear power plant in Emery County, the Lake Powell Pipeline or a potash operation outside Arches National Park are banking on a water supply that isn't sustainable, he said.

"Projects like those are courting disaster," he said, and should be scrapped.

The bureau claims it is no longer practical for the Colorado River to serve as the single drink of choice for its thirsty dependents in seven states, and alternatives should be aggressively pursued.

"We are going to have to figure out ways to deal with continued growth in the face of limited water supplies," Trueman said. "You can't just build dams when there is no water to store and on the Colorado, those are pretty thoroughly developed."

The Colorado River basin states commissioned a study released in 2008 detailing the viability of  importing water from adjacent drainage basins to bolster supplies of the Colorado River.

The idea is to take water where it is plentiful and move it to places where it is not.

One of four concepts explored in the Black & Veatch study done by consulting engineers  was to divert water from the Bear River downstream from Smith's Fork near the Utah-Wyoming border and move it to the basin of the Green River, a tributary of the Colorado River.  Under one scenario, as much as 50,000 acre-feet of water could be delivered in just shy of a year.

The study concedes the mountain of hurdles that would have to be overcome — including environmental reviews, project costs and working through the complex set of interstate agreements on who owns what water and where. Its premise, however, was not to start out with what could not be done, but where excess water is available, and how to get to it.

That is where the Mississippi River could prove to be the salvation for the seven basin states in the quest for life-giving, city-growing, farm-sustaining water.

The mighty Mississippi

In the Mississippi River scenario, 675,000 acre-feet of water would be diverted from the nation's largest river downstream of where it meets up with the Ohio River. From there, the water would be conveyed via tunnel, canal and a monstrous pipe 775 miles long and 144 inches in diameter to dump into the Navajo River in southwestern Colorado.

The Navajo would then deliver that water to the San Juan River, a tributary of the Colorado River, for use by agricultural users in Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. Those users would then be taken off the Colorado system and the savings in water would flow downstream to other cities that need to grow in the future.

Ludicrous? Not to Mulroy and others staring straight into the bottom of a dry water barrel.

"Well, you know a lot of people laugh about that," she said. "But you have to remember that Hoover Dam was built as a flood control project. And one man's flood control project is another man's water supply."

The Mississippi has a storied history of flooding — in 1927, in 1937 and in 1973. Then came last year, when seven states were awash and 130,000 acres of farmland were deliberately inundated to save a town.

Mulroy said there are lessons to be learned, and more importantly, that the excess water could come to the basin states.

"Why can't it fuel fields farther to the west. … Why can't we put that water to beneficial use?" she questioned. "It would make far more sense to capture that and begin to put it to use where it is needed here in this country."

As the bureau works through the proposals and completes its analysis in the coming months, nothing is out of reach as it approaches the caretaking of the Colorado River much like a nutritionist might.

If the river is already anemic, does it make sense to cut away more precious acre-feet of water it needs to sustain what is already here? Or is it possible to build up the health of the river through massive conservation efforts, and bring in friends like the Mississippi, Snake or Bear rivers to conduct an intervention?

Massive, money-draining projects aren't out of the question if it means water still flows through the Colorado basin, but it depends on the price willing to be paid for water out of the tap, for a lifestyle in the arid West, for the desire to keep fields growing, Strong said.

"Some of these big pipeline systems will require you spend that kind of money to move water to where the people are," Strong said, "but a lot will depend on our appetite and foresight."

Related list: Dam locations that comprise the Colorado River Basin area

Read more: Lake Powell Pipeline: Albatross or golden goose?

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16

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