This article is the third of a three-part series on water issues in the
Southwest. In the first part, published in 's May 2008 edition, we reviewed
the primary ground and surface water resources available to our growing population.
In the second part, published in 's June 2008 edition, we examined the
problems posed by a dwindling water supply, growing demand, and a possible long-term
drought. In this, the third part, we will review some potential long-term solutions
for our looming water problems.
Houseboat on Elephant Butte Lake, with white deposits along shoreline – the "bathtub
rings" – showing how much the lake has fallen (Photo by Terry Sharp). Click
here for an article on Houseboating.
It may seem hard, long term, to have much hope.
After all, during the past several decades, major aquifers have become seriously
depleted. Stream flows have declined. Important riverine wetlands and the Colorado
River and Rio Grande deltas have essentially dried up. Vital river impoundments
such as Lake Mead, Lake Powell and Elephant Butte Lake have shrunk. Mountain
snow packs, which give rise to the major rivers and their tributaries, have diminished.
Some primary water sources have become dangerously contaminated. Water-deprived
forests and desert brushlands have become tinder for ferocious wildfires. Drought,
probably intensified by global warming, may have set in for years.
Meanwhile, the population of the Southwest – southern California, southern
Nevada, southern Utah, southwestern Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and western
Texas – continues to increase, now comprising well over 30 million people,
more than 10 percent of the entire population of the United States. Accordingly,
the growth raises the demand for water.
Given the decreasing supply, potential severe drought and increasing population
and demand, what gives us hope that we can maintain the long term sustainable
water supply required for our human population and a healthy environment? The
answer lies in an emergent conservation consciousness, which is becoming embedded – and
sometimes mandated – in both municipal and rural communities; improving – and
perhaps revolutionary – water resource management policies and actions,
which are critical across the board; and the accessibility of new – although
often expensive! – water sources, which are sometimes located hundreds
of miles away.
A wide diversity of exotic and colorful plants are available to the desert
here for more information on desert landscaping.
The Emergent Conservation Consciousness
In municipalities across the Southwest, public institutions, businesses,
industries and homeowners – prompted by growing awareness, increasing costs
and more stringent regulatory requirements – are bolstering efforts to
For example, in spite of the high summer temperatures, harsh winds and nutrient-poor
soils of the much of the Southwest, water users – often with help by professionals – are
making gardens, lawns and courtyards into low-water-use expressions of the landscaper's
art. In the most well-crafted master plans, building walls, fences and the larger
and more hardy plants protect the more delicate plants from the desert sun and
the prevailing winds. Soils benefit from composting and additives. Drought-tolerant
(often native) plants require only minimal water. Plants with similar water requirements
fall into groupings. Sloping surfaces drain, not into bare rocks and sand, but
into plant beds. Drip irrigation systems, properly calibrated, deliver optimum
water volumes to the plants.
Hedgehog Cactus Bloom - Echinocerens is from the Greek echinos,
meaning "a hedgehog," and cereus meaning "a wax taper." These
names refer to the plant's spiny resemblance to a hedgehog (or so the early Europeans
thought) and the plant's shape, respectively. Triglochidialus means "three
barbed bristles" and refers to the straight spines arranged in clusters
of three. Also called claret cup cactus, after the reddish, cup-shaped flowers.
For more about Hedgehog Cactus, click
In mature desert landscaping, a plant community – for instance, natives
such as various cacti, yuccas, agaves and shrubs and resilient imports such as
Oleanders, Lantana, Purple Sage and Pampas Grass – will bloom from spring
into fall, with many of them producing jewel-like colors. The flowers issue a
siren call to hummingbirds and butterflies. (A lady with a quite proper Oxford
accent once told me, during a flower show at Leeds Castle, southeast of London,
that "A proper English garden always has something in bloom." Well,
I wanted to tell her, with my quite proper Texas Rolling Plains drawl, a proper
Southwest garden will knock your eye out from late April into September.)
The Agave grows naturally in the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts at higher
elevations from southeastern California, to western Texas and south to northern
Mexico. To learn more about the Agave, click
here to go to 's page on
the Century Plant, Agavi americana.
Moreover, in institutional and commercial buildings and in homes, owners
are capitalizing on low-flow faucets, shower heads and toilets. According to
the ToolBase Services Internet site, low-flow faucets can reduce water usage
by nearly 40 percent, from 4 gallons per minute to 2.5 gpm. Low-flow shower heads
can cut water usage in half, from 5 gpm to 2.5 gpm. Low-flow toilets cut water
usage by more than half, from 3.5 gallons per flush to 1.6 gpf.
Additionally, increasing numbers of cities are constructing new plants to
treat mineral-laden water from deep within dwindling aquifers, and they are building
new facilities for treating sewage water and using the "gray water" to
irrigate parks, golf courses, esplanades and other public grounds.
Lake Caballo water discharging into the Rio Grande. Caballo Lake State Park
is 16 miles south of Truth or Consequences via I-25 exit 59 and NM 187. Click
here for more information about Truth
or Consequences (It's a city in New Mexico, also known as “T or C”.
The developing conservation ethic has yielded some positive results for the
municipalities. According to Robert Kunzig in his article "Drying of the
West," National Geographic, February, 2008, "Every utility
in the Southwest now preaches conservation and sustainability, sometimes very
forcefully. Las Vegas has prohibited new front lawns, limited the size of back
ones, and offers people two dollars a square foot to tear existing ones up and
replace them with desert plants. Between 2002 and 2006, the Vegas metro area
actually managed to reduce its total consumption of water by around 20 percent,
even though its population had increased substantially. Albuquerque too has cut
its water use." Bruce Hallin, Manager, Water Business Development, Salt
River Project, Phoenix, told Sunset magazine in a recent article, "...over
the last 10 years, we've had close to a 300,000 increase in population. But the
water demand overall has remained constant. We have better technologies; people
are more cognizant of their water use."
Even though conservation has produced important results, institutions, business
and industrial communities, and homeowners know that it is just the beginning.
Water flowing down the Rio Grande to communities and fields. Many farmers
have moved to improve efficiencies in irrigation.
Concurrently, the Southwest agricultural community – which, in raising
critically important food and fiber crops, uses several times more water than
all other consumers combined – is capitalizing on new tillage equipment
and techniques, new drought- and salt-tolerant crops, and more efficient irrigation
In one example, mentioned by Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education
in its Internet site, traditional "Conservation tillage leaves at least
30 percent of the soil surface covered by residue after planting," while
in contrast, "No-till planters leave much more than that by placing seeds
or transplants in narrow slots, the only area where farmers disturb the soil.
No-till consistently improves water infiltration, with reports of up to three
times the infiltration of moldboard-plowed soil. Infiltration is likely
to continue to increase the longer the soil is under no-till." Western
Colorado farmer Randy Hines built a tillage tool that "protected the soil
surface by retaining erosion-reducing corn stalk residue and reduced his tractor
trips by half before planting corn, saving between $35 and $50 an acre. Corn
yields remained similar to the previous year's crop grown under conventional
In the meantime, researchers are developing more drought- and salt-tolerant
strains of traditional crop plants such as cotton, alfalfa and various grains.
Such crops may thrive with a lower quantity and a lower quality of irrigation
water. The researchers have also experimented with species of potential new crop
plants such as guayule, buffalo gourd and jojoba. According to Cecil Miller,
Jr., and Bartley P. Cardon, "What Farmers Can Do for Themselves," published
in the University of California 1984 report Water Scarcity Impacts on Western
Agriculture, guayule yields latex for rubber; buffalo gourd produces seeds
rich in oil and protein; and jojoba produces a liquid wax useful for cosmetics
At left, an earthen-lined irrigation ditch, which loses water both to seepage
and to evaporation. At right, concrete-lined irrigation ditch, which minimizes
water lost to seepage.
Perhaps most importantly, many farmers have moved to improve efficiencies
in irrigation. They continue, for instance, to line irrigation ditches with impermeable
materials such as concrete, which eliminates high water losses attributable to
seepage into the soil. Some have turned to piping systems to deliver water to
their fields, eliminating both seepage and evaporation. Farmers employ laser
leveling of fields, which effects a more even water distribution by eliminating
pooling. Some have switched from flood irrigation to the more efficient sprinkler
systems and the still more efficient drip systems. (Drip irrigation, delivered
by subsurface tubing with emitters, is, by definition, a measured application
of water directly to the root zones of the plants.) To the degree possible, farmers
manage the use of irrigation waters to avoid using more than required for the
crops they raise.
Farmers, facing increasing capital and operating costs, see research and
development as critical. As Miller and Cardon said, "Western agriculture
can't survive unless individual farmers find ways to make a living while using
Harvested onions, bounty of an irrigation desert field, awaiting loading and
transport to market.
Water Resource Management
Given the far-reaching and often unforeseeable effects of global warming,
water resources managers – said an international team of scientists in
the February 1, 2008, issue of the journal Science – face a demanding
task: "Patterns of change [in the availability of water resources over time]
are complex; uncertainties are large; and the knowledge base changes rapidly." To
complicate matters further, the managers work within a matrix of contending political
factions, conflicting demands, evolving economic conditions, changing cultural
landscapes, threatened environments and endangered species. The challenges notwithstanding,
national, state and local scientists and administrators in the Southwest are
struggling to forge an equitable framework for managing our water resources.
Planners understand that they must act with increasing urgency. For instance,
in 1996 – several years before the current period of drought really took
hold – Jason I. Morrison, Sandra L. Postel and Peter H. Gleick said in
a report, The Sustainable Use of Water in the Lower Colorado River Basin, published
by the Pacific Institute and the Global Water Policy Project, "Ground water
overdraft on an annual basis occurs in all three of the lower basin states and
also in Mexico's Mexicali Valley." Moreover, "Long-term planned use
of Colorado River water exceeds the reliable available supply." Alletta
Belin, Consuelo Bokum and Frank Titus, speaking of the Rio Grande basin, said
in "Ground Water Is Renewable Only If Managed That Way," Decision-Makers
Field Guide 2003, "We cannot continue to mine our ground water at current
rates." As with the Colorado River, demand for Rio Grande water already
exceeds the reliably available supply. Faced with a looming crisis, the water
managers are calling on new tools and new approaches to deal with limited sources.
For example, the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the National Science Foundation
are developing high-performance computer-based models that "can be used
to test hypotheses about the performance of watersheds facing inevitable land
use changes, climate change, and increased climate variability," said Larry
Winter and Everett P. Springer, "Virtual Watershed," published in the
2003 issue of the journal Los Alamos Science. "Decision makers
can use such models to evaluate management alternatives or the effect of alternative
climate regimes and to support decisions about allocations of water between agriculture,
ecosystems, industry, and municipalities."
With such tools, the decision makers may also have unprecedented opportunities
to assess long-term factors such as recharge rates for aquifers, effectiveness
of land-use modifications and consequences of water allocation proposals. They
can better evaluate riverine restoration projects such as the re-introduction
of native trees, which have been stripped from the banks of the Colorado River
and the Rio Grande and many of the tributaries. This may facilitate recharging
of aquifers as well as reduction of erosion and reestablishment of native habitats.
They can also better evaluate the impact of water cleanup efforts for sites contaminated
by mining, industrial, agricultural and domestic sources.
Unfortunately, if population growth in the Southwest continues on the current
trajectory, it will eventually overwhelm the current ground and surface water
supply, even with the most effective conservation and management programs. This
has led to draconian suggestions. For instance, according to the CounterPunch
Newsletter Internet site, it has been proposed that Glen Canyon Dam be torn down
and Lake Powell drained. This would save some 10 percent of the Colorado River's
annual flow, which is currently lost to evaporation and seepage at the lake.
According to a report, The Sustainable Use of Water in the Lower Colorado
River Basin, published by the Pacific Institute and the Global Water Policy
Project, "Ultimately, reaching a sustainable equilibrium in a water-short
basin such as the Colorado will require a stable population." That is,
population growth will have to be reined in.
Harvesting silage corn, bounty of an irrigated desert field. Western Colorado
farmer Randy Hines built a tillage tool that "protected the soil surface
by retaining erosion-reducing corn stalk residue and reduced his tractor trips
by half before planting corn, saving between $35 and $50 an acre. Corn yields
remained similar to the previous year's crop grown under conventional tillage."
New Water Sources?
Facing such possibilities, communities have begun preparing for the future
by considering new water sources beyond their traditional reach.
For instance, El Paso, Texas, in partnership with Fort Bliss, has already
constructed the Kay Bailey Hutchinson Desalination Plant, the largest inland
desalination plant in the world. It draws on a previously unusable brackish groundwater
supply to produce 27.5 million gallons of fresh water per day. Using the most
advanced water treatment technology available, it not only augments the city's
supply, it helps prevent the intrusion of brackish water into freshwater wells.
Additionally, El Paso is considering a $425 million project in which private
interests, in cooperation with Texas' State Land Office, would construct desalination
and pipeline facilities to treat water and transport it 90 miles westward from
a source known as the Bone Spring-Victorio Peak aquifer to the metropolitan area.
It would be one of the largest privately financed water deals in the United States,
according to Robert Elder, Jr., "State Could Wade Into Water Deal," American
Arizona communities are evaluating the potential reopening of the U. S. Bureau
of Reclamation's Yuma desalination plant, a $280 million dollar facility originally
designed to treat agricultural runoff in the lower Colorado River Basin. Originally
built to help the U. S. meet a water treaty agreement with Mexico, the bureau
idled the plant in the 1990s after several wetter-than-normal years rendered
New Mexico, through a project run jointly by the U. S. Bureau of Reclamation,
the Sandia National Laboratories and the state university, has recently opened
a groundwater-desalination research center near Alamogordo, a small town on the
western flanks of the Sacramento Mountains. The objective is to develop new technology
that would benefit small rural communities that are facing water shortages from
their traditional sources.
In California, according to the California Coastal Commission, the construction
of plants to desalinate water from the Pacific has been proposed at various communities
in the state. The notion has not gained traction so far because there have been
less expensive alternatives that require less energy. Moreover, the plants produce
saline waste that may have troublesome effects on the environment.
In perhaps the largest project so far, the Southern Nevada Water Authority – faced
with a potential severe water shortage within the next few years – is proposing
construction of a $2.0 to $3.5 billion dollar 250-mile-long pipeline to transport
16 billion gallons of water per year from White Pine County's Snake Valley southwestward
to Las Vegas. Realizing that even that new supply may not satisfy Las Vegas'
projected long-term growth, the authority is considering other projects to import
water from rural areas in Nevada and Utah, and it is studying a project for water
Barrel Cactus spines form a beautiful spiral. To learn more about Barrel Cactus,
A Glimmer of Hope
While our ground and surface waters dwindle, our population and the corollary
demand grow, and our climate turns increasingly dry, we have seen our municipalities
and rural communities intensify efforts to conserve. We have seen water managers
develop better tools and mandate higher standards. We have seen cities and rural
communities turn to innovative new methods and technology to use water more efficiently.
We have seen progress in metropolitan landscapes, new and renovated construction,
fields and pasturelands, and a few restored environments.
Can we have succeed, long term? The answer is, we must. The future of more
than 30 million Americans depends on it.