Water in the Southwest: The Future
Houseboat on Elephant Butte Lake, with white deposits along shoreline – the "bathtub rings" – showing how much the lake had fallen at the time of the photo, 2008. (Photo by Terry Sharp). Click here for an article on Houseboating.
It may seem hard, long term, to have much hope for a solution to the Southwest's water issues.
Given the potential for severe drought and the reality of increasing population and demand, how can we maintain the long term sustainable water supply necessary for the Southwest's 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 revolutionizing water resource management policies and actions is another critical element to a new strategy, as well as the development of new – although often expensive – water resources, sometimes located hundreds of miles away.
A wide diversity of exotic and colorful plants are available to the desert landscaper. Click 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 conserve water.
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 here.
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 and purple sage – 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 DesertUSA'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, "...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 systems.
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 tillage."
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 and lubricants.
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 less water."
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 have understand for some time that they must act with increasing urgency. Back in 1996 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, water managers are calling on new tools and new approaches to deal with limited sources.
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, 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.
El Paso, Texas, in partnership with Fort Bliss, 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, Enviro Water Minerals Company (EWM) has built a plant right next door. "Up to 1.5 million gallons of the waste generated at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Desalination Plant will be sent to the new recovery plant operated by EWM, " said El Paso Inc. in April of 2017, making the two facilities together the "World’s first commercial full-recovery desalination plant".
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 it unneeded. In 2010 and 2011, the facility successfully completed a trial run that indicated a longer term operation of the plant could be successsful. (US Dept. of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, Yuma Office YDP Pilot Run Final Report)
In August of 2007, New Mexico, through a project run jointly by the U. S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Sandia National Laboratories and the state university, 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, Prop 1 was approved in November of 2014. The water fund is helping to build innovative desalination and waste treatment centers. Mercury News said in January of 2018, "Three projects were awarded $10 million each to help with construction. Among them is the Antioch Brackish Water Desalination Project, which is estimated to cost $62.2 million." Projects to desalinate brackish water are gaining traction as it's cheaper and creates less of an environmental impact.
In 2015 a billion dollar desalination plant was build in Carlsbad, north of San Diego. Wikipedia says "The plant is expected to produce 50 million US gallons (190,000 m3) of water per day. [...] It will provide about 7% of the potable water needs for the San Diego region."
Barrel Cactus spines form a beautiful spiral. To learn more about Barrel Cactus, click here.
A Glimmer of Hope
While ground and surface waters have dwindled in the Southwest, and population and the corollary demand have continued to grow, municipalities and rural communities have intensified efforts to conserve. Water managers have developed better tools and mandated higher standards. Cities and rural communities have begun to turn to innovative new methods and technology to use water more efficiently. There has been progress in metropolitan landscaping, along with 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 the Southwest depends on it.
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