The story of western water is about plumbing
Throughout the Rocky Mountain West, the headlines of our newspapers give dire warnings: Colorado Snowpack Poor, Wyoming Drying Up, Montana Drought May be Here to Stay, New Mexico Prepares for Low Runoff, Drought Pushes Idaho Utility to Expensive Sources.
From the Southwest to the Northern Rockies, the ominous facts behind the grim headlines are the stuff of crisis. Lake Powell, the reservoir of both first and last resort to the states of Arizona, Nevada and California, is at 42 percent of capacity and is predicted to receive only half of normal spring runoff. Just downstream, Lake Meade sits at less than 60 percent of capacity. High and dry docks ring the shoreline of the largest fresh water lake west of the Mississippi, Montana's Flathead Lake. The little Montana town of Fairfield, following seven years of drought, is out of water. Its aquifer no longer fully recharges, forcing the town's citizens to buy bottled drinking water and use outhouses. Snowpack in New Mexico's Sangre de Cristo Mountains is 50 percent of normal. The Rio Grande is low and dropping. Snowpack in the high watersheds of Colorado and Idaho are at near record lows. No western state is escaping the grim reality of water shortage.
The story of western water is about plumbing. From the earliest pumping windmills to the centrifugal water pumps and pipelines, from the mainstream dams to the ditches, we have tapped the aquifers and diverted the rivers. In creating this hydraulic society, both the West and America have economically prospered.
However, as our headlines attest, the crosshairs of drought and development are aligning and bringing into focus the reality of tomorrow's limits.
Our western forbearers fought fiercely over water, but today's westerners seem to understand neither water's limits nor costs. The almost mindless depletion of our aquifers continues at an unsustainable rate, while both population and temperatures soar. Two-thirds of the nation's groundwater withdrawal occurs in the West, with 78 percent of it going for a single use: agriculture. People living in the seven states of the Rocky Mountain West get, on the average, more than 60 percent of their drinking water from underground sources. Surely we recognize that drought, perhaps very long-term drought, combined with increased demand is depleting that life-giving resource.
Serious water use reform is required: inter- and intra-state cooperation, conservation, development limitations, minimum flow standards, respect for the commons, and the use of financial penalties as well as incentives. One of the most controversial reform trends is the commodification or privatization of the distribution and management of water. Any effort to privatize water must be accompanied by iron-clad recognition of the social and ecological importance of water. Access must be made available to those who would likely be bypassed by market solutions, including the West's small farmers and small towns.
Without wisdom and understanding, our pursuit of a well-watered future may come to the same ignominious end that surprised German soldiers who were imprisoned as POWs near Phoenix, Ariz., during World War II. Having secured a map, those soldiers studied escape routes that would lead them to a large nearby river shown on the map. The Germans labored for months digging a 200-foot tunnel under the camp and toward the river. When completed, 25 POWs crawled through the 3-ft. wide tunnel and once outside the camp, they walked through the night toward the promised river upon which they intended to float to Mexico and freedom.
They found only the banks of a dry river bed; the water had been diverted years earlier by upstream dams. Here in the West water is elusive; planning alone is often not enough to secure it. And yet without water, the freedom to live, develop and prosper will be impossible.
Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at the University of Montana where he also serves as a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West.