On Moving Water

Earlier this month, Henry Brean described Pat Mulroy’s bold proposal:

The general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority said now may be the time to take a serious look at a decades-old idea of capturing floodwater from the Mississippi River and using it to recharge the massive groundwater aquifer beneath the Central Plains.

In terms of jobs and investment, the project would dwarf the Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams, and some believe it could secure the future water supply for a vast swath of the Midwest and West, including Nevada and six other states that share the Colorado River….

It … could set off a daisy chain of smaller water projects and exchanges from east to west, allowing residents in Denver and farmers across the eastern flank of the Rockies to relinquish the water they currently pump across the Continental Divide. That in turn would leave more water for the Colorado River.

Short of dismantling the sprawling cities and massive economies that now dot the arid West, Mulroy said the only way to save the Colorado is to find more water to fill it.

It’s hard to know whether to take this seriously. My inclination is not to, until a serious conversation about the idea gets underway. But at the end of a week of remarkable water news and debates around the West, it’s also hard not to notice a common theme. The more we engage in large scale movement of water out of its natural watersheds, the more trouble we seem to have.

Construction of Owens Valley Main Canal, 1912, courtesy Water Resources Center Archives, UC Berkeley

Construction of Owens Valley Main Canal, 1912, courtesy Water Resources Center Archives, UC Berkeley

That is certainly the case with this week’s biggest western water news, the decision by Nevada’s Supreme Court to invalidate the process of issuing permits for groundwater to fill Vegas’s big water pipe.

It also is at the heart of California’s debate over a new peripheral canal (or something like it), a conveyance to move water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. George Janczyn at GrokSurf explains the no-win dilemma at the heart of the issue: Southern California faces disaster if (when?) the delta collapses and the southland can no longer get the massive transbasin transfer of water it’s come to depend on: “When the breaking point for the delta is reached, it will be catastrophic for SoCal — and taking the long-term view, such a delta malfunction seems inevitable.”

The list of similar problems at the heart of recent western water news is long:

  • the collapse of California’s QSA agreement
  • the risk that the Central Arizona Project could see its first shortage as Lake Mead drops
  • the battle over Aaron Million’s Colorado Pipeline
  • the argument in Utah over the south Utah pipeline
I’ve been encouraged to think about this, in part, by a conversation with Eric Perramond, a Colorado College geographer who’s in New Mexico studying our acequia system of water management and its relationship to state water rights adjudication processes. In my thinking about water, I tend to focus on the largest scales, the Colorado Basin and the infrastructure and institutions for managing its water. Eric’s work is a reminder that human use and management of water happens at many different scales.There’s a tradition in the western water intelligentsia of waxing nostalgic about John Wesley Powell and his notion (which seems quaint today) that our political jurisdictions be organized geographically around watersheds. As Donald Worster describes it:

Powell’s ultimate plan for the region was to create a new political system based on the watershed, that is, on the waterways that flow through the countryside and the land that supplies that water. Those watersheds should become the definition of, the foundation for, local and regional government. Within each watershed there should be a polity of citizens armed with knowledge to develop the watershed for the common good and to make rules governing its use.

The first step toward that goal, Powell believed, was to observe and respect the patterns that water makes as it flows across the landscape. In nature, water does not flow in straight or rigid lines but cuts a far more complicated pattern – a mosaic of thousands of interlacing rivers and streams, each one different from all the others. Yet each watershed is a unified whole in which everything, from one divide to the other, is bound together by commonalities of geology, rainfall, evaporation, soil absorption, runoff, and drainage. Vegetation is part of that unity, likewise the fauna, and likewise the people who live there.

It seems as though our problems happen when we get beyond that scale – when we’re moving water from one watershed to another. The Powell nostalgia is perhaps not helpful. The nation didn’t listen to him. We have the institutions and governmental boundaries that we have, and we wont’ be changing them. We also have the major interbasin water transfers we have, and we’ve built farms and cities on their backs that we’re not likely to abandon.

But do we have to compound the problem?


  1. Excellent post. Western water managers have begun to talk about “finding” new water through conservation, and indeed to greater and lesser degrees have been seeking it, but if you shut out their words and read the measures they add to bond proposals, what they are still seeking is Mulholland-like conveyance: MWD spends tens of millions on conservation rebates, but has billions on the table for new delta conveyance; Pat Mulroy styles herself as queen of conservation, but acted like Mulholland. Utah was the state on the river that most staunchly demanded Mulroy and Nevada go inland for groundwater before they could revisit Colorado River allocations; it then moved to deny the groundwater applications while planning a new pipe to the river. Denver built a reservoir recently without knowing where the water would come to fill it. It’s a case of crazy, crazier and craziest. All a long way of saying: Excellent post.

  2. John – well done, and thanks for the mention. I’m hoping your post of Worster’s analysis of Powell is a way of arguing that Powell actually learned FROM the acequias he observed; his template system of basins is essentially what acequias are: self-managed water democracies, they’re not perfect, and there are issues within and between these, but at least these can be resolved with actual face time. And not just pipelines and lawsuits.
    I also wonder, out loud, whether the Mormons did some observing of their Hispanic neighbors to figure out the irrigation system in Utah, which was like the acequia system. Hmm…

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  6. I feel that the comments above are too narrow minded. Man has already upset the watersheds and now we need a comprehensive fix. The warming of the earth has increased rainfall in the Midwest and East, and engineers are estimating billions handle increased floods, etc.

    Water supply alone might not justify the project, but if we combine it with power storage from Wyoming wind farms (recovering the power at the dams) the economic picture changes.

    When power, flood control, water are combined the project becomes more feasible. Consider also that we are entering a new era of increased floods that will likely upset our ‘natural’ watersheds anyway.

    Lynn Lanier

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