Water conservation is key in desert urban regions of American West

Posted May 7, 2017


Water, to many American citizens, seems plentiful. This is true in the Midwest and East regions of the United States, but, once you get to the West, the facts change drastically for the worst.

The West was not developed to sustain populations of the sizes of 2017. Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix are all located in high desert regions and their water is going fast.

This view is from the Hoover Dam looking out at the turbines that generate power and electricity. The water level is 36 meters below the average, which is at the top of the bleaching, showing how the drought affected Lake Mead (Photo courtesy of Abby Puk).

Lakes, streams, rivers and aquifers are drying up at an alarming rate.

Commercial and residential developers continue to build because of the high demand of people moving from the East into the West.

These developers are continuing to put major golf courses and swimming pools in the middle of the desert, all of which require a lot of water.

Agriculture is using much of the available fresh water and using it for their crops and livestock just to keep up with the demand for food.

One recent article from Hoover Digest, a quarterly publication from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, stated that “Modest changes in water use could have big results: a reduction of just 4 percent in agricultural consumption would increase the water available for residential, commercial, and industrial uses by roughly 50 percent, according to our analysis of U.S. Geological Survey data.”

Doug Von Gausig, mayor of Clarkdale, Ariz., is an executive director of the Verde River Institute and has been involved with a variety of water-focused studies, developing an expertise in resource issues and conservation.

According to a study done by Von Gausig, there are ways to prevent water from running out.

“Grow crops and use agricultural techniques that are more efficient, and convert landscape to native vegetation. 35 to 40 percent of water would be saved by taking those steps,” said Von Gausig.

Lake Mead, the lake bordering both Nevada and Arizona, was created by Hoover Dam in the 1930s, is also dropping rapidly, hitting record lows in the last year, reaching 1,074.33 feet in elevation.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval’s panel of experts issued a report that recommended more aggressive water-saving plans.

Douglas Connor, one of the Nevada governor’s climate and water experts, stated in a press conference dealing with water issues revolving around Lake Mead that “The shortages shown by this dam means that we have to figure out other ways to get water because there’s not going to be enough.”

Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix all rely heavily on the Hoover Dam. Without this dam, these cities wouldn’t have enough water to support their ever-growing populations.

Hoover Dam can “supply 29 million households (about equal to the population of California) for one year. In the regions of the Southwest where people are water wise, Lake Mead could supply twice this many families with water for one year,” according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Karla Smiley, a director in the Information Resources Office in Denver, said “We are working every day to try and come up with new, efficient and environmentally friendly ways to conserve water. Our No. 1 priority is to supply 31 million people in the 17 Western states with water and power.”

Just one of many views from a hiking trail to the west of downtown Los Angeles reveals a city often covered by smog. Air pollution gets trapped due to the location of the city, the mountains and the valley (Photo courtesy of Natalie Wohl).

Diverting water up slope, building massive dams and irrigating crops using recycled water are all ways that water engineers have carefully constructed the West in order to get water to Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

In the last decade, scientists have discovered ways to pinpoint aquifers beneath the surface as a method for obtaining clean drinking water.

David Payne, a geologist for the Desert Research Institute, was kind enough to open up to me about how new technology has benefited ways to discover potential water sources.

“Locating aquifers has changed and been improved over time. Today, how we locate these aquifers is a combination of studying the sand composition and its geological features,” according to Payne.

These aquifers well below the surface may be the key to refine water development and management in California. If there are tons of water that is not being used below the surface, it could be looked at for potential use in supplying Californians with water. Having the technology to be able to locate these aquifers is also very important to being able to access this water.

Phoenix, being the desert region metropolitan area it is, doesn’t have a lot of options for water. Although there are other ways to get water to Phoenix, there must be other ways to retrieve water besides pumping it up from beneath us.

Jack Hesse, a hydrologist who works for the Arizona Department of Water Resources,  said, “With estimated population growth combined with limitless water usage, groundwater will be unattainable by 2030 under any given climate scenario.”

Hesse also added “Global warming does raise water issues to a certain extent, but most of the complications we are seeing are due to excessive farming in arid environments and increase in population.”

There has to be some sort of change within the way water is retrieved in order for the environment to be able to sustain the populations in cities like Phoenix and supply water to everyone. Aquifers alone won’t be enough.

Bringing it to Los Angeles, which has about 3.8 million people, was built in the middle of a desert with its west side the salt water of the Pacific Ocean.

Flying into the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, this aerial view shows the aridity of the land (Photo by Alison Goebel).

According to Amanda Zamora from Scientific American, “The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that it would take several years of average or above- average rainfall before the State’s water supply could return to anything close to normal.”

Farms in California have built massive pipes that suck water from aquifers and use them to water their crops. The aquifers are already shrinking significantly and the City of Los Angeles is relying very heavily on this way to get water that will eventually run out. Not only is there not enough to supply the need for population growth, but also these aquifers are making the land sink.

Not only is there the lack of water that is an issue, but climate change also plays a huge part in water shortages in these three major cities.

“This problem is not going away and it is likely to get worse, perhaps far worse, as climate change unfolds. Unprecedented high temperatures in the basin are causing the flow of the river to decline. The good news is that we have time and the smarts to manage this, if all the states work together,” Brad Udall, a senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University, said.

After asking Dr. Stephen Parker, a professor at University of Nevada at Las Vegas, about what’s creating water shortages, he said “As a professor of science, we all see, as do most scientists, the fact that we’re not really in a period of drought. It is climate change.”

Parker believes long-term solutions include paying Southern California farmers to not use water.

Creating water from the sea is another solution, but California has told Nevada to look elsewhere.

Although there are multiple ways that scientists and engineers attempt to attack the issue that, there is a serious lack of water in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix, there is still really no certainty that these cities will have enough water in the future.

This is why it is critical that consumers of water do their best to conserve what they have and what they are getting because it is not abundant, especially for these three cities.