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The water problem

By William deBuys

The dirty little secret about water in the West is that water conservation is a hoax.

Trip to New Mexico, D. & R.G. R.R., U.S.A. 1870?-1900? Source: NYPL Labs Stereogranimator
When we conserve water by using less, we don’t save it for the health of the watershed or put it aside in any way; we simply make it available for someone else to consume, if not today, then tomorrow in the next strip mall or housing development down the road.

In this respect, water conservation is good for the short-term economy — it keeps the real estate industry, the building trades, and much else going — but it doesn’t work out well for the resilience of our communities because it leads to “hardened demand,” which means that the water we use is needed all the time, no matter what.

This is the big irony of water management: in dry times, waste is our friend. When water is used wastefully, it is easy to deal with drought. Everybody stops watering the lawn, washing the car, and making puddles of any kind. Current demand drops like a stone.

But when everybody conserves — puts in low-flow toilets, xeriscapes the yard, and does all that other good stuff in both public and private sectors — the demand for water “hardens.” The uses that remain are essential; you can’t turn them of, and sometimes you can barely pare them back.

Conservation enables a community with fixed water resources to continue growing. But the more it grows on the strength of conservation, the more vulnerable it becomes to drought. When dry times inevitably come, there’s no flex in the system.

One logical response is to limit growth, but I don’t know of a single community that has done this without lamentable consequences. Consider Bolinas, California. Because of limited water supplies, Bolinas put a cap on the number of water meters its utility would support. Early in 2010, one of those meters changed hands for a cool $300,000. The Bolinas example illustrates another demand phenomenon. Limit supply, and the price of a needed commodity soars. Outside of small, boutique communities like Bolinas, a major spike in the cost of access to water would be socially and politically unacceptable.

Environmentalists might respond by saying, “Communities will have to handle shortages the best they can. In the meantime, we enviros need to secure in-stream flows for rivers and place those water rights in a blast-proof public trust. That way we can prevent the collapse of the linear oases that sustain the non-human environment.”

The trouble is, anything can be raided. There is no such thing as a blast-proof public trust, not if whole cities face death by thirst. And that kind of threat may not be far away.

Most climate change models forecast declining stream flow and reduced water availability in the Southwest on the order of 10 percent to 30 percent, as well as in other areas of the West. Higher temperatures and faster evaporation guarantee that the region will become more arid even if precipitation stays constant. (But don’t bet on precipitation remaining “normal.”)

Our utilities tell us that conservation is the answer to future water scarcity. I think they tell us that because they don’t have another answer.

In a pinch, utilities will also talk about “augmentation” — desalination, interbasin transfers, and other big-ticket, high-tech lines of attack — which might keep the water-supply hamster wheel spinning for another generation or so, at considerable fiscal and environmental cost. But none of these strategies will stop the wheel of increasing need and hardening demand from spinning, or even slow it down.

And no one dares mention that, over the long term, water conservation paints us into a tighter and tighter corner. Optimists say that conservation at least buys us time by putting off the day of reckoning. This may be true, but what are we doing with the time we’ve bought?

Another argument holds that, when push comes to shove, we can always squeeze more water out of agriculture. Some water districts have already done this, partly by financing agricultural efficiencies, partly by moving the water out and dewatering valleys. Even this strategy has limits, however, and it raises other troubling issues, such as: How do we feed ourselves?

In the end we are back where we started, lacking the ability to set limits and live within them. I don’t have an answer to this conundrum, but it seems to me the sooner people start talking about it openly, the better our chances of solving it.

Meanwhile, our rivers, cities, and farms remain in peril.

William deBuys is the author of seven books, including the latest A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest. He is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion syndicate of High Country News. This article originally appeared in High Country News.

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