The Tide Turns
By the late 1960s, the political atmosphere and public opinion began to turn against the Bureau of Reclamation and Corps of Engineers. The best dam sites had been developed, leading to the consideration of increasingly marginal project requiring increasingly heavy subsidy. The growing environmental movement helped prompt the passage of such key pieces of legislation as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which required an environmental impact statements (EIS) for all federal development projects. The awareness of the negative ecological impacts of large scale water diversion grew as such issues as toxic agricultural runoff, soil loss due to salinization, endangerment of species, and loss of riparian areas became common news.
The election of President Jimmy Carter furthered the anti-water development movement when he loudly attacked federal water programs and produced a "hit list" of authorized and proposed major projects which he vowed would not be built. The Reagan administration, in turn, was willing to finish projects already under development, but would not support any more new water projects.
The $4 billion Central Arizona Project, started in 1973, was allowed to continue. This 336-mile canal system, which brings water from Lake Havasu to southern Arizona, was not completed until 1993 and represents one of the few large-scale water projects to continue in recent times. Many dozens of other water development projects have been discontinued and appropriated funds have been re-allocated. It is highly unlikely that any additional large dams will be constructed in the West. The overall belief by most Americans and politicians today is that our few remaining rivers should be left untouched. Many dams across the country, mainly small to mid-sized dams, are being decomissioned to return rivers and their biotic inhabitants to a natural state. There is even a growing movement to decomission the mighty Glen Canyon Dam, igniting a heated debate among environmentalists, politicians and the many other interests on both sides.
Modern Water Use in the Colorado Plateau: A Look at Some Statistics
One common misconception of water use in the Colorado River basin and in the West in general is that rapidly growing urban areas are the main users of the region's limited water. In the upper Colorado River basin states, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico, 90% of the water used is spread on land irrigated for crops, leaving 10 % for urban and other uses. Of the 1.6 million acres irrigated in the upper basin, feed for livestock is raised on 88% of the irrigated land.
In the lower basin states, California, Arizona, and Nevada, 85% of water goes to agricultural purposes. Rapidly growing cities such as Las Vegas, Phoenix, and areas of southern California, all of which use some Colorado River water, still only account for less than 15% of these three states' water use. Of the 99 million acres in the lower basin, 82 million acres are rangeland or pasture, while only 500,000 acres are classified as urban. Most of the crops produced, including heavily water-consumptive crops such as alfalfa, are grown to provide feed for cattle. Despite the enormous public cost of the region's elaborate water damming and diversion projects, the seven Colorado River basin states, including those portions of the states lying outside the basin and not receiving any Colorado River water, produced only 13% of the total value of the nation's livestock. Though urban use, flood control, and recreation are commonly cited as major uses of the region's water supply, these uses are negligible when compared to the amount consumed by agricultural interests associated with the livestock industry.
While the paradigms concerning water development and water use in the western United States are changing for the better, much progress has yet to be made in order for this region to fully embrace sustainable water usage. Water cannot be taken for granted in an area where precipitation is minimal and huge sacrifices have been made to bring water to the deserts and highlands where it would never naturally exist. Stated in these terms, the overwhelming urban development and population booms across the Plateau and the regions surrounding it is highly unnatural. Cities such as Phoenix, Las Vegas and Los Angeles would not exist as we know them if it were not for the mighty dams and miles of canals across the arid landscape. Nor would such metropolises exist if just one river, the Colorado, were to dry up.
As we enter the 21st century, a completely different set of norms must guide our management and attitudes toward water than did during the last century. True water conservation (as opposed to the early Bureau of Reclamation definition of conservation as meaning not allowing water to run into the ocean unused) and increased water use efficiency are essential for sustaining the ever increasing population and development of the West. Education and public awareness is key, however, the most important initiative must be to increase the efficiency of agricultural water usage, as this industry is the greatest water consumer. Irrigation can be made much more efficient by employing a number of adaptive, water conserving methods, including low to the ground, drip irrigation and the cultivation of crops adapted to dry conditions.
Others who have studied western water issues, such as Cadillac Desert author Marc Reisner, say that Western agriculture and livestock industries simply do not have a place in the West, that the heavily subsidized, expensively irrigated farming of the West is just not sustainable. Reisner advocates increased exports of crops and meat from regions that receive adequate natural precipitation, such as the East and Midwest, to lessen western reliance on locally grown foods. Some sobering facts:
In the closing words of Cadillac Desert (1993), Reisner envisions "a region where people begin to recognize that water left in rivers can be worth a lot more--in revenues, in jobs--than water taken out of rivers."
--Researched and written by Shannon Kelly
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