Is there a water crisis in America?

America is facing a water crisis and nowhere is this more evident than in the West where significant problems abound. As 2014, the western United States is struggling to survive a fifteen-year drought that is the worst in nearly a thousand years. One scientist called it a “Megadrought.” “Bathtub rings” now circle Lake Mead, America’s largest reservoir, because the lake is now half empty. Water levels in reservoirs across the West have dropped to record lows. As of August 2014, 100 percent of California was considered in a drought. Water and power shortages are now a real possibility for Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and other major western cities. The Megadrought will start to rattle through the national economy if these trends continue, causing food prices to rise and impacting our national economy to the tune of billions of dollars.

What is a Megadrought?

A Megadrought is a prolonged drought lasting two decades or longer.  Past Megadroughts have been associated with persistent multiyear conditions where cooler than normal water temperatures exist in the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean (La Nina).  The term Megadrought is generally used to describe the length of a drought, and not its acute intensity. In most scientific literature the term is used to describe decades-long droughts or multi-decadal droughts.  Multiyear droughts of less than a decade, such as the Dust Bowl drought of the 1930s, are generally not described as Megadroughts.  Megadroughts are what Cornell University scientist Toby Ault calls the “great white sharks of climate: powerful, dangerous and hard to detect before it’s too late. They have happened in the past, and they are still out there, lurking in what is possible for the future, even without climate change.” Ault goes so far as to call Megadroughts “a threat to civilization.”

Who was John Wesley Powell and why was he important?

John Wesley Powell was a one-armed Civil War veteran who gained fame as the first white man to float down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 1869. Powell retraced this journey in 1871 and 1872. Although his expeditions were a disaster in many respects, his promotional abilities were second to none.  After returning from his expeditions, he hit the lecture circuit and wrote a best-selling journal of his expedition. His exploits captivated an American public yearning for adventure in the West, and Powell became rich and famous.

Powell was equally adept as a lobbyist and promoter of government programs. He was instrumental in the establishment of the U.S. Geological Survey and was the Survey’s second director from 1881–1894. In an unusual case of double-dipping, he also served at the same time as the director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of Ethnology. But it was his ability to encourage Congress to promote settlement of the West and pass laws to assist this development that was his lasting accomplishment.

One such law was the Reclamation Act of 1902, passed after much debate in Congress. This law laid out how the federal government would help build dams to assist settlement in the arid West, and led to the establishment of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

How many dams have been built in the U.S.?

The United States built 70,000 dams between 1900 and 1970. That’s an average of nearly three dams per day. In fact, 85 percent of the dams in America were constructed during that seventy-year span, known as the golden age of concrete.

During this period, we went on a dam- and canal-building binge unrivaled by any nation on the globe. The solution to every water problem seemed to be the same—pour concrete. If we were looking for one symbol to characterize twentieth-century America, a dam might be a good choice.

Why are we so obsessed with building dams?

Because dams are so large, they look and feel permanent to most people. Once constructed and operating, dams and reservoirs cross an imaginary threshold and are brought easily into our lives. Something this large must be reckoned with, and we quickly make the necessary adjustments. We assume a large dam with a reservoir extending behind it is there permanently and we have to accept it. The dam and its reservoir are added to our language and maps and become a permanent part of our vocabulary and geography.

What is the Bureau of Reclamation?

At the beginning of the last century, the federal government created the Bureau of Reclamation to build dams and water projects to promote settlement and economic development in the West.  The Bureau is a federal agency in the U.S. Department of the Interior which oversees water resource management, specifically as it applies to diversion, delivery, and storage projects that it has built throughout in the West. Currently USBR is the largest wholesaler of water in the country, bringing water to more than 31 million people, and providing one in five Western farmers with irrigation water for 10 million acres of farmland.  It is one of the largest generators of hydroelectric power in the United States.  They currently have approximately 5400 employees and an annual budget of $1 billion.

What are “Deadbeat Dams”?

“Deadbeat Dams” are those dams that have outlived their usefulness, should not have been built in the first place, or are a waste of government money.  If they have been built, they should be removed.  If they’re being considered for construction, they should be scrapped.

What is the Water Nobility?

It is an unofficial, loose-knit collection of people spread across the seventeen western states who receive water from federal dams and an associated cadre of politicians, lawyers, lobbyists, engineers, government officials, and others who work with them. Once they were grateful recipients of a federal program, but at some point in time, they began to view the benefits they were receiving as an entitlement, even a birthright. They came to believe that they should receive federal funds and resources in perpetuity. To them, this wasn’t welfare or subsidies. They were investments—a wise use of taxpayer dollars, and it was theirs.

In the view of the Water Nobility, by providing them with water and subsidies at federal expense and allowing them to benefit is good for America.  Abstractions like “fairness,” “equality,” or “majority rule” are irrelevant. The only issue is the continued flow of money and power.


Why do we subsidize the delivery of water to farms in the West?

Over 85 percent of all the water consumed in the West is used by agriculture. Nearly all this water is used to irrigate crops and the federal government supplies one-half of it.

A majority of the water supplied by the Federal government is used to produce alfalfa, hay, and other grasses for the cattle industry. The farms that consume this water don’t pay fair market value prices for it. Instead, they receive the water at highly reduced rates through a complex set of subsidy payments from federal taxpayers.

Because of subsidies, marginal farms continue to operate and uneconomic water uses and farming practices are perpetuated. Water that may be desperately needed for high priority environmental or urban uses continues to flow to farms because of the western water subsidy system.

These subsidies are a raid on our pocketbooks. They deprive the treasury of billions of dollars in revenue that must be made up by taxpayers or by increasing the national debt.  We provide our most valuable resource to this select group of users at rates that are impossible to justify. We give this select group of users an outdated and unjustified subsidy that gives them an artificial competitive advantage that lasts a lifetime. Even worse, our largesse promotes excessive use and drives water away from other high priority uses.


Has anyone calculated the amount of this subsidy?

A recent General Accountability Office report found that irrigators paid only 21 percent of the $6.4 billion in construction costs assigned to them, and the remainder was either written off or paid by power users.

Do we need to keep all these dams or is dam removal feasible?

The issue of dam removal is recent. It was sparked by the recognition that dams were having significant impacts on the physical environment. For decades, we perpetuated a myth that the adverse consequences of damming and engineering rivers were minimal and the benefits far outweighed any impacts.

Building a dam is a lot like constructing a nuclear power plant: you get immediate benefits, but you also get huge long-term costs. Just like a nuclear power plant, a dam can leave a legacy of environmental destruction that can take hundreds of years to correct. And dams take massive amounts of dirty energy to construct and to make the materials in the dam.

What most people don’t realize is that dams and other structures are not permanent fixtures on the landscape. They are there because we made a political decision to build them. They didn’t get there by accident. We made a conscious decision to invest money to build a dam, and that decision is always made by one of our political institutions.

It’s quite reasonable for us to question if a dam is no longer fulfilling its intended purpose and whether it should remain standing. Our political institutions approve dam projects for a specific set of reasons at a particular point in time. After forty or fifty years, things change.  We don’t need to blindly accept and live with decisions made fifty or a hundred years ago if those are inconsistent with today’s values or economy.

Are there many dam removal efforts underway in the United States?

The advocacy group American Rivers has noted that dam removal, even up until the mid-1990s, only conjured up memories of Edward Abbey’s characters’ efforts to blow up Glen Canyon Dam in The Monkey Wrench Gang. Today, American Rivers lists a total of 1,150 dams that have been removed in the U.S., and that trend has increased sharply since the mid-1990s.

Why was removal of dams on the Elhwa River in Washington State so important?

In 1992, Congress enacted legislation directing the removal of two dams on the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. This legislation, championed by former Senator Bill Bradley, was the first high profile dam-removal legislation enacted by Congress and served as a spark to ignite other efforts.

Is there a better way to make national policy decisions about water issues?

We need to institute a more rational and thoughtful approach to spending public money to solve water problems.  We need to critically examine what the federal government should be doing to help, how it can provide that help and what alternatives we have to provide the assistance.  We need to ask very fundamental questions such as: What kind of water issues will we encounter in the next decade or two?  Are we prepared to address those challenges?  If not, what changes do we need to make and why?


What is the Quadrennial Defense Policy Review process and why is it important?

Every four years, the secretary of defense is required to undertake a review and issue a report with the tongue-twisting name of the “Quadrennial Defense Policy Review.” Despite the cumbersome title, the review is a fascinating and useful document. The law that initiated the review directed the secretary of defense to examine some very fundamental questions, such as:

What kind of defense forces do we need for the near future?

Where should we concentrate our funding—on manpower, reserve forces, or weapons?

Is the Army too big or too small? Should we have large combat regiments or smaller, more mobile units?

Do the Navy and Air Force have the equipment they need to meet future defense threats? If not, what do they need and what will it cost?

What kind of conflicts should we anticipate fighting? Are we prepared to address these conflicts?

The review process and resulting report and recommendations are a useful exercise because it forces our leaders to question existing policies, anticipate future problems, and consider alterative approaches. It generates a useful national discussion about what the future holds and how we should address defense-related issues. Given the hundreds of billions of dollars we spend on national defense, this process is a necessary and appropriate way to have a national dialogue and shape future choices.

We should approach water issues in a similar way.

What was the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC), and why was it important?

The BRAC process was established by Congress to facilitate the closure of unnecessary military facilities because of the winding down of the Cold War.   It was the brainchild of former Congressman Dick Armey who suggested the creation of a Commission composed of nine independent members appointed by the President. They would receive a list of proposed base closings from the secretary of defense. They would visit the bases, meet with defense personnel, hold public hearings, and then develop a final closure list. This list would then be sent to the President, who had to accept or reject it in its entirety. Assuming he accepted the list, he would send it to Congress. They had forty-five days in which to pass a resolution of disapproval. If they didn’t pass such a resolution, the recommendations would be considered final and the closures would take place.

The idea worked. Since the law was enacted in 1988, there have been six BRAC “rounds,” which closed hundreds of bases and shipyards and significantly realigned our forces to meet more contemporary needs. In the process, we’ve saved hundreds of billions of dollars.


Why are Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam only half full?

The western United States is struggling to survive a fifteen-year drought that is the worst in nearly a thousand years. One scientist called it a “Megadrought.” “Bathtub rings” now circle Lake Mead, America’s largest reservoir, because the lake is now half empty. Water levels in reservoirs across the West have dropped to record lows.  As a result of 15 years of drought and other factors, both Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams on the Colorado River are at 50 percent of storage capacity, and is doubtful if we will ever fill both reservoirs again.

With Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams at only 50 percent of capacity, what should we do to meet future water needs from the Colorado River basin?

In order to meet future needs in the Colorado River, we should take a number of actions: First, we should stop constructing uneconomic and environmentally destructive projects in the Upper Basin States of Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.  Second, we need to encourage solutions to water problems using
innovative, low-cost solutions that promote conservation
and more efficient use of water throughout the Colorado River basin.
Third, we should eliminate subsidies that promote excessive use of water for irrigation.  Finally, we should remove Glen Canyon Dam, drain Lake Powell, and allow the Colorado River to fill Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam. Constructing Glen Canyon Dam was an historic blunder of monumental proportions and based on a false set of assumptions. It was the product of political wheeling and dealing, and today we are stuck with a half-empty reservoir that evaporates nearly a million acre-feet of water into the atmosphere.

Is evaporation and bank seepage a real problem for Western reservoirs?

Evaporation and bank seepage are significant problems for Western reservoirs.  In one study of Lake Powell, because of its high desert location and huge surface area, 860,000 acre-feet  of water is lost annually to evaporation and bank seepage. This is enough water to meet the yearly water requirements of the city of Los Angeles. In fact, Lake Powell loses more than 6 percent of the Colorado River’s annual flow through evaporation and bank seepage.

How much is an “acre-foot of water”?

“Acre-feet” is the measure most commonly used to describe water delivered for agricultural, industrial, or commercial purposes in the United States. It is the amount of water required to cover an acre of land, one foot deep. This is 325,851 gallons, or enough water to meet the needs of four people for one year.

What is the current outlook for water supplies in California?

In a word, the outlook is “dismal.”  As of August 2014, 100 percent of California was considered to be in a drought.  The Golden State has suffered through 15 years of drought conditions, and the experts don’t forecast much in the way of change.  The severity of recent drought years has been significant.  Using tree ring analysis, a recent report concluded that the last three years of drought were the most severe in at least 1,200 years.

A 2014 Interior Department report noted, it is important to act now to address this situation because there is an interrelationship between climate change and water resources.  We now understand that these interrelationships will pose major challenges in the very near future. Our climate is changing, and those changes will have their greatest impact on water resources in the “mid-latitudes of the West” where water availability is largely determined by snow accumulation and runoff. We are experiencing warmer temperatures, and this will shift the timing of spring and summer snowmelt runoff. Water availability will be impacted, especially during summer lowflow periods.

What is the Central Valley Project, California?

Californians store and move water around the state on a scale unparalleled anywhere else on earth. They move water hundreds of miles from where it falls as rain or snow to places where it is needed—or assumed to be needed. Most of the state is covered with an elaborate plumbing system that moves enough water to meet the needs of thirty-eight million people. (If it were a country, it would be the thirty-third largest in terms of population, larger than Canada.) California also moves enough water to sustain the tenth most productive economy in the world and the most productive agricultural economy in the United States.

In the Central Valley, California’s plumbing is at its most intricate and interesting.  The Central Valley extends 475 miles from Redding in the north to Bakersfield in the south.  Clouds coming off the Pacific Ocean dump rainfall and snow on the western side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  Rivers and streams flow off the Sierras and join to form the Sacramento River, draining the northern half of the valley, and the San Joaquin River, draining the southern half.  These two rivers meet halfway between the north and south points at the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers and then flow into San Francisco Bay.

The plumbing system required to distribute water around the state is a hodge-podge of local, state, and federal dams and canals.  In the case of the federal Central Valley Project, water is stored behind dams in the north and released into the Sacramento River.  The water flows south some two hundred miles, irrigating farms along the way. When it reaches the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, an almost unimaginable engineering feat takes place.  Water is then pumped through the delta and put into the Delta-Mendota Canal, and sent another hundred and fifty miles south and uphill, where it irrigates the largest irrigation district in America—the Westlands Water District.

What is the Westlands Water District and why is it important?

The water district was the last unit of the Central Valley Project to be built, and water was first delivered in 1963. Westlands, a public agency created under California state law, currently has contracts with the federal government for delivery of 1,150,000 acre-feet of water annually, and this water is required to be delivered to them at rock-bottom prices, cheating the federal treasury (and taxpayers) of revenues that they should be receiving. By one conservative estimate, the yearly water subsidy to the district of up to $110 million is the most profitable arrangement for any water district in America.

The debates surrounding the Westlands Water District seem to be never-ending. Despite generous federal water subsidies, the district carries on a continual fight to get the U.S. taxpayers to pay for solving their drainage problems, and they spend lavishly on lobbying and legal fees to secure even more water. All this money and effort just to appease six hundred farms in the wealthiest irrigation district in America. And the payments don’t stop with water subsidies.  They also receive tens of millions of dollars in conservation, disaster, commodity, and crop insurance subsidies through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Here’s a very simple solution to this state of affairs. Let’s cut them free of the federal tentacles. We should declare victory and withdraw, as former governor and senator George Aiken of Vermont suggested as a way to end U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. There is no reason why the federal government, especially the federal taxpayer, needs to continue to pour money into this venture.

Westlands is the largest irrigation district in America, led by savvy leaders who are perfectly capable of existing on their own. If Westlands wants more water in the future, let them build the facilities to store the water, deliver it to their lands, and drain it off their fields. The federal taxpayers are under no obligation to assume this responsibility.

What is the Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission and why is it important?

In 1992, the Congress passed historic legislation to fire the Bureau of Reclamation from constructing a federal water project.  Fed up with continual delays and questionable use of Federal funds, Congress enacted legislation to replace the Bureau as the party responsible for constructing the Central Utah Project.  Congress created a five-member commission composed of Utah officials nominated by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, and charged them to complete the project. The commission goes by the confusing name of the Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission. Their job was to oversee construction in cooperation with a three-person federal staff reporting directly to the secretary of the Interior. No bureaucracy, just a small commission staff and an even smaller contingent of federal employees auditing the books.

It is a unique experiment that has worked. After more than two decades in existence, the commission has construction ahead of schedule and under budget.  Even environmental leaders are happy. The law establishing the commission laid out a schedule of environmental mitigation projects to be constructed.  The commission has adhered to the construction and mitigation schedule and water users and environmental leaders are pleased with the results.

What is the “Winters Doctrine” and why is it important?

The Supreme Court decided the case of Winters v. United States in 1908. In the early 1890s, Henry Winter (the “s” was added to his name in a clerical error during the court proceedings) and his neighbors in northern Montana began to divert irrigation water from the Milk River. A few years later, the Fort Belknap tribe built an irrigation system downstream from Mr. Winter. During a drought in 1905, the river was drained of water upstream from the reservation. A gutsy U.S. attorney sued on behalf of the tribe, claiming that the tribe had senior rights to the water and Mr. Winter and his neighbors couldn’t take the tribe’s water.

A federal judge and the Supreme Court found on behalf of the tribe. Their reasoning was that the tribe possessed sovereignty and real property rights in their aboriginal territory long before any treaties with the United States were approved and long before any settlement by non-Indians. At the time that they signed treaties with the federal government, the tribe reserved the right to the water flowing through the lands they historically occupied. The tribes possessed a reserved water right, under federal law, dating to the year their reservation was established.

While Winters clearly laid out the law, it certainly didn’t result in positive benefits for the tribes. Winters was common knowledge, but was ignored or circumvented by state and federal officials for the next sixty years. As legal scholar Charles Wilkinson has observed, water developers “detested” any rules outside of their tightly controlled state systems, and state officials effectively read Winters out of existence by giving away Indian rights without Indian approval. Wilkinson was right when he noted that federal officials, supposedly bound to act as trustees for Indian rights, were the real villains. “They pushed for federal subsidies for non-Indian projects on Indian rivers and ignored potential Indian projects. There were almost no exceptions.”

Why and how should we promote water conservation?

Water conservation offers the cheapest, fastest, and most effective approach for addressing our future water needs. Peter Gleick, a noted water expert, has correctly pointed out that, “Water conservation and efficiency are the greatest untapped sources of water in this nation.”

The population numbers facing most western communities are so overwhelming that we need immediate answers to ensure that these communities’ future needs are met. Building large storage projects and the necessary delivery canals simply will take too much time, cost too much money, and encounter too much opposition to be effective solutions. Water conservation and efficiency are the only legitimate approaches we have for addressing these challenging population numbers.

The Pacific Institute, a California-based think tank, has spent several decades investigating water use in our most populous state. Their conclusion is that the “potential for conservation and efficiency improvements in California is so large that even when the expected growth in the state’s population and economy is taken into account, no new water supply dams or reservoirs are needed in the coming decades.” By their estimate, one-third of California’s current urban water use—more than 2.3 million acre-feet—can be saved with existing technology, and 85 percent of that can be saved at costs below what it would cost to tap into new sources of supply.

What is it we should be doing to promote more efficient use of water?

The first thing we need to do is jettison our infatuation with building monuments. We must accept the notion that the solution to future water problems lies with using the water we have already developed in a more efficient manner.  Changing public attitudes and opinions is another prerequisite. As long as the press and other people view water conservation as a solution pushed only by the Birkenstock crowd, we won’t make much progress instituting change.

We need to involve the business community in conservation programs to the maximum extent possible. Continuing to operate under the delusion that government directives will make major changes is nonsense. Water isn’t a free commodity. It is expensive to develop, transport, and consume. Businesses study their bottom line and have the incentive to adopt new technology or approaches if they save money. Alternative pricing schemes that encourage creative minds to look for cheaper and more efficient ways of using water is sorely needed.

The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread, located in Racine, Wisconsin, recently announced the results of a six-year intensive, solution-oriented look at how to make U.S. freshwater supplies more sustainable and resilient.  One of the central conclusions of this effort was that historically, capital investments in water infrastructure have been heavily subsidized by federal grants and payments, and water rates have not reflected the real cost of water withdrawn from our nation’s rivers and streams.  We can no longer afford to cling to the illusion that water and water services are cheap. “It is time,” the Johnson Foundation pointed out, “to rethink how we value water and adopt new strategies and tools that institutionalize its true worth.”

Is there hope for solving the current water crisis?

The ten basic reforms explained in Deadbeat Dams will help channel that emotional outrage in a productive way, and result in better water policy decisions in the future. Those changes include:

  • We need to stop catering to the Water Nobility, who has secured a grip on western water.
  • The federal government should not subsidize the delivery of water from its projects.
  • The Bureau of Reclamation should be abolished because it is an outdated federal bureaucracy.
  • An independent commission, not Congress, should recommend the individual water projects to be funded each year.
  • We should remove unnecessary and environmentally destructive dams to restore our rivers and streams, and we should begin that effort with Glen Canyon Dam.
  • The federal government should terminate its involvement with the largest irrigation district in California.
  • Settlement of Indian water rights claims should not be used as an excuse to build uneconomic water projects or fleece the taxpayers.
  • We need to invest in the best science and most accurate factual information possible to solve water problems.
  • We need to encourage solutions to water problems using
    innovative, low-cost solutions that promote conservation
    and more efficient use of water.
  • We must recognize and integrate the realities of climate
    change in our approaches to solving future water problems.