Not a Drop to Drink: America's Water Crisis (and What You Can Do)

Not a Drop to Drink: America's Water Crisis (and What You Can Do)

by Ken Midkiff

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Water. We can't live without it. Not a Drop to Drink sounds the alarm, detailing the current state of emergency facing the U.S. water supply. From the parched High Plains to corporate boardrooms, Ken Midkiff explores water wars, privatization, American agriculture, and global warming. And what we can do to get a glass of water.  See more details below


Water. We can't live without it. Not a Drop to Drink sounds the alarm, detailing the current state of emergency facing the U.S. water supply. From the parched High Plains to corporate boardrooms, Ken Midkiff explores water wars, privatization, American agriculture, and global warming. And what we can do to get a glass of water.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Though it offers a litany of damning facts about America's state-of-emergency water crisis, this is pretty dry reading. Midkiff (The Meat You Eat) earnestly marshals plenty of cautionary information: once-flush aquifers are being rapidly depleted, most precipitously the Ogallala, which stretches from Nebraska to the Texas panhandle, while the Colorado (in Texas) and Rio Grande rivers vanish into dry riverbeds before they reach the Gulf of Mexico. Water from the tap in Atlanta has had to be boiled to make it potable, while farmers' wells in New Mexico are tapped out. Midkiff frets that the privatization of municipal water services will raise household bills for private profit, and faults outdated, lobby-driven farm subsidies for encouraging "water-guzzling" rice crops in California's Central Valley, which was once a desert, before the lure of underpriced water transformed it into an agricultural cornucopia. The author, former director of the Sierra Club's clean water campaign, doesn't put stock in desalinization plants or the meltwater of towed glaciers, believing that conservation is the most viable path to sustaining water supplies. His call for immediate collective effort makes good sense, even if expressed with bromides like "if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." (Apr.)

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

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Not a Drop to Drink

America's Water Crisis [and What You can Do]

By Ken Midkiff

New World Library

Copyright © 2007 Ken Midkiff
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-930722-68-2



Promises of Hypothetical Water in the West

The Fight over the Colorado River

The Colorado River originates from the melting snowpack on the western slopes of the central Rockies, and for more than 1,400 miles it continues to flow, mostly through lands of little rain. Towering bluffs surround the river's passage, retaining it in a deep canyon that in some places is as much as 5,000 feet below the surrounding tablelands. In the millennia of its existence, the Colorado River has carved immense canyons into the rocks in its path. Cataract Canyon, Marble Canyon, and the Grand Canyon are some of the most magnificent examples of the power of water and sediment grinding down solid rock.

From its brawling emergence near Granby, Colorado, until it becomes lost in the sands near the Gulf of Mexico, the Colorado River gives true meaning to the adage "Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting." The river has been dammed many times and has inspired more battles than any other river in this country. It is the subject of such controversy because it has what the West is so sorely lacking: water.

The Colorado River didn't used to peter out in the sands of its delta, just south of Yuma, Arizona. Aldo Leopold, the famed naturalist and conservationist, visited the Colorado River delta in the 1920s, describing it as a rich, verdant area, filled with flora and fauna. At that time, there was no central branch of the Colorado — rather, the waters parted into many rivulets, all entering the Gulf of California and, in the course of passage, creating massive wetlands. No longer. Recent estimates indicate that only 10 percent of the flows in the 1920s now reach the gulf, and this trivial amount is heavily polluted with agricultural runoff — pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer. What was once a water-filled paradise is now mostly a mud flat. It is a sign of the desperation in this situation that Mexican and U.S. environmental and conservation groups are applauding the addition of untreated wastewater and other heavily polluted flows to bolster the once-flourishing wetlands.

As various entities plan to return fouled water to the river, and other groups are advocating these efforts, the freshwater in the Colorado has been the point of contention between the cities of Phoenix and Las Vegas (more on this in chapter 4). The water from the Colorado is also ending up in places where until recently it was never found: as drinking water for Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and San Diego, and as irrigation for citrus and date groves in California's Imperial Valley and alfalfa and cotton fields in San Diego County. A massive aqueduct transports this water from the Colorado River to points west. Urban folks in Los Angeles and San Diego claim that farmers in the Imperial Valley are engaged in wasting water. Farmers respond that without irrigation water, food would become short in the burgeoning coastal cities. Ultimately, the secretary of the interior will referee this battle and decide who is to receive this out-of-basin diversion. If the water is taken from agriculture and directed to the cities, farmers in the Imperial Valley will lose, and if the water continues to flow to the farmers, there won't be enough water to supply the area's huge urban populations. The sad fact is that there is not enough to satisfy the thirsty residents of the coastal cities and to irrigate crops in the Imperial Valley.

Upstream from the aqueduct that transports water to the Imperial Valley and to Los Angeles is Reservoir Powell, behind Glen Canyon Dam, the newest on the Colorado River. This gigantic reservoir — sprawling across southern Utah and northern Arizona — reached its optimal level in 1980; it had by then already inspired a fierce controversy, one that continues to this day and shows no sign of abating. One side, the Friends of Lake Powell and their allies, insists that Reservoir Powell is beneficial and serves the purposes for which it was built — to store water, control flooding, provide recreation, generate power, supply drinking water, and trap sediment. The other side, led by the Glen Canyon Institute, claims that damming Glen Canyon to form Reservoir Powell was a travesty and that the reservoir is barely contributing to the highly questionable purposes for which it was built. The Glen Canyon Institute believes that the Southwest could get along without the small amount of electricity generated and without the even smaller amounts of drinking and irrigation water provided, and its members are calling for the Colorado River to be restored in the canyon. They also point out that the reservoir's water is subjected to evapotranspiration by exposure to sunlight in the hot, dry area. If Reservoir Powell and the Glen Canyon Dam were removed, they assert, the United States could honor its commitments to the country of Mexico and allow the once-verdant delta region to return to its former glory.

But as this battle continues, the water in Reservoir Powell has shrunk in volume due to a drought, and water releases have continued unabated to satisfy contractual obligations made with downstream states. The reservoir reached its lowest level in April 2004, when it was 149 feet below "normal." Hite Marina, on the upper reservoir, was landlocked at least 1 mile from the new shore of Reservoir Powell. Several other marinas were unusable, and one perched on top of what had become a cliff. Many features — such as the Cathedral in the Desert and the Moki Fort — were above the water line and exposed for the first time since Reservoir Powell had filled behind Glen Canyon Dam. Archaeologists scrambled to identify sites used by indigenous peoples (the Anasazi, now apparently the Pueblo dwellers in the Rio Grande Valley) that had been inundated when the reservoir filled.

Since then, precipitation in the southern Rockies, which feeds the Colorado and its major tributaries, has returned to normal or even above normal. The impoundment, while still low, will likely rise as snowmelt in the Rockies will result in more water coming into Reservoir Powell than is released. But climatologists say that Reservoir Powell will not return to its "normal" level of 3,700 feet above the sea unless there is above-average precipitation (as well as runoff) for five years. Some western hydrologists believe that the reservoir will never return to normal, leaving the proposed pipeline to St. George high and dry and calling into question the feasibility of satisfying the Colorado River Compact. (Reservoir Powell was built to provide a steady source of water to meet the Compact's requirements.) If they're right, the small towns dependent on drinking water from the reservoir will be forced to look elsewhere. The Glen Canyon Institute is quietly exultant, asserting that Mother Nature (in the form of a drought) is doing what fearful politicians would not.

The Glen Canyon Institute states that Reservoir Mead can meet all the purposes for which Reservoir Powell was built. The Friends of Lake Powell assert, by contrast, that the giant reservoir in the desert is bringing great prosperity to the formerly impoverished region. Houseboat and pleasure boat rentals pump millions of dollars into the local economy. Fishermen and tourists come from many miles away to enjoy the quiet backwaters and spectacular scenery of Reservoir Powell. Highways that lead to launching areas and marinas are filled each Friday and Sunday afternoon with cars and SUVs towing fishing boats, ski boats, pontoon boats, and all other types of pleasure and personal watercraft. Reservoir Powell has indeed become a destination for folks from Denver, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and even such far-flung places as Kansas City and Los Angeles.

In addition to praising all these dollars from anglers and pleasure boaters, the Friends of Lake Powell also tout the cheap electricity produced by Reservoir Powell's hydropower turbines and the availability to the Navajo Nation of water for drinking and irrigation. They point to the accessibility afforded to a formerly barren and inhospitable region. The number of annual visitors to Glen Canyon, only a few hundred prior to the closing of Glen Canyon Dam, has soared to two million.

Although the tributaries feeding the Colorado River and Reservoir Powell were flowing at full volume in 2006, there is no surety that precipitation will continue at that rate. Indeed, the record shows that the period on which "normal precipitation" is based may have been an anomaly. There is no doubt that the American West and Southwest are prone to prolonged periods of drought. Some of these periods are relatively short, five years or so. Others have lasted for two centuries or more. Such a long cycle, dry even in the wettest years, was what led John Wesley Powell to tell Congress that the area would never support a large population. The growth of large population centers — Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and others — in this area have led to demands for more water than the compact and other agreements (collectively called the Laws of the River) have allocated, and more than the Colorado River is capable of delivering.

For all the fussing and fighting over the water in the reservoirs, sufficient water is not reaching the thirsty populations in the growing cities, nor is the United States honoring its commitments to Mexico. The problem is that the Laws of the River — a hodgepodge of compacts, contracts, and case law regarding the area's water rights — delegates more water than what is available.

The Colorado River Compact was finalized in 1922. It essentially divides the Colorado into two segments — the Upper and Lower basins — with Lee's Ferry, near the northeast tip of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, being the dividing point. The Upper Basin states are Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico. The Lower Basin states are California, Nevada, and Arizona. The Upper and Lower basins are each allowed to take 7.5 million acre-feet (1 acre-foot is equal to 325,851 gallons) of water from the river per year for "domestic and agriculture" uses. An additional 1.5 million acre-feet are technically supposed to be delivered to Mexico, according to the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, but this mandate is generally ignored.

Since 1922, court cases and further agreements between states have complicated this divvying up to the point where some of the rights are now referred to as "paper water" and others as "wet water," which is a way of recognizing that the water rights being determined are partially about water that isn't always available. In wet years, "paper water" becomes wet; in dry years it is "just paper."

When all the water rights are considered and totaled, the volume of water that is spoken for and that may leave the Colorado is 16.5 million acre-feet. An additional 2 million acre-feet is lost each year in evapotranspiration, due to the gigantic reservoirs on the Colorado, bringing the total to 18.5 million acre-feet. But for the past several decades, the Colorado River has flowed at a volume of 15 million acre-feet.

By any calculation, more is appropriated than the Colorado River is capable of delivering. (By the time the river enters Sonora, Mexico, where the Colorado once flowed freely, there's a mere trickle of water that has transformed the area into a sea of giant mud and sand flats.) The result has been ongoing battles over the river's water between the states of the Upper Basin and the Lower Basin, most intense between the cities of Las Vegas and Phoenix. Some criticize the gigantic reservoirs on the Colorado for the loss of 2 million acre-feet per year. Yet without those reservoirs, which store snowmelt for release at a later and slower pace, the Upper Basin could not provide the mandated 7.5 million acre-feet to the Lower Basin, or any of the 1.5 million acre-feet promised to Mexico (some amount is always sent south of the border, mostly to show good faith).

The solution has little to do with whether the water is used by Las Vegas or Phoenix, or for irrigation or drinking. The water simply isn't there. Fighting over nonexistent water isn't going to make it appear. Any solution must address the actual — rather than the fantastical — amount of water that the Colorado River contains and then apportion that amount on the basis of need.

The Rio Grande Struggles to Meet Increasing Demands

In many ways the Rio Grande resembles the Colorado: both are born of snowmelt in the Rockies, both travel long distances from their headwaters to their mouths, both are the largest rivers in their area, and both are overappropriated to the point of occasionally becoming dry before they empty into their oceans. But the Rio Grande differs from the Colorado in many ways. The main difference is in precipitation: The Colorado — once it leaves the Rockies — flows through the Colorado plateau and a desert; the Rio Grande flows through a land of moderate rainfall. Also, the Colorado is the only river in vast areas of the West; the Rio Grande is just one of many rivers (although it is the largest) in its region. And while the Colorado River has been at the core of many disputes, treaties, and compacts as it flows through several states and into another country, the Rio Grande's water rights, while adjudicated in courts of law, have never been disputed with such intensity as the fights over the waters in the Colorado.

The Rio Grande has its headwaters in the southern mountains of Colorado, then flows through New Mexico and Texas, and those states have generally cooperated rather than competed. The Rio Grande Commission, which was formed in 1938 with members from all three states, apportions flows and manages the dams and reservoirs. So, with all this cooperation and lack of conflict, it would seem that the Rio Grande must be flush with enough water for all. Unfortunately, due to various uses and water rights that claim more than the amount of water available, the Rio Grande at Albuquerque barely flows. To fully understand the problem, we need only to follow the river's progression and watch its water levels wildly fluctuate.

Just west of Taos, New Mexico, a bridge on U.S. 64 crosses the Rio Grande. The river is about 800 feet below, and at this point in its 2,000- mile journey to the sea from the snowmelt and springs in Colorado's southern Rockies, it is a mighty and roaring river. From the bridge, the noise of the rapids can be heard, even though the river is so far below that it resembles a trickling blue mountain stream. Occasionally, river runners in kayaks, canoes, or rafts may be spotted — tiny dots on the roaring waters.

The view from the International Bridge between Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico, appears to be of a different river. By this point the Rio Grande has traveled through all of New Mexico and the border area between Texas and Mexico. The barely flowing water is a putrid greenish yellow, filled with herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers carried by the "return flows" from irrigated agricultural lands and with the polluted discharges of the maquiladoras (U.S. factories that proliferated after the North American Free Trade Agreement). A few miles downstream, where the Rio Grande once flowed with a rush into the Gulf of Mexico, there is no river. A sandy low area, now easily crossed by foot (causing great problems for the border guards), is all that is left of the mighty Rio Grande.

On its path from its tumultuous birth in the mountainous pine and fir forests north of Durango, Colorado, to its unheralded and silent death in the sandy flats near the Gulf of Mexico, the Rio Grande is repeatedly diverted and polluted. Yet it's impossible to say exactly when and where and how much, because it's unknown how much water is in the river and how much has been appropriated. It would seem elementary that determining how much to take requires a determination of how much is there. Yet the only evidence we have that more water is being taken than is there are several long stretches of dry river bottom.

We need only to follow the Rio Grande the 1,000 or so miles between Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the Brownsville–Matamoros area to see the effects of overappropriation on a river that used to flow freely through that entire region. Just downstream of Albuquerque, the Rio Grande sometimes dries up completely, as that burgeoning city takes all that is left from agricultural irrigation and the pueblos farther upstream. Only the presence of a tiny endangered minnow (the silvery minnow), which spurred a lawsuit by an environmental group, has forced Albuquerque to leave a trickle flowing. Farther downstream, several tributaries add water, and by the time the river reaches the El Paso–Juárez area, the Rio Grande is once again flowing and available for use by those cities. Proceeding downstream, several rivers flowing north from Mexico add waters until the river is impounded in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. From Amistad and Falcon reservoirs on down, the Rio Grande is used to irrigate immense plantations of cotton, sorghum, melons, oranges, grapefruit, and other citrus fruit, and by the time it reaches the Brownsville–Matamoros area, the river is depleted and polluted.


Excerpted from Not a Drop to Drink by Ken Midkiff. Copyright © 2007 Ken Midkiff. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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