Urbanization and Drought: West Coast, USA

Reuters has an excellent article on the impact that water shortages and floods are going to have on the US West Coast. The region is both the hardest hit by water shortages and the home of the three fastest growing states in the US: Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. The obvious problems that this creates are only predicted to grow worse. As well as providing an overview of the crisis, the article explores the competing proposed responses: dams, desalination, and demand management. The only thing it overlooks is the likely impact on internal migration. Some highlights after the jump.

The U.S. Climate Change Science Program sees the entire West on average getting less precipitation, but there is plenty of debate about that. There is a consensus, however, that most of today's snow will turn in coming decades to rain, often in the form of blinding thunderstorms early in the year, when it is needed least.


California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a drought emergency last month, and Los Angeles plans to ration water for the first time in 15 years. Courts are limiting the amount of water taken from into rivers to save decimated fish populations, which is cutting back even more to farms


California farmers lost more than $300 million in 2008 and economic losses may accelerate to 10 times that this year as 95,000 people lose their jobs. Farmers will get zero water from the main federal supplier.


A study put the price of new dams at up to $1,400 per acre foot. Current supplies cost about $700 for one acre foot -- a year's supply for two houses. Urban water conservation costs $210, local stormwater $350 and desalination of ocean water or contaminated groundwater about $750 to $1,200 an acre foot.

The NRDC estimates that California could get 7 million acre feet per year from conservation, groundwater cleanup and stormwater harvesting.

Even energy-intensive desalination is cheaper than dams, the group argues. "People always used to think that desal was the lunatic fringe of water supply. (Now) desal is the mainstream, and dams are exiting the mainstream," said policy analyst Barry Nelson.


3 Responses to "Urbanization and Drought: West Coast, USA"

C Robb said... 10 March 2009 at 15:09

Meanwhile the bathtub ring around lakes Mead and Powell grows and the Colorado river never reaches the sea, killing the once rich wetlands at the delta.

Researchers at San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography suggest that Lake Mead faces a 50% chance of drying up by 2021 if the drought continues and water use keeps rising. By 2017 Lake Mead will likely not be able to produce hydropower any longer. Lake Mead and Lake Powell are both half full. 25 million people in seven states rely on these lakes for water management.


Alex Aylett said... 10 March 2009 at 16:18

Thanks for the link Robb. Water scarcity is already a key issue and its going to continue to gain in importance. In a country like the US that crosses so many climatic zones, the impacts on agricultural and economic activity, as well as population movements are going to be significant.

There is more along this line here

Alex Aylett said... 11 March 2009 at 02:25

Reuters has followed up with another post that deals more specifically with cities:

-- Southern Nevada water czar Mulroy says a broader national conversation about water is needed -- but not happening.

"We are talking about investing in public infrastructure, we are looking at building projects, but I get frustrated because we are doing it in complete denial of the climate change conditions that we are facing," she said. --


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