Pinch of Salt Graphic (English)

I took a few days off last week to attend the Colorado River Water Users Association’s annual meeting.

Yes, this is my idea of a vacation.

I’ve been fascinated (immersed, even) for decades with how our society decides to use that most basic of life’s necessities. I started writing about water rights very early in my career in Colorado, and my appointment to the Long Beach Water Commission has in many ways completed that circle. Allow me to share.

Southern California became at least partially dependent on water from the Colorado River Basin back in the 1930s, when the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) was formed mainly to build the Colorado River Aqueduct — a larger, more expensive version of the Los Angeles Aqueduct from the Owens Valley. As population increased in the arid Los Angeles Basin, even more water was needed, and the State Water Project was conceived to bring the liquid life south from the wet Sacramento Basin.

That lessened our dependence on the Colorado — a very good thing.

For the last several decades, the Long Beach Water Department has concentrated on consolidating and protecting local water sources; primarily the groundwater in the aquifer below us. We still must purchase imported water from the MWD, but the amount has stabilized and even gone down slightly as we focus on efficiency and conservation.

I can go on for days like this — it’s a water wonk thing. But let me get back to the Colorado and the things I learned last week.

The upper Colorado Basin, where all that liquid life starts as snow and mountain springs, is suffering a long-term drought similar to, and in ways exceeding, what we’ve experienced in California. Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the two primary water storage reservoirs on the river, look like half-empty bathtubs. They have been slowly drained over the last two decades as users tried to keep land and cities from drying up.

Things are getting critical now, 15 years into a long-term drought. The powers that be are spending hundreds of millions on a three-mile-long tunnel under Lake Mead to get to a spot where water can still be taken out of the reservoir when it’s less than half full.

The Law of The River, called the Colorado River Compact, calls for limiting the amount of water released from Powell and Mead when they get below certain levels. Those levels likely will be reached in 2016.

Moreover, Mead will continue to drop even if “normal” amounts of water are released from Lake Powell. Users are taking out almost 10% more than is coming in, year in and year out.

Except for cloud seeding or rain dances (about equally effective), there is no way to increase the amount of water in the Colorado River. The only solution is to use less — conservation, in other words.

The folks who rely solely on the Colorado have accepted that reality. Farmers talk more about new irrigation techniques than the price of hay. In Nevada and Arizona, desert metropolises have permanent water restrictions, from landscape use to water served at restaurants, and recycling water is an art form. You didn’t think all those Las Vegas fountains really just used water once, did you?

As I mentioned, California and Long Beach are blessed with multiple sources of water. But the concept — and the reality — is the same.

We have a finite amount of water, and an ever-increasing population looking for its share. The only long-term solution to limited supply is reducing demand — increasing conservation. We need to learn how to live with less water than we use today.

Long Beach Water is committed to providing an adequate supply of safe water to all of our residents, now and in the future. But be prepared — the definition of adequate supply is changing. 

That’s the lesson of the Colorado, and one we need to embrace sooner rather than later.

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