This week’s episode of What’s Up With Water covers the state of Australia’s environment and a record-breaking heat wave across Europe. Plus, Circle of Blue reports on the enduring allure of big water supply pipelines in the drying American West.
Welcome to “What’s Up With Water” – your need-to-know news of the world’s water from Circle of Blue. I’m Eileen Wray-McCann.
In Australia, a scathing new government report shows profound environmental deterioration over the past five years. The report says that despite restoration efforts, water levels in the Murray-Darling Basin dropped to all-time lows in 2019. Native fish populations have declined by over 90 percent in the last 150 years. The report noted a few bright spots in the Australia’s environmental outlook. Although urban waterways are doing poorly overall, beaches and shorelines in remote areas are being kept relatively clean. Stewardship of Australia’s marine environment has been generally good, with only about 10 percent of populations classified as overfished.
In Europe, last week’s record-melting heat wave was the latest misfortune in a year of climate disruptions. According to the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, drought stress is gripping about half the continent of Europe. In Germany, water levels are shrinking fast on the River Rhine, a vital waterway for shipping and a major source of hydropower. Experts say levels will continue to fall, threatening the both the supply chain and energy availability. In France, nuclear power plants have been throttled back because rivers are too warm to cool the equipment. And in the United Kingdom, water companies are warning of supply interruptions as demand increases. Farmers say the heatwave should be seen as a warning: The U.K. is not prepared for the water shortages that climate change has in store.
This week Circle of Blue reports on the enduring allure of big water supply pipelines in the drying American West.
As the western drylands grow thirstier, some are seeking to revive an old tactic that is becoming increasingly risky. They want to build water pipelines to tap remote groundwater basins and reservoirs to supply growing metropolitan areas or vulnerable rural towns.
Government agencies, wildcat entrepreneurs, and city utilities are among those vying to pump and pipe water across vast distances — which could have major economic and environmental costs. Critics question the wisdom of water transfers in this new climate age, but pipeline advocates in California, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, the federal government, Indian tribes, and other states are prepared to spend billions. The pipeline projects range in length from several dozen miles to several hundred. The largest are intended to transport tens of millions of gallons each day.
Because of the daunting expense, lengthy permitting process, and legal battles, projects with federal backing have an advantage. The infrastructure bill signed by President Biden last November includes $1 billion for rural water supply projects in the western states. Many of these projects were authorized more than a decade ago, including one underway in eastern New Mexico.
The infrastructure bill also includes $2.5 billion for settlements of tribal water rights, which typically include a water-supply component. The Navajo-Gallup water pipeline, now under construction in northwest New Mexico, is part of the San Juan River water rights settlement. It’s intended to supply the Navajo Nation, Jicarilla Apache Tribe, and the city of Gallup.
These pipeline proposals hearken back to a century of mammoth water supply projects that defined the modern era in the American West. Without this engineered “water boom,” states west of the 100th meridian could not have attracted millions of residents or developed their businesses and farms.
But a lot has changed since then, and water diversion is riskier economically and environmentally. Yet even as the region’s climate becomes drier, more diversions are being proposed despite the risks. There is an enduring appeal to large-scale engineering, and pipeline options are doggedly pursued by state and local agencies, and a band of self-styled water entrepreneurs.
For example, there are three proposed projects to pipe water to growing communities in the Front Range, an urban corridor in Colorado and Wyoming. Former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens is backing Renewable Resources, a firm that wants to pump groundwater from the San Luis Valley to Front Range cities that are mushrooming with new subdivisions. A competing outfit, Water Horse Resources, wants to send more Colorado River water to the Front Range and considers the Flaming Gorge Reservoir as a potential source from 500 miles away. Another Front Range project in the Fort Collins area envisions a pair of new reservoirs and an 80-mile pipe network that extends to 15 communities. It’s called the Northern Integrated Supply Project, and is still waiting on a key federal permit.
Southwest Utah is another epicenter of contested water diversions. The most recent emerged in April, when Escalante Valley Partners applied for permission to export over 50,000 acre-feet of groundwater per year. The company intends to get that water from 115 wells drilled in Beryl-Enterprise, a basin where Utah has restricted use of shallow groundwater due to over-extraction. The proposed wells would be between 1,000 and 5,000 feet deep. In the same area, the Central Iron County Water Conservancy District is advocating for the $260 million Pine Valley Water Supply project, currently under review for a right-of-way permit by the Bureau of Land Management. If approved, the district would construct 66 miles of pipeline to access groundwater in neighboring Beaver County.
The most expensive water project in southwest Utah is a proposed 140-mile pipeline to Lake Powell. The Lake Powell Pipeline, with a projected cost of $2 billion, intends to divert Colorado River water and send 28 billion gallons each year to Washington County, in Utah’s southwest corner. Critics say that Lake Powell and the Colorado River that feeds into it cannot sustain any more diversions. The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages Powell and is reviewing the pipeline application, is already taking emergency steps to protect the shrinking reservoir, holding back more water in Lake Powell and making up for that by releasing extra supplies from reservoirs higher in the watershed.
Few of these projects have all the required permits and fewer still have broken ground. It is often the case that designs that look appealing in sketches fold when they collide with real world obstacles. One of the prime obstacles is supply. The question is: Do these areas hold enough water to support more diversions?
Denise Fort is a professor emerita at the University of New Mexico. Nearly a decade ago, she co-wrote a report with the Natural Resources Defense Council on the proliferation of pipeline proposals in the western states. In reviewing that report today, Fort told Circle of Blue that the findings still hold true. She said that, in many cases, the drive to pipe water is an attempt to prolong a lifestyle of water consumption in a place that can no longer sustain the burden of that demand. Scientists expect that for every degree Celsius that the planet warms, the flow of the Colorado River will decrease by 9 percent. Said Fort, “We know what the future is, it’s coming. And so we can’t continue to act as though it’s just a cyclical thing, and the water will reappear. We know that it will not.”
And that’s “What’s Up With Water” from Circle of Blue, where water speaks. More water news and analysis await you at circleofblue.org. This is Eileen Wray-McCann – thanks for being here.
Eileen Wray-McCann is a writer, director and narrator who co-founded Circle of Blue. During her 13 years at Interlochen Public Radio, a National Public Radio affiliate in Northern Michigan, Eileen produced and hosted regional and national programming. She’s won Telly Awards for her scriptwriting and documentary work, and her work with Circle of Blue follows many years of independent multimedia journalistic projects and a life-long love of the Great Lakes. She holds a BA and MA radio and television from the University of Detroit. Eileen is currently moonlighting as an audio archivist and enjoys traveling through time via sound.