Water buffaloes continue to turn to large-scale plumbing to rescue West from drought
|Jonathan P. ThompsonJun 7|
It’s a pattern almost as reliable as the seasons once were: A severe drought settles over the land, the reservoir levels plummet, the crops whither, and the water buffaloes come out to play. The dam builders, that is, along with the pipeline proponents, the diversion denizens, and even the weather modification mavens, each with their own new scheme to move water around in a way that will somehow ease the pain of the dry times.
Back in the day, the drought would eventually end, and the buffaloes would pack up their toys and stow them away until the next dry spell. Thanks to a warming and drying climate, however, the drought in the Southwest just goes on and on. Sure, the occasional abundant, record-breaking snow year—2019 in Colorado, for example—does come along to break up the routine. But it usually amounts to just one hydrological step forward after a dozen stumbles backward.
As the dry years pile up on one another, so, too, do the water-project proposals, ranging from the semi-reasonable to the outright zany, from the grandiose to the more humble. One thing they all have in common: The water buffalo pushing each project refuses to acknowledge the limits were facing, limits that can’t be changed through engineering or plumbing. This is in spite of the fact that they only need to take a look around—at the growing bathtub ring around Lake Powell, at the marooned houseboats on Oroville Lake, at the looming hydropower shortage throughout the West—to see that even the grandest engineering and plumbing projects don’t work.
In other words, you can’t create more water. But it sure as heck isn’t going to stop the water buffaloes from trying. So, we’ve compiled a sampling of some of the projects currently on the drawing board in the West. By no means is this an exhaustive list.
It once seemed as if the Animas-La Plata Project in southwestern Colorado represented the dying gasp of the big dam buildup on Western rivers. By 2011, when the off-stream reservoir was filled up with water sucked out of the Animas River and pumped 500 vertical feet uphill, the project—first conceived of in the 1930s—already seemed obsolete. There is no water delivery infrastructure, water has been released from the dam just once as a test, there is no hydropower component to recoup some of the energy consumed by the pumps. Lake Nighthorse just sits there and evaporates at startling rates (13 acre feet, or 4 million gallons, per day, last time I checked) and serving as a nice place for Durangoans to float and fish.
Even as the reservoir filled up, other dams across the West were being torn down. Now there’s even talk of breaching big dams on the Snake River in Idaho. Lake Powell and Lake Mead have been shrinking at rapid rates for years due to lower inflows, increasing evaporation, more demand on the water, and silt building up on the reservoir floor.
So the idea of building new dams or raising existing ones just seems odd. Nevertheless several proposals are in the works, including:
COVE RESERVOIR: This 6,065-acre-feet reservoir with a 90-foot-high dam would be located on the East Virgin River just outside Orderville, Utah, a small community in Kane County east of Zion National Park. Costing nearly $30 million to construct, the reservoir would store water to irrigate some 1,100 acres of farmland in the area, according to proponents, where the major crop is alfalfa—a water-guzzler if there ever was one (see this mind-blowing Data Dump for more). The National Resource Conservation Service wrapped up an environmental analysis of the project last year, but instead of giving approval, the agency opted to conduct a more rigorous environmental review, which is expected to start this spring.
CHIMNEY HOLLOW DAM: The recent settlement of a lawsuit brought by several environmental groups has cleared the way for this 90,000-acre-feet reservoir in northern Colorado to move forward. The dam will use water taken from the Western Slope of the state that would have been destined for the Colorado River and ship it across the Continental Divide to the dam-site to beef up water storage for the burgeoning population of Colorado’s Front Range. The settlement requires the water districts building the reservoir to spend $15 million on environmental mitigation projects.
GROSS RESERVOIR DAM EXPANSION: This is another effort to increase water storage capacity for the Front Range of Colorado. Denver Water is looking to raise the existing dam on South Boulder Creek by a whopping 131 feet, thereby tripling its capacity (water comes from both South Boulder Creek and via yet another diversion from the Colorado River watershed). A coalition of environmental groups is challenging the plan in court.
SHASTA DAM EXPANSION: Late last year the Trump administration released its final environmental impact statement, thereby advancing the expansion of Shasta Dam in northern California. That would raise lake levels by about 20 feet, inundating surrounding lands and significant cultural sites for the Winnemem Wintu people, who were forcibly removed from their land and villages when the dam was built in 1941. The hefty coalition of opponents is looking to the Biden administration to stop the project. Currently the reservoir is only 43 percent full. It’s not yet clear how a bigger dam will cause more water to fall from the sky.
COW CREEK RESERVOIR: This project, proposed by Ouray County in western Colorado, is only in its nascent stage so not many details are known. It would include a 25,349-acre-feet reservoir on national forest land filled with water from Cow Creek, which cascades down from the San Juan Mountains. A pipeline would then carry water to the existing Ridgway Reservoir. The purpose is to make more reliable water supplies available for, you guessed it, alfalfa.
LAKE POWELL PIPELINE: This is a classic Western water project in the sense that the proponent—the Utah Board of Water Resources—appears to want to build this thing simply because it can: Utah has rights to a certain amount of water in the Colorado River, and if they don’t use it, they’ll lose it—or so the saying goes. The $2 billion pipeline would pull up to 28 billion gallons of water from Lake Powell, use huge amounts of power to pump it across 141 miles of mesas and valleys to southwestern Utah, where it would water lawns and golf courses and irrigate alfalfa. The project faces a hurdle or two, like the extravagant cost for something that’s not needed, the fact that the level of Lake Powell keeps dropping below feasible levels for pumping, and the pesky fact that just because water exists on paper does not mean it exists in reality. Also, every state downstream on the Colorado River opposes the project because it will further diminish their already meagre water supplies.
THE POWELL PIPELINE: No, that is not a typo. The “Powell” in this pipeline is Dick Powell, a Casa Grande, Arizona, city councilman who has long pushed for this project that the Arizona Legislature, that bastion of common sense and reason, is seriously investigating. They want to build a really big pipeline that brings water from the Mississippi to the Colorado River system. Hey, why not!?