Tag Archives: drought

Venezuela’s struggle to keep the lights on

The government of Venezuela, once oil-rich and the fat cat of Latin America, is fighting for its political life after oil prices plunged and drought struck. The government declared a state of emergency, on Friday May 13. Behind the politics are ordinary people, such as the residents of Puerto Ordaz, struggling with a lack of power and water.

By Reuters
May, 2016

A non-operative water tank is seen in a neighbourhood called "The Tank" in the slum of Petare in Caracas, Venezuela, April 3, 2016. Although their nation has one of the world's biggest hydroelectric dams and vast rivers like the fabled Orinoco, Venezuelans are still suffering water and power cuts most days. The problems with stuttering services have escalated in the last few weeks: yet another headache for the OPEC nation's 30 million people already reeling from recession, the world's highest inflation rate, and scarcities of basic goods. President Nicolas Maduro blames a drought, while the opposition blames government incompetence. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

A non-operative water tank is seen in a neighbourhood called “The Tank” in the slum of Petare in Caracas, Venezuela, April 3, 2016. Although their nation has one of the world’s biggest hydroelectric dams and vast rivers like the fabled Orinoco, Venezuelans are still suffering water and power cuts most days. The problems with stuttering services have escalated in the last few weeks: yet another headache for the OPEC nation’s 30 million people already reeling from recession, the world’s highest inflation rate, and scarcities of basic goods. President Nicolas Maduro blames a drought, while the opposition blames government incompetence. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Residents of Venezuela’s southern city of Puerto Ordaz enjoy pleasant views of the Orinoco and Caroni rivers and are a half hour’s drive from one of the world’s biggest hydroelectric dams.

Yet most days they suffer water and power cuts.

The irony is not lost on Marelis Gonzalez, who runs the “Las Chinas” food store. She is fed up with constant outages that halt her fridges, making drinks lukewarm and spoiling meat.

“We should be the last ones without power or water,” Gonzalez tuts at the counter on an oppressively hot morning without services in the middle-class, hilltop Villa Brasil district. “If it’s like this for us, imagine those far away!”

Across the road, 82-year-old Arcelia Leandro is waiting patiently in her kitchen for power and water to cook lunch for her grandchildren. “It’s been like this for three months, cuts every day. We’ve never had a situation like this. Horrible.”

Venezuela’s energy and water problems have escalated in the last few weeks: yet another headache for the OPEC nation’s 30 million people already reeling from recession, the world’s highest inflation rate, and scarcities of basic goods.

Officials in President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government say they can hardly believe their bad luck. After the global oil price collapse slashed revenues by more than half, along came the drought-inducing El Niño weather phenomenon.

That has sent water levels at the all-important Guri dam and hydroelectric complex, just south-west of Puerto Ordaz, to a record low and nearing a critical 240-meter level where some turbines would be inoperable.

“It’s like having a car without any fuel,” Electricity Minister Luis Motta told Reuters, showing where waters at Guri had receded to reveal long-sunken boats, form sand dunes, and even expose roads flooded in the 1960s when the dam was formed.

“It’s difficult to defeat nature.”

A man pushes a wheelbarrow loaded with water containers in a neighbourhood called "The Tank" at the slum of Petare in Caracas, Venezuela, March 17, 2016. Although their nation has one of the world's biggest hydroelectric dams and vast rivers like the fabled Orinoco, Venezuelans are still suffering water and power cuts most days. The problems with stuttering services have escalated in the last few weeks: yet another headache for the OPEC nation's 30 million people already reeling from recession, the world's highest inflation rate, and scarcities of basic goods. President Nicolas Maduro blames a drought, while the opposition blames government incompetence. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "SERVICES TANK" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES

A man pushes a wheelbarrow loaded with water containers in a neighbourhood called “The Tank” at the slum of Petare in Caracas, Venezuela, March 17, 2016. Although their nation has one of the world’s biggest hydroelectric dams and vast rivers like the fabled Orinoco, Venezuelans are still suffering water and power cuts most days. The problems with stuttering services have escalated in the last few weeks: yet another headache for the OPEC nation’s 30 million people already reeling from recession, the world’s highest inflation rate, and scarcities of basic goods. President Nicolas Maduro blames a drought, while the opposition blames government incompetence. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins 

Already unpopular and facing an opposition push to remove him, Maduro has launched an energy-saving campaign and imposed rationing, although he euphemistically calls it a ‘Plan for Load Administration.’ But the government’s main hope is pinned on late rains in the south, forecast for May or June.

Children fill plastic containers with water from a well on a street, close to a neighbourhood called "The Tank" in the slum of Petare in Caracas, Venezuela, March 17, 2016. Although their nation has one of the world's biggest hydroelectric dams and vast rivers like the fabled Orinoco, Venezuelans are still suffering water and power cuts most days. The problems with stuttering services have escalated in the last few weeks: yet another headache for the OPEC nation's 30 million people already reeling from recession, the world's highest inflation rate, and scarcities of basic goods. President Nicolas Maduro blames a drought, while the opposition blames government incompetence. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "SERVICES TANK" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES

Children fill plastic containers with water from a well on a street, close to a neighbourhood called “The Tank” in the slum of Petare in Caracas, Venezuela, March 17, 2016. Although their nation has one of the world’s biggest hydroelectric dams and vast rivers like the fabled Orinoco, Venezuelans are still suffering water and power cuts most days. The problems with stuttering services have escalated in the last few weeks: yet another headache for the OPEC nation’s 30 million people already reeling from recession, the world’s highest inflation rate, and scarcities of basic goods. President Nicolas Maduro blames a drought, while the opposition blames government incompetence. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins 

Critics say the government is using El Niño as a convenient scapegoat to hide incompetent management of the electricity sector: insufficient investment, poor maintenance, corruption, and a failure to diversify away from the Guri which provides two-thirds of Venezuela’s power.

After a 2009-10 drought that also led to electricity rationing and hurt late president Hugo Chavez’s presidency, the government poured investment into thermoelectric projects to try to prevent a repeat.

Stalin Gonzalez, a lawmaker who heads the opposition-run National Assembly’s administration and services committee, said $21 billion had been put into the electricity sector since 2010. “What did they do during all this time?” he asked.

Opposition politicians have lambasted Maduro’s power-saving measures, including giving state workers a two-day week, urging women to reduce the use of hair-dryers, and changing Venezuela’s time-zone so there is half an hour more light in the evenings.

High up in the steep and cramped streets of Caracas’ Petare slums, one of South America’s biggest shanty-towns, residents count the time they last had running water – 1 year and 7 months – and need to go ever further and pay ever more to find it.

Their neighborhood, ironically, is called “The Tank”, after a huge, rusting hulk of a water storage container that towers over shacks: it has been empty for years.

Children snake up the hill with jerry cans filled from a well with precious loads of water. Residents purify water with vinegar, and carefully “recycle” it from kitchen to toilet.

A man walks past an electric pole with overhead power cables in Caracas, Venezuela, April 2, 2016. Although their nation has one of the world's biggest hydroelectric dams and vast rivers like the fabled Orinoco, Venezuelans are still suffering water and power cuts most days. The problems with stuttering services have escalated in the last few weeks: yet another headache for the OPEC nation's 30 million people already reeling from recession, the world's highest inflation rate, and scarcities of basic goods. President Nicolas Maduro blames a drought, while the opposition blames government incompetence. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "SERVICES TANK" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES

A man walks past an electric pole with overhead power cables in Caracas, Venezuela, April 2, 2016. Although their nation has one of the world’s biggest hydroelectric dams and vast rivers like the fabled Orinoco, Venezuelans are still suffering water and power cuts most days. The problems with stuttering services have escalated in the last few weeks: yet another headache for the OPEC nation’s 30 million people already reeling from recession, the world’s highest inflation rate, and scarcities of basic goods. President Nicolas Maduro blames a drought, while the opposition blames government incompetence. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins 

When they have money, families band together to buy a truckload of water, but the price has jumped to 25,000 bolivars – twice the monthly minimum wage – for 7,000 liters.

Maria Rivero, carrying plastic containers used to carry water, poses for a picture in a neighbourhood called "The Tank" at the slum of Petare in Caracas, Venezuela, April 3, 2016. Although their nation has one of the world's biggest hydroelectric dams and vast rivers like the fabled Orinoco, Venezuelans are still suffering water and power cuts most days. The problems with stuttering services have escalated in the last few weeks: yet another headache for the OPEC nation's 30 million people already reeling from recession, the world's highest inflation rate, and scarcities of basic goods. President Nicolas Maduro blames a drought, while the opposition blames government incompetence. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "SERVICES TANK" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES

Maria Rivero, carrying plastic containers used to carry water, poses for a picture in a neighbourhood called “The Tank” at the slum of Petare in Caracas, Venezuela, April 3, 2016. Although their nation has one of the world’s biggest hydroelectric dams and vast rivers like the fabled Orinoco, Venezuelans are still suffering water and power cuts most days. The problems with stuttering services have escalated in the last few weeks: yet another headache for the OPEC nation’s 30 million people already reeling from recession, the world’s highest inflation rate, and scarcities of basic goods. President Nicolas Maduro blames a drought, while the opposition blames government incompetence. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins 

Some channel rainwater off their roof into buckets via corrugated iron sheets.

“I feel abandoned. It’s humiliating. This is no life,” said community worker Yunny Perez, 46, saying her family now has to make painful choices between spending on water, food or medicines for a disabled child.

“We’re an oil country yet look at the poverty here,” added Perez, who used to be a “Chavista” or fervent supporter of the late president, but is disgusted with Maduro and has just begun supporting the opposition.

So bad is the situation that thieves ambush water trucks to siphon off their load.

Schools close early, malls and hotels have been ordered to rely on their own generators, and plastic water tanks are multiplying across the nation.

Opposition lawmakers say the lack of water is increasing health risks, with scabies on the up for example.

And protests are proliferating.

For a nation used to considering itself a rich kid on the block in Latin America – thanks to its oil wealth – the indignities from failing services are a blow to the national psyche.

As well as having the world’s largest oil reserves, Venezuela has big areas of rainforest, plenty of gold and other metals, and vast water resources. Yet the tourist brochures showing luxuriant scenes of water gushing off Angel Falls or down the Orinoco River now seem like a cruel joke.

Satirical web site El Chiguire Bipolar has been mercilessly parodying the situation. It ran one spoof story on the government submerging an overweight politician in the Guri to raise waters, and joked that now Mars-like conditions make Venezuela ideal training for astronauts.

“The conditions are perfect: no water, only light by day, ferocious heat and precarious food sources,” it scoffed.

Copyright Reuters 2016

 ~~~

Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

Posted in Also tagged , |

The sinkholes of the Dead Sea

By Amir Cohen, Reuters
September, 2015

The Dead Sea is shrinking, and as its waters vanish at a rate of more than one metre a year, hundreds of sinkholes – some the size of a basketball court, others two storeys deep – are devouring land where the shoreline once stood.

A section of a two-lane desert road – a main north-south artery that cuts through Israel and the Palestinian West Bank – was shut down six months ago when a gaping hole opened up beneath the asphalt.

 

Sinkholes filled with water are seen on the shore of the Dead Sea, Israel July 27, 2015. The Dead Sea is shrinking, and as its waters vanish at a rate of more than one meter a year, hundreds of sinkholes, some the size of a basketball court, some two storeys deep, are devouring land where the shoreline once stood. Picture taken July 27, 2015. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Sinkholes filled with water are seen on the shore of the Dead Sea, Israel July 27, 2015. The Dead Sea is shrinking, and as its waters vanish at a rate of more than one meter a year, hundreds of sinkholes, some the size of a basketball court, some two storeys deep, are devouring land where the shoreline once stood. Picture taken July 27, 2015. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Once a rarity, hundreds of new sinkholes are appearing every year, and the rate is expected to rise. Officials have not come up with a figure for the extent of the damage, but power lines have been downed, caravan and bungalows engulfed. On at least one occasion, hikers were injured falling into one of the pits.

Pipes that pump water cross through evaporation pools, which today make up the southern part of the Dead Sea, Israel July 27, 2015. The Dead Sea is shrinking, and as its waters vanish at a rate of more than one meter a year, hundreds of sinkholes, some the size of a basketball court, some two storeys deep, are devouring land where the shoreline once stood.Picture taken July 27, 2015. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Pipes that pump water cross through evaporation pools, which today make up the southern part of the Dead Sea, Israel July 27, 2015. The Dead Sea is shrinking, and as its waters vanish at a rate of more than one meter a year, hundreds of sinkholes, some the size of a basketball court, some two storeys deep, are devouring land where the shoreline once stood.Picture taken July 27, 2015. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

“It’s not a problem we can handle alone,” said Dov Litvinoff, mayor of the Tamar region that covers the southern half of the Dead Sea in Israel.

The sea is shrinking mainly because its natural water sources, flowing south through the River Jordan valley from Syria and Lebanon, have been diverted en route for farming and drinking water.

Relocating infrastructure is a temporary solution, the mayor said. The sinkholes will only stop when the waters of the Dead Sea are restored, and that requires an international initiative, since it also borders Jordan and the West Bank.

The sea is shrinking mainly because its natural water sources, flowing south through the River Jordan valley from Syria and Lebanon, have been diverted en route for farming and drinking water.

Relocating infrastructure is a temporary solution, the mayor said. The sinkholes will only stop when the waters of the Dead Sea are restored, and that requires an international initiative, since it also borders Jordan and the West Bank.

The Dead Sea is a favourite spot for tourists, who enjoy floating effortlessly in its highly salted waters and treating their skin with the mineral-rich mud lining its shores. But two popular beaches have been forced to close and officials fear tourism could start to be affected more seriously.

Deep beneath the newly exposed land is a 30-metre layer of salt formed over thousands of years. Without the Dead Sea waters to protect it, fresh water from rain or desert flash floods seeps underground and dissolves the salt layer, creating a cavity that eventually collapses, sucking in the ground.

Copyright Reuters 2015

 

A sinkhole is seen on the shore of the Dead SeaA utility pole stands in the Dead SeaA structure that collapsed into a sinkhole is seen on shore of Dead SeaSinkholes are seen on shore of Dead Sea A sign warning of sinkholes is seen on a fence on the shore of the Dead Sea near Ein Gedi

~~~ 

Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal, of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by you, our readers. We do not carry advertising or “branded content,” or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Please support us, with a subscription (click here), a donation, and/or by spreading the word.

 

 

Posted in Also tagged , , |

Killing the Colorado: End of the Miracle Machines

By J. Brew via Flickr, Creative Commons

The Navajo Generating Station, the West’s largest power-generating facility, thrums ceaselessly. By J. Brew via Flickr, Creative Commons

by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica, in collaboration with Matter
June, 2015

A couple of miles outside the town of Page, three 775-foot-tall caramel-colored smokestacks tower like sentries on the edge of northern Arizona’s sprawling red sandstone wilderness. At their base, the Navajo Generating Station, the West’s largest power-generating facility, thrums ceaselessly, like a beating heart. 

Football-field-length conveyors constantly feed it piles of coal, hauled 78 miles by train from where huge shovels and mining equipment scraped it out of the ground shortly before. Then, like a medieval mortar and pestle machine, wheels crush the stone against a large bowl into a smooth powder that is sprayed into tremendous furnaces — some of the largest ever built. Those furnaces are stoked to 2,000 degrees, heating tubes of steam to produce enough pressure to drive an 80-ton rod of steel to spin faster than the speed of sound, converting the heat of the fires into electricity. 

The power generated enables a modern wonder. It drives a set of pumps 325 miles down the Colorado River that heave trillions of gallons of water out of the river and send it shooting over mountains and through canals. That water — lifted 3,000 vertical feet and carried 336 miles — has enabled the cities of Phoenix and Tucson to rapidly expand.

This achievement in moving water, however, is gained at an enormous cost. Every hour the Navajo’s generators spin, the plant spews more climate-warming gases into the atmosphere than almost any other single facility in the United States. Alone, it accounts for 29 percent of Arizona’s emissions from energy generation. The Navajo station’s infernos gobble 15 tons of coal each minute, 24 hours each day, every day. 

At sunrise, a reddish-brown snake slithers across the sky as the burned coal sends out plumes of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury, lead and other metals. That malignant plume — containing 16 million tons of carbon dioxide every year — contributes to causing the very overheated weather, drought and dwindling flows of water the plant’s power is intended to relieve. 

Its builders knew that the Navajo Generating Station, which began being constructed in 1969, would cause enormous pollution. An early government analysis warned that burning so much coal would degrade the region’s air by “orders of magnitude,” and federal scientists suggested Navajo and other coal plants in the region could turn the local terrain into a “national sacrifice area.” But for more than a decade, the pollution went largely unchecked. Climate change wasn’t yet a threat, and the other option for getting water into central Arizona — damming the Grand Canyon — seemed worse. 

At times, officials have tried to mitigate the plant’s problems, pouring $420 million into improvements to limit sulfur dioxide emissions as acid rain blanketed parts of the country, for example.

But again and again, the federal government and the other agencies responsible for the plant have dodged calls to clean up the facility and have pushed some of the most stringent environmental requirements far into the future. 

In a series of reports, ProPublica has examined how the West’s water crisis is as much a product of human error and hubris as it is of nature. The Navajo Generating Station is a monument to man’s outsized confidence that it would always be possible to engineer new solutions to an arid region’s environmental limits. 

Now, 15 years into a historic drought, it is becoming increasingly clear that the era of engineering more and more water out of the Colorado River is coming to a close. The Navajo Generating Station is more a caution than a marvel, showing how much energy it takes to move water through an artificial river system, and the unforeseen damage produced by doing so. 

The plant’s environmental toll is sure to fuel arguments for its eventual closing. For now, it has been granted a reprieve from complying with the Obama administration’s new Clean Power initiative, which requires Arizona to reduce its carbon output by 52 percent. But the Environmental Protection Agency has said that it expects to work with the Navajo tribe to reduce emissions separately from Arizona’s mandate, and will likely revisit that issue in the future. The plant will also soon be subject to a new federal environmental review process triggered by its renewed lease on Navajo lands. 

To date, though, the Navajo has always found a way to survive as an essential piece of the infrastructure needed to tame the wild Colorado. 

Last year, the plant’s owners and their supporters negotiated a compromise with the EPA that will allow it to continue operating until 2044. 

“The mechanics of moving water is just lost on people,” said Jared Blumenfeld, administrator of the EPA’s region for the Pacific Southwest, including Arizona, Nevada and California. “It’s something that is just invisible. I don’t think people connect the dots on how enormous an undertaking it is to move water around, especially in a time of drought.” 


It was with awesome feats of engineering that the West was built. To settle a vast, inhospitable region that lacked water, Americans harnessed the Colorado River — which tumbles 1,450 miles from the boulder-strewn flanks of the Rockies to the Sea of Cortez — and daringly used it to remake one-fifth of the country.

More than 100 dams were built across the system. Where the river’s path was inconvenient, its reach was extended with tentacles of tunnels and trenches deep into Southern California and Arizona. Parts of the river were even reversed; water sent eastward through pipelines beneath the Continental Divide. Each project was like a small surgery meant to strengthen and preserve the West’s access to the river before it was overused. And the more people who relied on the river, the more bandages and appendages engineers attached to it.

Over time, the engineers turned the river into one of the world’s largest plumbing systems, where a person and a button control even the wildest rapids in the Grand Canyon. The river’s tail waters have been allowed to flow their natural course into Mexico for just a few days out of the last 16 years. 

The capacity to control a river — to tame its floods, to store its water so that it can be used even in drought and to displace it so that it can be streamed through the landscape for irrigation — is one of the greatest engineering advancements in modern civilization. 

But as surging population, excessive demand for water, climate change and drought continue to menace the American West, the ability of mega-projects to sustain the same old patterns of consumption has diminished. The techniques used to extend the Colorado River’s vitality have instead begun to squeeze the life out of it.

The Hoover Dam at night. Photo by Gayinspandex via Wikimedia, Creative Commons

The Hoover Dam at night. Photo by Gayinspandex via Wikimedia, Creative Commons

It is not only the Navajo Generating Station — aging, polluting — that is so troubled. Many of the most significant pieces of infrastructure lose water, no longer function the way they were designed to as water levels drop, or have required hundreds of millions of dollars in fresh investments. 

The Hoover Dam, completed in 1936, was erected to hold two years of river flow in reserve. Its walls stretch 1,200 feet across the Boulder Canyon, are 726 feet high and 660 feet thick. But today, the dam holds back lots of air, and less water, since the lake levels have dropped more than 140 feet from their high.

Lake Powell, which sits behind the 700-foot-tall Glen Canyon Dam and is the nation’s second-largest water reserve, is even more troubled. The lake has recently fluctuated between 39 and 51 percent full, and if the drought ended tomorrow, it could take nearly a decade for it to fill back up. But the larger problem is not that Lake Powell could one day approach what experts call “dead pool,” meaning there is no longer enough water for it to flow through the dam’s gates or generate the hydropower that the West’s electricity grid depends on. 

It’s that the reservoir leaks like a sieve. As much as 123 billion gallons of water — 2.6 percent of the annual flow of the entire Colorado River — likely seeps into fissures in the porous sandstone underlying the lake and disappears each year, according to a 2013 study. Another 168 billion gallons evaporates off the surface annually, as the sprawling lake bakes in the arid desert climate. A facility whose central purpose is to save water instead loses a mind-boggling amount of it. Were Lake Powell to go away, the American Southwest would have approximately 6 percent more water overnight.

“There may well be an oncoming argument about whether we really ought to take that dam out,” said Bruce Babbitt, the former secretary of the interior and former governor of Arizona. 

The river’s big canals have faced similar problems. The All-American Canal, an 80-mile aqueduct that ferries water along the north side of the Mexican border into California, recently received a nearly $300-million upgrade to stop some 22 billion gallons of water from seeping into the sand dunes beneath it each year.

“The vulnerabilities in this system are so numerous,” said Blumenfeld, the EPA official for several Western states. “When you look at the thousands of miles that water moves … the water loss is huge.” 

This reckoning of the limits of American ingenuity to conquer the West was predicted more than 135 years ago, after John Wesley Powell first explored the river’s basin. Powell, who later ran the United States Geological Survey, assessed water supplies across the country for Congress. Though he had lost most of his right arm in the Battle of Shiloh, he rowed the Colorado River from Wyoming through the Grand Canyon, with 10 men in custom-made oak and pine boats he’d had sent from Chicago. Four of the men abandoned the expedition; three were killed by tribes as they hiked away from the canyon. 

Powell, reporting afterward, told Congress about a bifurcated landscape: a river gushing and abundant, but relatively inaccessible, surrounded for hundreds of miles on all sides by a desert so devoid of rainfall and moisture that it almost certainly could not alone sustain efforts to grow food from its soil. “Many droughts will occur; many seasons in a long series will be fruitless,” he cautioned in a dour report. If one were to try to irrigate the desert, Powell warned, the infrastructure and facilities needed to do it would be so enormous and costly that only a large collective effort — like from the government — could pay for it. 

What Powell wrote then could just as easily summarize what the Department of the Interior is relearning today. In 2012, the Bureau of Reclamation, in an unvarnished assessment of the West’s current water predicament, found the river outmatched by demand and implied that its water projects, by themselves, were no longer an adequate answer.

The best way to spread the region’s limited water supply further was to find ways to use it more efficiently, the agency concluded.


The Navajo Generating Station was born out of jealousy and Arizona’s great ambition. In 1901, Theodore Roosevelt declared, “The western half of the United States would sustain a population greater than that of our whole country today if the waters that now run to waste were saved and used for irrigation.” Roosevelt soon signed a law creating the Bureau of Reclamation and charged it with taking back the lands of the West from nature’s control.

Arizona coveted the thriving growth of Los Angeles but couldn’t keep California from hoarding water unless it had a way to take some for itself. 

What Arizona wanted was a mega-canal — an artificial river that would pump one-tenth of the Colorado’s flow out of Lake Havasu, send it upward nearly the height of the Chrysler building and halfway across the state. The state’s business leaders didn’t just yearn for water. They envisioned their own thriving metropolises, kept cool in the scorching desert with air conditioning, lit bright and speckled with verdant golf courses and retirement villas. Such a vision would be possible only with lots of cheap power. 

At first the Bureau of Reclamation proposed building two large hydropower-generating dams in the Grand Canyon, filling its majestic valleys to power Arizona’s canal. Environmentalists, though, ran newspaper ads comparing the plan to flooding the Sistine Chapel. The bureau needed an alternative. 

Arizona, it turned out, had immense reserves of coal, most of it underlying the nation’s largest Indian reservation. A consortium of power companies had long been working toward what historians have called a “grand plan” to tap those coal reserves and generate the power to execute an expansive vision for Arizona and the rest of the West. In 1964, Time Magazine described the six-power-plant project as the world’s largest electricity complex, one that “would dwarf the TVA.”

The Navajo Generating Station promised to take the traditional coal plant and supersize it, employing state-of-the-art generators to produce 2,250 megawatts of power, more than all but a handful of the operating plants in the nation at the time.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation had never built a coal plant before, but it agreed to be the Navajo’s largest investor, taking a nearly 25 percent stake. The other investors included a number of Arizona utilities as well as the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

It all seemed a godsend. The Navajo plant would power Arizona’s big canal, the Central Arizona Project. The Native American tribes would get jobs. One of the world’s largest coal companies would mine the coal on the reservation, and a national construction firm would benefit, too. And the Southwest would get an abundant supply of homegrown energy that could support its expanding cities and cool them. The plan would even save the Grand Canyon.

“Back up and put yourself in that time frame,” said David Roberts, senior director of water resources for the Salt River Project, one of the station’s six co-owners and the operator of the plant. “It was a win-win for everyone.”

How the Navajo plant and Arizona’s water canal would pay for themselves, though, was based on a financially complex scheme, and everyone — from the federal government to Arizona’s water and power companies — had a stake. Almost none of it worked out as planned.

Most simply put, the Navajo plant — and all the pollution it caused — became a form of subsidy for cheap water. The Arizona authorities charged with selling the water in order to repay taxpayers scrambled for years just to break even, and their debt payment schedule to federal authorities is still significantly delayed. 

“Financially, it wasn’t a wise decision,” said Douglas Kenney, director of the Western Water Policy Program at the University of Colorado Law School in Boulder. 

For many, though, any financial setbacks mattered little when set against what the plant, the canal and the water it made available achieved: By 2010, Arizona had credited its water canal with nearly half of the state’s annual economic production.

“Monday morning quarterback all you want,” said the Salt River Project’s senior director of base load generation, Jim Pratt. The canal, Pratt said, “made Arizona, and the state has never looked back.” 


Navajo turned out to be every bit as filthy as the government had warned in the 1970s, when officials predicted it would cause severe haze and health problems. The prized landscape that surrounds it, and the adjacent Four Corners region, has become significantly polluted, with 11 national parks and protected wilderness areas draped behind a curtain of smog. While no epidemiological studies have pinpointed a cause, EPA records include tribal complaints of a doubling in cancer rates in the Navajo Nation since the generating station began operating, as well as worsening asthma. The nonprofit environmental organization Clean Air Task Force estimated emissions from the Navajo plant alone were responsible for 12 premature deaths in 2012. 

The EPA tried to clean up the site in the 1980s after environment groups sued — pressing for controversial emissions limits and forcing the plant, a decade later, to install expensive smokestacks that sharply reduced sulfur dioxide. But it wasn’t enough. 

In 1999, the EPA tried to get serious again. Haze still veiled the national parks. The threat of climate change loomed on the horizon. The environmental tradeoffs that allowed the Navajo Generating plant to exist grew ever more dramatic.

The remaining problem was largely due to thousands of tons of nitrogen oxide that Navajo and other coal-fired plants still spewed into the atmosphere, pollution that wasn’t caught by the enormous filters installed to catch sulfur dioxide a few years before. The agency finalized a regional haze rule that aimed to restore all polluted areas — not just northern Arizona — to natural background levels of pollution. But Navajo, because it was so close to the Grand Canyon and other prized parks, would face some of the most stringent cuts. 

Navajo’s owners, including both the Salt River Project and the Bureau of Reclamation, haggled with the EPA for years, suggesting alternatives and challenging the rules. But in 2009 the EPA announced its plans to force the Navajo Station into making dramatic cuts. In order to keep producing power, the agency wanted Navajo’s owners to install enormous catalytic converters that would scrub its emissions of nitrogen oxide and other pollutants, steps that would ultimately cut the plant’s most worrisome emissions by 84 percent and keeping some 28,500 tons of nitrogen oxide out of the atmosphere each year. 

But in pushing for dramatic changes at the Navajo plant, the EPA underestimated how intertwined the plant had become with every aspect of life in the region — from providing its power to moving its water to buttressing the tribal economy. 

The plant represented a herculean effort to solve the conflict between water and growth in the West. The EPA’s interference suggests that the consequences were too great. But Arizona and much of the broader region’s vitality had become dependent on the plant. It represented the core of the nation’s strategy to manage the most important resource for a significant chunk of the country’s economy. A seemingly simple aim of curbing pollution really suggested re-examining the larger system. 

What the EPA really wanted, opponents claimed, was for the Navajo Generating Station’s owners to simply close up shop. After all, the EPA’s rulemaking process had led two other large coal plants in the region to shut down all or part of their operations. 

“You don’t just close this power plant down,” said Jon Kyl, the former three-term senator and four-term congressman from Arizona who was closely involved in negotiations over the fate of the plant. “It will have an enormous impact on the entire fabric of the state of Arizona, not just because of power but because of water.”

The plant’s operators denied responsibility for the haze and claimed the fixes the EPA demanded would cost nearly $1 billion to implement. Such an expense, they argued, would cause electricity rates to skyrocket, doubling the cost of water delivered through the Central Arizona Project canal and threatening its viability. Where else would the canal, which depends on the Navajo station for more than 90 percent of its energy, get power? 

Complicating any effort to recognize the plant’s problems was the fact that some of Arizona’s most influential leaders rejected the scientific consensus that the Navajo station’s carbon pollution played any role in a warming planet or intensifying drought.

Kyl, who was attuned to water scarcity issues and had sponsored several bills to address them, told ProPublica the link between the plant’s emissions and climate change “is absolutely not proven, it is simply assumed.”

As debate over the EPA’s plans meandered on, environmental groups made the case that the coal-fired Navajo was polluting the air and damaging people’s health. 

“You are trying to raise your family in this environment, and you realize this is one of the top 10 dirtiest plants in the nation and it’s been spewing all this stuff for 40 years,” said Nicole Horseherder, a Navajo environmental activist. “Who is going to speak up and say, ‘Look, we are paying a huge cost so that the state of Arizona can have its profits, have its taxes, have its electricity, have its water?’ ”

Horseherder has twice testified before Congress about the power plant’s effects. Alongside groups like the Sierra Club, she urged legislators to replace coal with investment in new solar and other clean energy plants on the reservation. 

Many of the strongest arguments for maintaining the Navajo as it was didn’t hold up to scrutiny. 

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a division of the Department of Energy, analyzed the impacts of the EPA’s plan and found that power costs were unlikely to increase anywhere near as much as the plant owners insisted. “Could we have found the energy to move that water?” asked Tom McCann, Central Arizona Project’s deputy general manager of operations and maintenance, in an interview with ProPublica. “Yes.” 

Finally, in July 2014, 15 years after the EPA formalized its haze rule and first set in motion rules that would curb nitrogen oxide pollution at the Navajo plant, a deal was finally struck to limit the plant’s harm.

But the deal, to many, was yet another compromise showing that the government was not yet prepared to adapt its power and water policies to a changing environmental reality. 

The EPA had originally sought an 84 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide by 2018, swiftly curtailing the pollutant most linked to haze and health problems. Instead, the plant owners agreed to an 80 percent cut after 16 years, and to shut down one of its three generators for good by 2019, reducing overall emissions by one-third in the short term. They successfully put off installing new equipment to filter the two remaining smokestacks until 2030, a delay that would get the EPA much closer to its goals for nitrogen oxide in the long run, but allow the plant more flexibility. And the government agreed to allow the plant to continue operating until 2044. 

The National Parks Conservation Association called the deal “unconscionable,” and other environmental groups also took note. 

“They always get special bargains and deals,” Janette Brimmer, an attorney with Earthjustice, said of the Navajo’s long history with environmental regulators. 

The EPA’s Blumenfeld insists the deal is better than it appears and that federal regulators achieved their most important goal of cutting nitrogen oxide by 80 percent while considering the complex employment and social needs of the region.

“You really can’t go and meet and talk to folks on the ground and understand all the issues and then say that the solution here was to shut it down. It would have been an absolute disaster,” Blumenfeld said. “It wasn’t balancing for balancing sake, it was wanting to get it right.”


On a morning last fall, Terry Edwards stood atop a waffled steel gangplank outside the humming heart of the Navajo Generating Station, 203 feet above the sprawling concrete yard. A rising breeze came off the desert as it heated in the bright sun.

Edwards, 58, with graying hair and metal-framed glasses, could almost see the town in Utah where he was born. He’d never strayed far, coming to work at the generating station in 1979, five years after it opened. Now he’s become an operations and maintenance supervisor and is accustomed to finding the most dramatic places in the facility to show off in a tour. 

He calls the plant “Big Iron,” a nod to its central role in providing power to an entire region from a single plant. “We’re one of the cheapest suppliers of energy,” he said proudly. The coal is good quality, inexpensive and practically bottomless, he said, pointing down to a yard where miniature-looking trains pull up to the endless conveyors. It’s been moving like that every day for 40 years, he said, like a giant machine. And he thinks — though the feds estimate far less — that there’s another 200 years’ worth under the reservation. 

Edwards has no qualms about the effect of burning all that coal on the drought or on climate change, which he said “is cyclical and man can’t change on his own.” 

Even after the decadeslong debate over whether the plant’s contributions outweigh its harm, he has not reconsidered its purpose or wavered in his awe for what the generating station accomplishes, and he sees it as proof that man’s ability to conquer the West’s environment is as durable as ever. 

The West is full of people like him. Indeed, as the region gets more crowded, drier and hotter, there is talk not of living within the current constraints but of engineering new ways to gather additional supplies of water. The West must continue to grow, Kyl says, or it will begin slipping backward. He thinks it will be necessary to shoot silver iodide into the clouds in an effort to make it rain or to build plants to desalt ocean water. 

Some have proposed building a pipeline to route water 700 miles from the Mississippi River — or from its tributary the Missouri — to Colorado. Such a pipeline, like Arizona’s canal, would likely require yet another power plant to make it work. Others suggest towing icebergs down from the Arctic or filling tankers from Alaska’s rivers.

Though these ideas seem far-fetched, all are listed in the Bureau of Reclamation’s 2012 report on water shortages across the Colorado River basin and have been contemplated by some of the smartest policy experts in the nation. 

Even if they remain out of reach, states are already racing to build billions of dollars of smaller engineering marvels in the hopes that machines and money can dig the West out of its drought.

Utah plans to dam its Bear River, at a cost of some $1.5 billion, and hopes to build a pipeline from Lake Powell, even as it runs dry. New Mexico plans to build a channel to divert water out of the Gila River before it crosses into Arizona, even though Arizona already uses much of that water. Colorado’s Legislature has discussed a plan to divert water from the Missouri River, at the far end of Kansas. California voters just passed a $7 billion water measure that amounts to a blank check but will likely be put toward new dams. The list goes on.

“Arizona will eventually have to bring water in,” said Kyl, who thinks the state has exhausted its other options. “When you cannot conserve any more and the demand exceeds the supply, you have to consider options.” 

Environmentalists say it won’t work to spend new billions to add more bandages and appendages to the Colorado. The health of the river will get worse with each new diversion, they say, and the water wars between states will only intensify.

“Right now we have two colossal reservoirs and there isn’t enough water to keep even one of them full, and yet entities around the basin are trying to build more,” said Gary Wockner, executive director of Save the Colorado, an advocacy group. “They can pour more cement, but they can’t make it rain.”

Wockner and others say the elaborate projects built along the river amount to expensive distractions. The more permanent solution: Put the Colorado’s limited water to the best purpose, by planting more efficient crops, irrigating with modern equipment, writing laws that incentivize conservation, and reducing energy spent moving water over large distances.

“The Colorado River is already extremely depleted,” Wockner said. “There is nothing left to give, and it’s time to go to plan B, which is water conservation efficiency. It’s faster, cheaper and easier than building these new dams.”

As the debate continues and the water crisis deepens, the Navajo Generating Station keeps grinding away, consuming 22,000 tons of coal and emitting 44,000 tons of carbon each day, in large part to deliver Arizona’s water.

Creative Commons

Naveena Sadasivam and Lauren Kirchner contributed to this story.

This story was co-published with Matter, a new digital magazine on Medium. Follow ProPublica on Medium for more conversation on the West’s water crisisProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.

~~~

Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Subscribe by email to our free FRONTLINES, a blog announcing new works, and the odd small tale. Look for evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. Some of our original works are behind a paywall, available with a $1 site day pass, or with a subscription from $2.95/month – $19.95/year. If you value journalism, please help sustain us.

 

Posted in Also tagged |

Killing the Colorado: Water Rights and the Right to Waste

Lake Powell "LakePowell3" by G. Thomas at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:LakePowell3.jpg#/media/File:LakePowell3.jpg

Lake Powell “LakePowell3” by G. Thomas at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:LakePowell3.jpg#/media/File:LakePowell3.jpg

by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica, in collaboration with Matter
June, 2015

High in the Rocky Mountains, snowmelt fills a stream that trickles down into Ohio Creek and then onward toward the Upper Gunnison River. From there, it tumbles through the chasms of the Black Canyon, joining the Colorado River, filling the giant Lake Powell reservoir, and, one day, flowing to Los Angeles.

But before the water gets more than a few miles off the mountain, much of this stream is diverted into dirt ditches used by ranchers along the Ohio Creek Valley. Standing astride one of those ditches one day last fall, Bill Ketterhagen dug his boot soles against the concrete edge of a 5-foot-wide dam. He spun a steel wheel and opened a gate that allowed water to pour into his fields of hay crops.

Ketterhagen, 39, manages a 750-acre ranch outside the town of Gunnison, Colorado, for its out-of-state owners, mostly growing a mixture of Meadow Foxtail, Timothy, wheat grasses and some alfalfa. The grasses, knee-high with bursts of clover flowers and flat, slender leaves, are cut, baled and shipped to feedlots where they fatten cattle soon to be slaughtered for beef.

"Cattle Feedlot near Rocky Ford, CO IMG 5651" by Billy Hathorn - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cattle_Feedlot_near_Rocky_Ford,_CO_IMG_5651.JPG#/media/File:Cattle_Feedlot_near_Rocky_Ford,_CO_IMG_5651.JPG

A cattle feedlot in Colorado. Photo Billy Hathorn, Creative Commons via Wikimedia

Thickly built, wearing overalls and a four-day beard, Ketterhagen has a degree in biology and natural resource management and once worked in a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He knows his fields could thrive with much smaller amounts of water — he’s seen them do so in dry years — but the property owners he works for have the legal right to take a large supply, and he applies the water generously. 

“When we have it, we’ll use it,” he said. “You’ll open your head gate all the way and take as much as you can — whether you need it or not.”

Ketterhagen feels he has little choice. A vestige of 139-year-old water law pushes ranchers to use as much water as they possibly can, even during a drought. “Use it or lose it” clauses, as they are known, are common in state laws throughout the Colorado River basin and give the farmers, ranchers and governments holding water rights a powerful incentive to use more water than they need. Under the provisions of these measures, people who use less water than they are legally entitled to risk seeing their allotment slashed. 

There are few starker examples of how man’s missteps and policies are contributing to the water shortage currently afflicting the western United States. In a series of reports, ProPublica is examining how decisions on water management and growth have exacerbated more than a decade of drought, bringing the West to the point of crisis. The Colorado River is the most important source of water for nearly 40 million people across California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, and supports some 15 percent of the nation’s food crops. 

But the river is in trouble, and water laws are one significant cause. Legal water rights and state allocations have been issued for more water than the river, in an average year, can provide. Meanwhile its annual flow has been steadily decreasing as the climate changes and drought grips the region. And so, for more than a decade, states and the federal government have tried to wring more supply out of the Colorado and spread it further, in part by persuading the farmers and ranchers who use the vast majority of the river’s water and have the largest water rights to conserve it.

But in many ways it’s the vast body of often-antiquated law governing western water rights, officials acknowledge, that actively undermines conservation, making waste — or at least heavy use — entirely rational.

“Water is money,” said Eugene Backhaus, a state resource conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, which works to help ranchers use water more efficiently. “The way the current water law structure is, if they don’t use it for the assigned use, they could lose the water right.” 

Adding to the problems, the states linked by reliance on the Colorado govern their water resources separately and have not standardized their water laws. While states have made incremental adjustments to those laws, they have not recast them to address the new needs of a region undergoing vast changes. Some rules force ranchers to dry up entire streams; others ignore the ecological value of maintaining a healthy river. The common element of all these laws is the blunt ethos of the West: Water exists mainly in order to get used up, even if that means deepening the problems of neighboring states.

Ketterhagen understands that the ranch he runs sits atop a system under enormous stress and that he’s wasting water in a region that desperately needs it. But he also understands Colorado water law — rights are precious, and sometimes more valuable even than the land to which they are attached. 

Throughout the long, hot summer, Ketterhagen let water course through his fields, irrigating his pastures and vitalizing the gravelly soil beneath. Last spring, the water flowed over the grass’s roots, drowning them, and climbed past the first leaves of the sprouting plants until it stood calf-deep.

“She’s my gauge,” Ketterhagen said, pointing at Gilli, his black and white Aussie heeler mix, who bounded around the field. “When I see a little bit of spray kicking up behind her, it’s just right.”

The body of law governing how water is distributed in the West was shaped by the gold rush. 

As people were lured to settle vast, uninhabited and arid parts of the country, they staked their claims to land and water only to face fierce competition upstream as rivers were diverted to sluice for treasure. Courts decreed that water would be saved for the first to use it. Since most property was far from streams and there was little rain, officials then gave settlers formal rights to take water out of rivers and move it across dry land where it could be used to mine minerals or turn rocky fields into farms. 

As western territories became states, those states institutionalized the rules — sometimes in their state constitutions — first locking in water rights for those who were already there and then issuing more to those who requested them, on a first-come-first-served basis. For irrigation, shares were apportioned according to crude 19th-century notions of how much water was needed to get 40 acres of dry soil to produce a crop. In times of drought, those with the oldest, or most senior, rights to water would get it first; those with the newest rights would have to wait at the back of the line. 

It wasn’t until the 1920s that the seven states whose territory was touched by the Colorado River and its tributaries began to compete for access to the source of that water. Herbert Hoover, then the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, led negotiations in which the states agreed on an estimate of the amount of water in the river. The rights to most of the flow were split between states in the upper and lower basins. Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico got half, while Arizona, California and Nevada got the rest. This was, in part, to keep California — already the most populous and industrious of western states — from taking it all. Each state continued to govern the rights to water distributed within its borders. 

But even in that first 1922 compact, more water was divvied up on paper than would actually run through the river. Officials, it turned out, had estimated the Colorado’s average flow after a period of unusually wet conditions, calculating that 18 million acre-feet flowed through the river each year, and dividing up some 15 million acre-feet, or 4.8 trillion gallons of water, between the states. Within two decades they began to understand their folly: During many years as little as 12 million acre-feet flowed, and under normal conditions the river would rarely yield close to the amount of water expected. And yet the states piled on more obligations, bringing the amount of water parceled out even higher. In 1944, for instance, Congress signed a treaty promising an additional 1.5 million acre-feet to Mexico, where the Colorado River naturally ends. 

Today, 15 years into an epochal drought, 16.5 million acre-feet of water have been allocated, while the river, during the recent drought, has been flowing at a rate of around 12.4 million acre-feet each year.

Still, aside from a 2007 temporary pact to divide the pain of river shortages between them, officials in the seven states have never renegotiated the original river compact or fundamentally changed the foundations of water law that lead to overuse. The result is a set of codified principles designed for a different era and divorced from today’s environmental realities. 

The term “water law” in the Colorado River basin has come to refer to a monstrous volume of federal statutes and agreements, court precedents and state laws and regulations that can differ from place to place and have changed incrementally over the years but are structured by the interstate agreements to divide the river. Most of those state laws share the basic principle that the first people to arrive in the West should hold the most senior rights to its water. 

The notion of “first in time, first in right” has persisted even as the need for water has exploded in urban areas that sprang up long after most water rights were distributed and therefore rank lowest in priority. 

Fly-fishing, rafting and mountain tourism contribute billions of dollars to Colorado’s economy, yet in most cases state law distributes rights to a majority of water in streams and tributaries to farmers and ranchers and incentivizes them to leave little, if any, for recreational use. Many small streams in the Rockies run dry by midsummer, often because ranchers don’t have a reason to let water pass them by. 

“Ninety percent of water users thought water running downstream was wasted water,” said Cary Denison, the Gunnison basin project coordinator for Trout Unlimited, a sportsmen’s and river conservation group working with ranchers to get them to use less water. 

Years of worsening water scarcity passed before those ranchers began to appreciate how their practices — and the laws guiding them — were contributing to the problem. “Only recently do we start to see articles in the paper about the drought, and we think, gosh, we have some effect on this,” Denison said.

The Kawuneeche Valley near the source of the river in the Rockies. Photo by Darekk2 , Creative Commons via Wikimedia

The Kawuneeche Valley near the source of the river in the Rockies. Photo by Darekk2 , Creative Commons via Wikimedia

Even when there is no more water to distribute, Colorado officials can certify place holders in an endless line, assuring that water will be overallocated forever and that someone will always use whatever the last person leaves untouched.

“The whole system is designed towards preserving the status quo,” said Jim Lochhead, the chief executive of the urban utility Denver Water, who formerly represented Colorado on interstate water negotiations. The most pragmatic approach, he thinks, is to build off existing water law while reforming its worst parts. But in a perfect world, he said, “I would abolish Colorado water rights law and start all over again with a clean slate.”

None of the antiquated parts of what across the entire basin is referred to loosely as “water law” play as much a role in stressing the water system — or seem as fixable — as the one known as “use it or lose it.” 

Originally devised in part to keep speculators from hoarding water to build wealth and power, the intent of “use it” laws was to make sure the people who held rights to water exercised them. They could keep those rights indefinitely, passing them on through generations or selling them, attached to the land, at great profit, as long as they constantly put the water to what most Western water laws refer to as “beneficial use.” 

Each Colorado River basin state has a variation of rules promising to confiscate water rights if water users don’t maximize their use. While some of the laws allow for state-approved conservation or other flexibility, legal experts say ranchers often understand the laws to be absolute. Colorado authorities keep a list of property owners whose water rights are primed for “abandonment,” meaning that the full extent of the rights haven’t been exercised, by intent and on average, over a 10-year period.

The provision leaves landowners feeling they have little choice but to take as much as they are allowed, and many do it year in and year out to preserve the value of their property. “I would say to my clients: ‘You have to protect yourself … by using the water that is appropriated,'” said John McClow, a prominent water rights attorney who represented the state on the Upper Colorado River Commission, the interstate water management coalition, and now serves on the Colorado Water Conservation Board. But maximizing their rights keeps the river under maximum strain. 

It’s not just ranchers who feel they must use up water for fear of losing rights to it. Towns, counties and even states do more or less the same thing, not necessarily because they are bound by abandonment clauses like ranchers but because they harbor fears of losing their water as it flows out of state. There is a push for Colorado to maximize its use of all the water it can. 

“The state of Colorado is supposed to double in size by 2050,” said Marc Catlin, who sits on the board of the Colorado River Water Conservation District and represents Montrose County, which has filed applications to snatch up additional conditional water rights for its own future growth. “And somebody has got to be thinking about the future if that’s the case.”

The effects of “use it or lose it” laws are so significant that policy experts warn that western states won’t be able to begin untangling larger issues of drought and conservation without dealing with it first. “It’s fundamental,” said Laura Ziemer, senior counsel for Trout Unlimited and a leading expert on water law. 

Any reform would probably have to happen state by state. States are fiercely protective of their sovereign rights to govern their water resources, and the federal government has repeatedly pledged not to interfere. Challenging state leaders on that, said Pat Mulroy, the former head of Las Vegas’ water authority and Nevada’s former negotiator on the Colorado River, is a sure way to “see eyeballs start popping out and bones start showing up on the side of their backs.” 

At the state level, suggestions that the “first-in-time” water rights policies might be modified triggers an equally radical reaction, conjuring fears of property seizure and a nearly religious opposition to change. Even the most ardent supporters of such changes — people like Lochhead of Denver Water — admit water laws are probably too sensitive to be reformed any time soon. 

Still, overhauling “use it or lose it” clauses would protect property, could offer quick improvement for water supplies and has the support of many ranchers. 

Recognizing that its groundwater aquifers were being rapidly depleted, Kansas passed legislation protecting farmers’ full water rights even if they choose to use less water in any given year. But efforts to pass a similar measure in Colorado have so far failed. Last year Colorado’s governor vetoed a bill that would have allowed ranchers to use less water without jeopardizing their long-term entitlements, and an effort to revive the issue earlier this year hit a dead end. Some ranchers — including Ketterhagen — wanted to see the water they didn’t need stay in the river, where it would support the state’s booming fishing and outdoor tourism economy. But others, including those with more junior water rights, didn’t want to give water to trout — or to lower basin states.

“Do we want to fix it in a way that sends more water to Arizona?” asked McClow, the water attorney. “We’re still parochial about that. If we save some water, I think we want to use it ourselves.”

Across the fields from the ranch managed by Ketterhagen lives Bill Trampe, a significant user of Colorado water and one of the most influential.

Like his father and grandfather, Trampe, 68, harvests alfalfa on what is now 6,000 acres of picturesque rolling hay crops and grassland 30 minutes outside the town of Crested Butte. His grandfather cleared stones and dug the miles of irrigation ditches that bring water to the ranch with his own hands.

Trampe sits on the boards of the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the state’s Interbasin Compact Committee. Many of the River District members at first supported Colorado’s attempt to fix the “use it or lose it” law last year. But when Trampe — who argued the law would embroil ranchers in expensive legal and engineering fights to defend their water rights — came out in opposition, momentum shifted against the bill, and the governor ultimately killed it. 

Trampe, like many alfalfa ranchers, flood irrigates his pastures, and he says that while the water he dumps on his fields can seem excessive, it serves other invisible but essential purposes. He fears a law that encourages farmers to conserve water would have unintended consequences on a complex natural system. 

Driving his combine tractor, his thick, calloused hands wrapped over the vinyl steering wheel, Trampe described his fields in the way that only someone who has spent his entire life on the land can. Because his rocky soil drains quickly, the extra water he applies seeps downward and keeps the underlying aquifer full, he says. What water isn’t sipped up by his own plants flows underground downhill to benefit his neighbors, and ultimately to provide a steady flow of water back into the river itself. 

Before there was farming, Trampe says, there wasn’t much of a ground water supply in his part of the valley north of Gunnison. But today households there depend on water wells for bathing and drinking, and those wells tap into a water table that is kept artificially high by the overuse of irrigation water on the ranches. There is also the drain water: “return flows” that seep back into the river to be claimed again by “junior” water rights holders downstream. 

Return flows are an essential component of Colorado water accounting, and ranchers like to say their water is recycled four or five times by the time it gets all the way down to the main stem of the river. Among Trampe’s concerns is that conservation would wind up cutting off return flows the next farmer counts on. 

“Over a century, we’ve been irrigating this country, and we’ve established an ecology based on what we’ve been doing,” he said.

Trampe also sees conservation efforts as a sort of Trojan horse. He says that, squeezed between Denver to the east and all the big thirsty desert cities downstream, Colorado’s ranchers are under siege. 

“The municipalities will come here and condemn us, or buy us out,” he said.

Indeed, western cities have become increasingly critical of the imbalance between rural and urban regions when it comes to rights to water. “There is a very small number of people that control a huge amount of water,” said Douglas Kenney, director of the Western Water Policy Program at the University of Colorado Law School in Boulder. “Is it truly equitable that water was allocated 100 years ago and now we are locked into that forever?”

Denver and other eastern Colorado cities already take 154 billion gallons of water across the Continental Divide from western Colorado each year. Schemes to build more tunnels to divert more water from rural western areas like Gunnison are a constant concern. And last July the utilities and groups that represent the lower river states’ biggest urban areas — including Las Vegas, Denver and Los Angeles — proposed a pilot program to find additional water supplies in the agriculturally rich parts of Colorado, in part by paying people like Trampe to fallow fields, be more water-efficient or perhaps lease or sell their water rights. 

“The cities continue to grow and grow and grow — and they expect me — or us as an industry — to give up water,” Trampe said. “Why should I suffer for their sprawl?” 

Mercury Pool, Caesar's Palace, Los Vegas. Photo by InSapphoWeTrust, Creative Commons via Wikimedia

Mercury Pool, Caesar’s Palace, Los Vegas. Photo by InSapphoWeTrust, Creative Commons via Wikimedia

In 2012, it hardly snowed in Colorado. Even in the Colorado River’s uppermost reaches, streams narrowed to a desperate trickle in the early summer, and long before Gunnison’s ranchers could take their water, Ohio Creek and the other tributaries nearly ran dry. A strange thing happened as a result. 

Walking through shoulder-high Garrison grass, Ketterhagen recounted the lessons of that summer: His fields did great, perhaps better than they have done since. He has come to think the grasses — a pasture mix of slender wheat, Garrison, clover and alfalfa — suffer with too much water. The dry year trained them to withstand the rigors of water shortages in the future. “If you are able to irrigate your crops with less water over time,” Ketterhagen said, holding his arms out and letting the silky plumes brush his palms, “I think you could create a more drought-resistant hay crop.”

There’s no quicker way to make a Colorado rancher bristle than to suggest that the water he applies to his meadows is wasted, but the science — and Ketterhagen’s observations — suggest many water users could get by with less. 

According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Backhaus, an alfalfa plant in particular, set in saturated soil, will grow weak roots only half as deep as normal. The saturation can bring more disease and insects and grow a plant deficient in iron. Alfalfa is the thirstiest crop grown in western Colorado, consuming as much as 3 acre-feet of water per acre of crop each year. But it’s not uncommon for local ranchers to deliver 4 to 6 acre-feet of water, taking twice as much water from the river as their crop needs. If it doesn’t drain, that much water can suffocate the plants and they will be overtaken by sedges and other species. 

“Saturated soil actually doesn’t have oxygen in it, and so you will start seeing more of that wetland type plant growing in it,” Backhaus said. “By continually irrigating — letting the water go over a field and never stopping it — it could turn into an artificial wetland.”

Even where crops aren’t overwatered, water is lost just by transporting it from the river to the field. Copious amounts evaporate out of the ditches that line the hillsides and seep out the bottom into the loamy soil, well before the water even gets to ranchers’ fields. Ranchers know this; they open the gates long before they need the water, allowing extra time for the soil to get saturated enough to hold water. 

Along the banks, the roots of weedy tamarisk shrubs guzzle even more water, and sedges grow in depressions — a sign of moisture pooling where it isn’t needed. As Trout Unlimited’s Denison points out, flood irrigation is just 35 percent efficient, meaning nearly two-thirds of the water taken out of the river is lost, and never gets used by the grasses it is meant to nourish. The extra water is presumed to ultimately return to the river — and is counted that way when the state tallies up its usage — but Denison and others say only some of it actually does. 

Denison sees opportunity in the margins. Rather than a black-or-white struggle between agriculture and cities, a compromise could send more water downriver while keeping the farms in business. But finding it requires rethinking water entitlements, and more flexibility than existing laws allow. California has been grappling with this realization as its most senior water rights holders have begun to relinquish part of their share. “There is plenty of water to meet current needs, but we have to define what needs are, versus what a ‘right’ is,” Denison said. 

The Natural Resources Conservation Service offers financial incentives to help ranchers upgrade equipment and adopt new, more efficient irrigation technologies. A pivot irrigation system — in which a long sprinkler pipe is set on wheels and rotates from a fixed point, leaving lush green crop circles — can potentially cut water use in half. Remote-controlled water ditch gates allow ranchers to shut off flows they otherwise leave running for months at a time because they are too far up in the mountains to visit. Drip irrigation for vegetable crops, in which small amounts of water are emitted right at a plant’s roots, is estimated to be as much as 95 percent efficient. 

Standing at the top of a meadow full of Timothy and wheat grasses, Ketterhagen points to a 12-inch PVC pipe running beside an empty 2-foot-deep dirt ditch that it replaced. He worked with advisers from the NRCS to design the pipe system and install it on part of the ranch. The pipes don’t lose water en route to the field and let Ketterhagen distribute water more evenly. Within a week, he says, his water use on that section of the ranch seemed to drop by about half.

Federal officials believe the subsidy program could successfully prod ranchers to put hundreds of billions of gallons of water back into the river and help relieve the shortages plaguing states downstream. “If every producer did that … there would be measurable gains,” said the NRCS’s Backhaus. “If 50 percent of them did it and they got a 10 percent gain, that would still be measurable.”

And yet ranchers have been slow to adopt changes. Their reasoning varies from the practical — Gunnison-area ranches often grow only one cutting of alfalfa a season, putting the $90,000 cost of some pivot irrigation systems out of reach — to the cynically ideological. “If you save it you lose it. You don’t get paid for it. You just give it up,” said Patrick O’Toole, president of the Family Farm Alliance, a national farmer advocacy group that advises Washington policymakers, repeating complaints he says he hears from some of his members. “So why would you give up water for use you don’t even believe in, for nothing?” 

The risk to long-term water rights figures prominently in ranchers’ thinking. If Ketterhagen piped every ditch on the ranch he runs, the pipes might not even carry enough water for the owners to be able to take their full allotment out of Ohio Creek. The Colorado authorities could confiscate their water rights. Ketterhagen’s employers would lose much of the value of their land, and Ketterhagen expects he’d be out of a job. Federal officials say similar concerns weigh on other ranchers, and that “use it or lose it” statutes create a strong headwind for the government’s conservation program, prompting ranchers to worry about becoming too efficient for their own good. 

“It kind of runs crosswise with the goal of our program,” said John Scott, a former district conservationist for the NRCS in Gunnison.

Many of the same ranchers who insist they need all of their water also say they could use less if their rights were protected and they benefitted from the savings. “Why shouldn’t we have a say in how those savings are used?” asked Ken Spann, one of western Colorado’s significant water users, who farms thousands of acres between Crested Butte and the town of Delta downstream. “Do I have a moral and ethical obligation as a citizen of Colorado to ensure that they can continue to expand the metropolitan area toward the Kansas line? I don’t think I do.” 

Spann would support a change in the law if it allowed him to retrieve the water he saved one year and use it the next. For now, he says, he has no good reason to use less water.

“People behave rationally,” said the University of Colorado’s Kenney. “The incentives are structured in a way that they are encouraged to act in a way that isn’t in society’s best interest.”

There is a consensus that this status quo has got to change. There is going to be less water and increasing pressure to use it efficiently. 

“It’s like I’ve got a devil and an angel on my shoulder,” Ketterhagen said. He wants to see a healthy river and applauds an effort last spring to send a surge of water to the river’s end to restore its delta. “On the one hand the Colorado River flowed all the way into the Sea of Cortez this year, it brings a tear to my eye.”

“On the other, we give them our water and what do we get in return?”

Creative Commons

Naveena Sadasivam contributed to this story. ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter

~~~

Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Subscribe by email to our free FRONTLINES, a blog announcing new works, and the odd small tale. Look for evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. Some of our original works are behind a paywall, available with a $1 site day pass, or with a subscription from $2.95/month – $19.95/year. If you value journalism, please help sustain us.

 

Posted in Also tagged , , |

Killing the Colorado: How US dollars fund the western water crisis

The Sonoran Desert, where getting plants to grow is only made possible by importing billions of gallons of water each year. Photo by  Highqueue, Wikipedia,  Public Domain

Sonoran Desert. Photo by Highqueue, Wikipedia, Public Domain

by Abrahm Lustgarten and Naveena Sadasivam, ProPublica, in collaboration with Matter
June, 2015

Photo by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica, © 2015

Photo by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica, © 2015

State Route 87, the thin band of pavement that approaches the mostly shuttered town of Coolidge, Ariz., cuts through some of the least hospitable land in the country. The valley of red and brown sand is interrupted occasionally by rock and saguaro cactus. It’s not unusual for summer temperatures to top 116 degrees. And there is almost no water; this part of Arizona receives less than nine inches of rainfall each year. 

Then Route 87 tacks left and the dead landscape springs to life. Barren roadside is replaced by thousands of acres of cotton fields, their bright, leafy green stalks and white, puffy bolls in neat rows that unravel for miles. It’s a vision of bounty where it would be least expected. Step into the hip-high cotton shrubs, with the soft, water-soaked dirt giving way beneath your boot soles, the bees buzzing in your ears, the pungent odor of the plants in your nostrils, and you might as well be in Georgia.

Getting plants to grow in the Sonoran Desert is made possible by importing billions of gallons of water each year. Cotton is one of the thirstiest crops in existence, and each acre cultivated here demands six times as much water as lettuce, 60 percent more than wheat. That precious liquid is pulled from a nearby federal reservoir, siphoned from beleaguered underground aquifers and pumped in from the Colorado River hundreds of miles away. Greg Wuertz has been farming cotton on these fields since 1981, and before him, his father and grandfather did the same. His family is part of Arizona’s agricultural royalty. His father was a board member of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District for nearly two decades. Wuertz has served as president of several of the most important cotton organizations in the state.

But what was once a breathtaking accomplishment — raising cotton in a desert — has become something that Wuertz pursues with a twinge of doubt chipping at his conscience. Demand and prices for cotton have plummeted, and he knows no one really needs what he supplies. More importantly, he understands that cotton comes at enormous environmental expense, a price the American West may no longer be able to afford. 

Wuertz could plant any number of crops that use far less water than cotton and fill grocery store shelves from Maine to Minnesota. But along with hundreds of farmers across Arizona, he has kept planting his fields with cotton instead. He says he has done it out of habit, pride, practicality, and even a self-deprecating sense that he wouldn’t be good at anything else. But in truth, one reason outweighs all the others: The federal government has long offered him so many financial incentives to do it that he can’t afford not to. 

“Some years all of what you made came from the government,” Wuertz said. “Your bank would finance your farming operation … because they knew the support was guaranteed. They wouldn’t finance wheat, or alfalfa. Cotton was always dependable, it would always work.”

The water shortages that have brought California, Arizona and other Western states to the edge of an environmental cliff have been attributed to a historic climate event — a dry spell that experts worry could be the worst in 1,000 years. But an examination by ProPublica shows that the scarcity of water is as much a man-made crisis as a natural one, the result of decades of missteps and misapprehensions by governments and businesses as they have faced surging demand driven by a booming population. 

The federal subsidies that prop up cotton farming in Arizona are just one of myriad ways that policymakers have refused, or been slow to reshape laws to reflect the West’s changing circumstances. Provisions in early–20th-century water-use laws that not only permit but also compel farmers and others to use more water than they need are another. “Use It or Lose It” is the cynical catch phrase for one of those policies.

Western leaders also have flinched repeatedly when staring down the insatiable, unstoppable force of urban sprawl. Las Vegas authorities have spent billions of dollars inventing new ways to bring water to their ever-expanding city, yet could not cite a single development permit they had ever denied because of concerns about water.

Instead, when faced with a dwindling water supply, state and federal officials have again and again relied on human ingenuity to engineer a way out of making hard choices about using less water. But the engineering that made settling the West possible may have reached the bounds of its potential. Dams and their reservoirs leak or lose billions of gallons of water to evaporation. The colossal Navajo Generating Station, which burns 22,000 tons of coal a day in large part to push water hundreds of miles across Arizona, is among the nation’s biggest greenhouse gas polluters, contributing to the very climate change that is exacerbating the drought.

Photo by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica, © 2015

Photo by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica, © 2015

Few crises have been more emphatically and presciently predicted. Almost 150 years ago, John Wesley Powell, the geologist and explorer, traveled the Colorado River in an effort to gauge America’s chances for developing its arid western half. His report to Congress reached a chastening conclusion: There wasn’t enough water to support significant settlement.

For more than a century, Americans have defied Powell’s words, constructing 20 of the nation’s largest cities and a vibrant economy that, among other bounties, provides an astonishing proportion of the country’s fruit and vegetables.

For almost as long, the policies that shaped the West have struggled to match the region’s ambitions — endless growth, new industry, fertile farming and plentiful power — to its water supply.

Today, as the Colorado River enters its 15th year of drought, the nation’s largest reservoirs have been diminished to relative puddles. Power plants that depend on dams along the river face shortages and shutdowns that could send water and electricity prices skyrocketing. Many of the region’s farmers have been forced to fallow fields. 

The still-blooming cotton farms of Arizona are emblematic of the reluctance to make choices that seem obvious. The Wuertz family has received government checks just for putting cottonseeds in the ground and more checks when the price of cotton fell. They have benefited from cheap loans for cotton production that don’t have to be fully repaid if the market slumps. Most recently, the government has covered almost the entire premium on their cotton crop insurance, guaranteeing they’ll be financially protected even when natural conditions — like drought — keep them from producing a good harvest.

The payments, part of the U.S. Farm Bill, are a legacy of Dust Bowl-era programs that live on today at the urging of the national cotton lobby and the insurance industry. Similar subsidies support corn, rice, wheat and, indirectly, alfalfa — all of which also use lots of water. But in Arizona one of the driest states in the nation, it’s cotton that has received the most federal aid, tipping the balance on farmers’ decisions about what to plant. 

Over the last 20 years, Arizona’s farmers have collected more than $1.1 billion in cotton subsidies, nine times more than the amount paid out for the next highest subsidized crop. In California, where cotton also gets more support than most other crops, farmers received more than $3 billion in cotton aid.

Cotton growers say the subsidies don’t make them rich but help bridge the worst years of losses and keep their businesses going. And because the money is such a sure thing, they have little choice but to keep planting. 

“If you’re sitting on land and thinking of shifting, cotton is safer,” said Daniel Pearson, a senior fellow of trade policy studies at the Cato Institute.

Cotton pickers on their way to the cotton wagon, Pinal County, Arizona, 1940. Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture, public domain

Cotton pickers on their way to the cotton wagon, Pinal County, Arizona, 1940. Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture, public domain

Growing cotton in the desert, long term, may be doomed. In Arizona, the price for cotton has been in decline, and with it the overall planting of the crop. But when the price spikes, as it did dramatically in 2010, the growers get busy. One thing has yet to change: the government’s willingness to back and protect those still wanting to be cotton farmers.

For years, the federal support came through subsidies and price protection cash put directly in the farmer’s pocket. In Arizona, those payments could total tens of millions of dollars a year. Today, the government’s aid comes chiefly in the form of insurance subsidies — reliable and robust protections against losses that many farmers and their lobbyists hoped would be every bit as effective as cold cash. And so every year more than 100,000 acres of cotton still get planted, making the crop the second-most popular in the state.

Thus, at a time when farmers in Arizona, California and other Western states might otherwise adapt to a water-short world, federal farm subsidies are helping preserve a system in which the thirstiest crops are grown in some of the driest places. 

“The subsidies are distorting water usage throughout the West and providing an incentive to use more water than would be used in an open market,” said Bruce Babbitt, Arizona’s former governor and a former U.S. Secretary of the Interior. 

One night last October, in the weary twilight of the cotton harvest, Greg Wuertz nestled his white Chevy pickup by the mailboxes at the head of his street. Opening a small aluminum door, he removed an envelope containing a $30,000 insurance payment on a policy paid for by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Easy money, to be sure, but it left Wuertz uncertain.

“This kind of way of life in the West, it’s got to be different,” he said. “Water is going to be the oil of the 21st century and it should go to the best use. Right now, I don’t know if we’re doing that.”

Cotton might never have been grown in Arizona without some form of government enticement. During the Civil War, a Union blockade impounded the Southern states’ global exports. As Europe turned to new strains of cotton grown in Egypt, Arizona’s settlers, knowing the Pima Indians had long planted cotton there, thought they could replicate hot and dry North African conditions and compete. Townships reportedly offered cash to farmers willing to pioneer commercial-scale crops, according to a local historical account. Arizona’s first cotton mogul was said to be a blacksmith who abandoned his trade to take the subsidies and try farming. 

Arizona, at the time, was short on people and long on land. It was also rich in freshwater aquifers, groundwater that then seemed ample enough to irrigate vast fields and turn the desert into an oasis. 

When the United States first went to war in Europe, the demand for cotton surged. The fibers were used to reinforce truck tires and canvas airplane wings. The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company bought thousands of farm acres and built a factory west of Phoenix, where a city by the name of Goodyear still stands. Farmers flocked to the state in search of opportunity.

In 1929, Wuertz’s grandfather packed the family’s belongings into their old Buick and drove down from South Dakota. He strung up tents on 160 acres, six miles outside Coolidge, and planted his first rows of cotton in the months before the Great Depression. By the 1950s, cotton farming had been woven into the state’s identity; Arizona schoolchildren learned about the “Five C’s”: cattle, copper, citrus, climate and cotton. 

Draw a sagging line today from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., and every state below it grows cotton. The United States is the world’s largest exporter, with 17 states producing some eight billion pounds of cotton each year, most of which gets shipped off to Asia and Europe. 

California and Arizona are able to produce more than twice as much cotton on each acre they plant as can cotton powerhouses like Texas and Georgia because they irrigate their fields more often. But that also means that they use two to four times as much water per acre. 

From almost the beginning, Arizona’s cotton farmers understood they were withdrawing from a finite account. “There was a sense the water would run out,” said Wuertz’s father, Howard, now 89. “You could tell there was going to be an end to it, even in the 1950s.”

They’ve made it last, in large part, because as the aquifers beneath their feet were depleted, the state brought in new supplies, mainly from the Colorado River. 

Today, Wuertz’s irrigated cotton plants grow to about 4 feet tall, and are planted in even rows, about 3 feet center to center, extending for miles across furrowed fields. Every August, the bolls — pregnant pods just smaller than a golf ball — burst open, allowing their white cellulosic fiber to spring outward from hearty, splayed leaves and a small seed. Modern tractors, called cotton pickers, drive a comb through the fields, plucking the drying bolls from their stems and shooting them through a mechanical snorkel into a large basket being towed behind. Another basket, or “boll buggy,” dumps the load into a compressor, which packs the cotton into a brick 8 feet tall and 32 feet long. 

The brick is hauled through Coolidge to a local gin, where computerized modern machines roll it through a whirring conveyor, separating the seeds and fibers from their leaves and chaff. The seeds are collected for animal feed or crushed for cooking oil. The lint, cleaned and dried, is strapped into 500-pound bales and shipped off through distributors who either sell the cotton or store it in vast warehouses, waiting for prices to rise and the commodity markets to buoy the crop. 

Between land costs, labor, equipment, shipping and other expenses, Wuertz said he spends about $1,200 for every acre of cotton he harvests. His cotton has garnered about 62 cents per pound lately, so even if Wuertz gets four bales from each acre — a blockbuster harvest — he brings in about $1,240 and barely breaks even. 

Cotton farmers can cut corners to try to eke out a profit, stretching their water, cutting back on fertilizer and making fewer laps with their tractors to save on diesel. But in years when the price is lower, water is short or demand plummets, they’ll lose money. This is when they count on federal subsidies and the crop insurance programs. If Wuertz needs an advance until his cotton is bought, the government lends it to him. If he can’t sell his cotton at a profit, the government never asks for its money back. If the price falls below a base of around 52 cents, Wuertz is insured for much of the decrease in value. If his fields produce a light yield — perhaps because he couldn’t give them enough water — he’s covered for the difference in weight, too. Other crops get subsidized insurance and loans, but none, Wuertz said, are covered as thoroughly as cotton. Add it all up, and the message from the Farm Bill is clear: Grow cotton and you will not be harmed. 

“If they didn’t have insurance, it would be ugly around here,” Wuertz said. “It’d be the rope and chair. There’d be people killing themselves. It’s that bad.”


Standing in his field last fall, Wuertz cupped a tuft of cotton about the size of a softball and mused over its miraculous origins. 

He gets about one-quarter of his water from the Central Arizona Project, or CAP, the system of canals that brings water from the Colorado River, some 230 miles away. The rest comes from a federally built reservoir nearby called San Carlos Lake, which, with the drought, has been diminished to little more than a bed of mud.

“There comes a time when you have to leave some to keep the fish alive,” Wuertz said wryly.

Wuertz loves to farm cotton. Fingering the plant’s thorny, rose-like leaves, he explains the difference between hirsutum, what Arizonans call Upland, or short staple cotton used for everyday clothes, and barbadense, the long-fiber Pima cotton used in high-end sheets and expensive textiles. He is stocky, wearing jeans, cowhide boots, a blue-striped button-down shirt and a broad-rimmed white cowboy hat that shields his face from view as he talks. Every 10 days, he explains, he releases his ditch gates and floods the furrows, using an irrigation technique hundreds of years old, until the roots of his plants are submerged ankle deep. If he were to do it all at once, the water Wuertz spends to produce one acre of cotton would stand 4 feet deep. The ditches flow with hundreds of millions of gallons of water every year. 

For the last third of a century, Wuertz was supplied prodigious amounts of water, largely because Arizona was pushing its farmers to use as much as they could. The state’s run on water began in the 1970s, when Arizona planned its mega canal in order to lay claim to its full share of water from the Colorado River. The canal would bring more water than the state needed at the time, ultimately supplying future urban expansion as its cities and economy grew. But in the short term, Arizona had to justify the canal’s $4.4 billion federally subsidized construction cost by demonstrating to Congress that it had a plan to put all that water to use right away. 

The state’s aquifers had been drawn down so much that, in places, the land had begun to settle above them. The canal project looked like a way to wean Arizona’s farmers off ground water, using river water to replace it. It looked good on paper until 1993, when the Central Arizona Project canal was completed. The cost of construction plus the cost of the power needed to pump the water made CAP water more expensive than what farmers could pump cheaply from underground. In a bind, state and federal officials slashed the price — subsidizing nearly half the true cost of the water and charging farmers just a fraction of its value to get them to use more of it.

For a while, the plan worked. Farmers made the switch, using government-subsidized canals and inexpensive power to nourish their farms for another generation. But the farms were little more than a place holder in the state’s grand plans. It was understood that as cities grew, farming in Arizona would have to change. Much of the cotton, alfalfa, wheat and citrus would eventually need to be grown somewhere else as the water from CAP was switched to supply urban areas.

“That was the deal that was struck to induce agriculture to go out of business,” said Jon Kyl, the former three-term senator and four-term congressman from Arizona. 

But the transition hasn’t been completed, in part owing to the farm subsidies that have delayed change. And now the state’s intricate water supply plan is beginning to crumble. 

Drought has diminished the Colorado’s flow so much that federal officials — who control water deliveries on the southern half of the Colorado — now predict they will have to cut the state’s water deliveries through the CAP canal as soon as next year, potentially eliminating much of the farmers’ share. Meanwhile, loopholes in laws designed to conserve aquifers for exactly this situation have allowed housing developers and others to draw down resources that were supposed to be protected.

The water needs of Arizona’s cities are surging. The state’s population — less than two million in 1970 — has ballooned to more than three times that and is expected to reach 11 million within the next 30 years, turning the state into what the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University has described as a “megalopolis.” 

Last year Arizona officials forecast the state could run out of water within a few decades.

“The shortages projected hitting municipal customers are really in the 2026 time frame,” said Thomas Buschatzke, the director of Arizona’s Department of Water Resources, as if a 10-year cushion was supposed to be reassuring. 

Land use statistics show that acres of irrigated farmland in Arizona have decreased over the past few decades, and since 1985 they’ve dropped by more than half in the area around Phoenix. The Wuertz family sold a chunk of its fields to home developers in 2009. 

But the patterns of agricultural water use make clear that it’s not just how many acres of land are planted there, but what is grown on them.

Cotton’s domestic benefits are questionable. After a price spike in 2010, production of cotton surged while global demand — and prices along with it — plummeted. Today, China, the world’s largest cotton producer, has enough cotton in warehouses to stop farming for a year. And Texas, the U.S.’s largest producer, harvests enough to cover more than one third of U.S. exports alone, relying largely on natural rainfall, not irrigation, to do it. Wuertz’s cotton — produced with Arizona’s precious water — is likely to get stacked in cavernous warehouses until the marketing cooperative he uses finds new customers. If Arizona stopped farming cotton tomorrow, Wuertz said, he’s not sure anyone would notice. 

This underscores questions about whether continuing to grow these water-hogging crops at their current levels is in the public interest, and whether such an important pillar of U.S. economic policy as the Farm Bill should continue to champion them. 

“The basic question is how are you going to manage your water supply? And we have managed it in a way that has subsidized agriculture,” said John Bredehoeft the former manager of the western water program for the U.S. Geological Survey, referring not just to subsidies for crops like cotton, but also the support for crops like alfalfa that are grown as feed. “If you look at the fact that half of the water use in the West is to raise cows — can you say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a water shortage in the West?’” 


First established as a New Deal program to rescue farmers during the Great Depression, today’s unwieldy version of the U.S. Farm Bill wraps everything from food stamps to sugar imports into one 357-page, nearly $1 trillion law. 

The measure allots about $130 billion over 10 years to protect farmers against price drops, bad weather and bad luck and to insure them against virtually any scenario that gets in the way of turning a profit. 

No American law has more influence on what, where and when farmers decide to plant. And by extension, no federal policy has a greater ability to directly influence how water resources are consumed in the American West. 

Until this year, the bill doled out direct subsidies for a full menu of crops. Every farmer planting commodities, including those planting cotton, got $40,000 just for signing up. 

Then there are the steeply discounted business loans, which have a measurable impact on what farmers decide to plant. In many cases, to be eligible for these subsidies one year, a farmer has to have previously planted the crop — a basic component of the bill’s architecture that gives farmers an incentive to maintain “base” levels of acreage. In an analysis, the Congressional Budget Office found that the subsidies don’t just maintain the status quo, they also foster more planting, and more water use. The USDA’s marketing loans alone, for example, led to a 10 percent increase in the amount of cotton farmers planted — compared to 2.5 percent increase in the amount of wheat, and a 1.5 percent increase in the amount of soybeans produced — in part because the subsidies not only make cotton a safer bet, they also make it more competitive against alternative crops. Banks lend cotton growers money they wouldn’t lend for other crops, largely because they know the government will stand behind them. 

All told, Wuertz estimates that nearly one-fifth of his income is derived from Farm Bill aid, and cotton has almost always been his largest and most important crop. According to USDA statistics compiled by the Environmental Working Group, the Wuertz family — including his brother’s and father’s farms — has received more than $5.3 million in farm bill subsidies since 1995, a portion of which may have been targeted for efficient irrigation equipment, Wuertz said.

The Farm Bill has been used in the past to steer environmental policy. It provides for withholding money, for example, from farms that would contribute to soil erosion or the destruction of wetlands. In North Dakota, where farmers were tearing out grasslands to plant corn for ethanol production, the law contains “sodbuster” provisions withholding insurance benefits from those who rip up lands the government wants to conserve. 

The Farm Bill contains $56 billion for conservation, funding an effort to encourage farmers to reduce their water consumption by using more-modern equipment as well as measures meant to conserve land. Another section of the bill is aimed at saving energy. But the law’s farming incentives run counter to its far more modest water conservation initiatives. 

“There is a real disconnect between that and what the commodity and crop insurance program are promoting, and that’s a basic conflict,” said Ferd Hoefner, the policy director at National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, based in Washington, D.C. 

The Farm Bill’s authors have sometimes factored in environmental concerns in specific places and tailored incentives to affect them, Hoefner said. But when it comes to cotton, the bill does not consider the related water use, and it does not distinguish between the places where it is grown. Instead, the money corresponds roughly to the amount of cotton harvested; Arizona, which ranks in the middle in terms of its cotton production, also ranks 10th among the 17 states that receive cotton aid. California, which ranked third for overall cotton production in 2013, also ranks third in subsidies over the last 20 years according to data collected by the Environmental Working Group. It’s in those places that the incentives created by the subsidies are most in conflict with the government’s aid to conserve water. 

“Trying to get USDA to break down the silos is difficult,” Hoefner noted.

The Congressional Budget Office attacked this disconnect in 2006, urging the USDA to stop supporting agricultural products that act to “impede the transfer of water resources to higher value uses,” and “encourage the use of water.” Analysts advised the USDA to enhance its conservation programs, align its subsidies with those conservation efforts, and stop paying for infrastructure that makes water artificially cheap. 

Every six years or so Congress has the opportunity to revisit its Farm Bill policies and update the bill. When Congress reauthorized it in 2014, however, lawmakers changed, but did not retreat in their support for cotton farming in the Southwest, despite growing awareness of the persistent water crisis in the Colorado River basin. 

Instead, legislators allowed the cotton industry to write its own future. Faced with international trade pressures and allegations that subsidies — like payments triggered by price drops — were distorting the market, U.S. cotton trade associations lobbied to ramp up the USDA’s insurance program. 

Rather than paying direct subsidies to cotton farmers, starting this year the USDA will use taxpayer dollars to buy farmers additional crop insurance. Policies that once covered up to around 70 percent of farmers’ losses can now be supplemented with new coverage covering up to 90 percent, cushioning the shallowest of losses. The lucrative marketing loan program that serves as a sort of price guarantee also remains in place.

Right now, though, the stubbornly low price of cotton is making Wuertz nervous that the new, enhanced insurance program won’t deliver the same revenues as the old direct subsidies. He’s temporarily cut back, then, planting less cotton this year and only the most valuable strains. 

Still, the more than 161,000 acres of cotton that were planted in Arizona in 2013 accounted for almost one out of every five acres of the state’s irrigated farmland. Many believe the insurance program is likely to keep the practice going because it limits most — if not all — downsides, encouraging farmers to take big chances with limited resources. 

“If I knew my 401k was guaranteed to not fall below 85 percent of its current level and there was no limit on the upside,” said Craig Cox a senior vice president at the Environmental Working Group, who was a former staff member for the Senate committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, “my portfolio would be a lot riskier than it is.”


If the Farm Bill reshuffled its incentives, water policy experts say, farmers in states that draw on the Colorado River could reduce their water usage substantially, adding large amounts back into the region’s budget.

According to research by the Pacific Institute, simply irrigating alfalfa fields less frequently, stressing the plant and slightly reducing its yield, could decrease the amount of water needed across the seven Colorado River basin states by roughly 10 percent. If Arizona’s cotton farmers switched to wheat but didn’t fallow a single field, it would save some 207,000 acre-feet of water — enough to supply as many as 1.4 million people for a year.

There’s little financial reason not to do this. The government is willing to consider spending huge amounts to get new water supplies, including building billion-dollar desalinization plants to purify ocean water. It would cost a tiny fraction of that to pay farmers in Arizona and California more to grow wheat rather than cotton, and for the cost of converting their fields. The billions of dollars of existing subsidies already allocated by Congress could be redirected to support those goals, or spent, as the Congressional Budget Office suggested, on equipment and infrastructure that helps farmers use less water.

“There is enough water in the West. There isn’t any pressing need for more water, period,” Babbitt said. “There are all kinds of agriculture efficiencies that have not been put into place.” 

Today Wuertz lives with the deep uncertainty that comes with a transition he can no longer control. He told his son, Thomas, 24, that there is no future in cotton farming. He says that if Arizona farmers keep planting cotton, farming itself may be in jeopardy. But knowing that and acting on it have so far been different beasts, and Wuertz finds himself resistant to change. He tried growing more cantaloupe but had difficulty finding buyers who would take the time-sensitive crop before it rotted. He’s planting some acres he used to plant with cotton with alfalfa instead, but that uses even more water, though it commands a premium price. 

In the end, Wuertz said he doesn’t know how to grow other plants as well as he knows cotton. He’s been a gin director, president of the Arizona Cotton Growers Association, head of the Arizona Cotton Research and Protection Council. His identity is wrapped up in those prickly bolls out in his fields.

“When I quit cotton all of that goes away. Ninety percent of my life is gone. It doesn’t mean a damn thing,” he said. “I’m just not ready to do that yet. And it’s not to say I won’t get there.”

Creative Commons

This story, part of a special project on America’s Western drought by ProPublica, was co-published with Matter, a new digital magazine on Medium.

~~~

Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Subscribe by email to our free FRONTLINES, a blog announcing new works, and the odd small tale. Look for evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. Some of our original works are behind a paywall, available with a $1 site day pass, or with a subscription from $2.95/month – $19.95/year. If you value journalism, please help sustain us.

 

Posted in Also tagged , |

Fracking Water Contamination Feared in California Drought

 

by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica
July 18, 2014, 11:50 a.m.

California officials ordered an emergency shut-down of 11 oil and gas waste injection sites and a review more than 100 others in the state’s drought-wracked Central Valley in July, out of fear that companies may have been pumping fracking fluids and other toxic waste into drinking water aquifers there.

The state’s Division of Oil and Gas and Geothermal Resources on July 7 issued cease and desist orders to seven energy companies warning that they may be injecting their waste into aquifers that could be a source of drinking water, and stating that their waste disposal “poses danger to life, health, property, and natural resources.” The orders were first reported by the Bakersfield Californian, and the state has confirmed with ProPublica that its investigation is expanding to look at additional wells.

The action comes as California’s agriculture industry copes with a drought crisis that has emptied reservoirs and cost the state $2.2 billion this year alone. The lack of water has forced farmers across the state to supplement their water supply from underground aquifers, according to a study released this week by the University of California Davis.

The problem is that at least 100 of the state’s aquifers were presumed to be useless for drinking and farming because the water was either of poor quality, or too deep underground to easily access. Years ago, the state exempted them from environmental protection and allowed the oil and gas industry to intentionally pollute them. But not all aquifers are exempted, and the system amounts to a patchwork of protected and unprotected water resources deep underground. Now, according to the cease and desist orders issued by the state, it appears that at least seven injection wells are likely pumping waste into fresh water aquifers protected by the law, and not other aquifers sacrificed by the state long ago.

“The aquifers in question with respect to the orders that have been issued are not exempt,” said Ed Wilson, a spokesperson for the California Department of Conservation in an email.

A 2012 ProPublica investigation of more than 700,000 injection wells across the country found that wells were often poorly regulated and experienced high rates of failure, outcomes that were likely polluting underground water supplies that are supposed to be protected by federal law. That investigation also disclosed a little-known program overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that exempted more than 1,000 other drinking water aquifers from any sort of pollution protection at all, many of them in California.

Those are the aquifers at issue today. The exempted aquifers, according to documents the state filed with the U.S. EPA in 1981 and obtained by ProPublica, were poorly defined and ambiguously outlined. They were often identified by hand-drawn lines on a map, making it difficult to know today exactly which bodies of water were supposed to be protected, and by which aspects of the governing laws. Those exemptions and documents were signed by California Gov. Jerry Brown, who also was governor in 1981.

State officials emphasized to ProPublica that they will now order water testing and monitoring at the injection well sites in question. To date, they said, they have not yet found any of the more regulated aquifers to have been contaminated.

“We do not have any direct evidence any drinking water has been affected,” wrote Steve Bohlen, the state oil and gas supervisor, in a statement to ProPublica.

Bohlen said his office was acting “out of an abundance of caution,” and a spokesperson said that the state became aware of the problems through a review of facilities it was conducting according to California’s fracking law passed late last year, which required the state to study fracking impacts and adopt regulations to address its risks, presumably including underground disposal.

California officials have long been under fire for their injection well practices, a waste disposal program that the state runs according to federal law and under a sort of license — called “primacy” — given to it by the EPA.

For one, experts say that aquifers the states and the EPA once thought would never be needed may soon become important sources of water as the climate changes and technology reduces the cost of pumping it from deep underground and treating it for consumption. Indeed, towns in Wyoming and Texas — two states also suffering long-term droughts — are pumping, treating, then delivering drinking water to taps from aquifers which would be considered unusable under California state regulations governing the oil and gas industry.

In June 2011, the EPA conducted a review of other aspects of California’s injection well program and found enforcement, testing and oversight problems so significant that the agency demanded California improve its regulations and warned that the state’s authority could be revoked.

Among the issues, California and the federal government disagree about what type of water is worth protecting in the first place, with California law only protecting a fraction of the waters that the federal Safe Drinking Water Act requires.

The EPA’s report, commissioned from outside consultants, also said that California regulators routinely failed to adequately examine the geology around an injection well to ensure that fluids pumped into it would not leak underground and contaminate drinking water aquifers. The report found that state inspectors often allowed injection at pressures that exceeded the capabilities of the wells and thus risked cracking the surrounding rock and spreading contaminants. Several accidents in recent years in California involved injected waste or injected steam leaking back out of abandoned wells, or blowing out of the ground and creating sinkholes, including one 2011 incident that killed an oil worker.

The exemptions and other failings, said Damon Nagami, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in an email, are “especially disturbing” in a state that has been keenly aware of severe water constraints for more than a century and is now suffering from a crippling drought. “Our drinking water sources must be protected and preserved for the precious resources they are, not sacrificed as a garbage dump for the oil and gas industry.”

Still, three years after the EPA’s report, California has not yet completed its review of its underground injection program, according to state officials. The scrutiny of the wells surrounding Bakersfield may be the start.

Creative Commons

Further reading on Facts and Opinions:

Risky Business: The facts behind fracking, By Chris Wood, F&O Natural Security columnist 
Aggressive Tactic on the Fracking Front, by Naveena Sadasivam, ProPublica 
Landowners often losers in deals with U.S. energy companies by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica
Drilling for Certainty: The Latest in Fracking Health Studies, by Naveena Sadasivam ProPublica

 

Facts and Opinions is a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, sustained entirely by readers: we do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes.  Why? If you’d like to support our journalism, for $2.95 (the price of a cheap brew) you can subscribe to F&O for a month. If that breaks your budget, a one-day pass is $1. Subscriptions are required for most of our original work.) 


Posted in Also tagged , |

Ukraine and Palestine as Nature’s Harbingers

6269481663_ddf7a26f6a_z

Carcass of a farm animal in Kenya’s drought. Photo by Neil Palmer (CIAT), Creative Commons

Even amid shocking news events, we ignore at our peril the larger reality of what is happening to our world, warns Chris Wood in his Natural Security column. Excerpt:

More than on most days, the handcart in which we are all riding toward a very unpleasant destination feels like we’re maybe in sight of the station. Even for a hardened student of the headlines, the human tragedies in the Ukraine and Palestine are sorrowful to contemplate.

And yet necessary, too. They confront us not only with the human reality of the moment but also, stripped of their context and backstories, the end that awaits millions more of us across much of the world. 

That is because it is no longer possible to imagine a future that is consistent with the observed declines of such critical natural supplies as safe water, fertile soil and a living ocean, that does not also imply vast and widespread mortality — either from the direct effects of drought and flood and storm, or from military violence as peoples compete for the dwindling essentials of life.

In fact, we are already surrounded by the deaths we have unleashed, both literal ones and the figurative irrecoverable loss of what it takes to live a tolerable existence: homes, families, livelihoods. By one estimate, three times as many human lives were lost to the consequences of climate change on July 17, as to the attack on Malaysia’s ill-fated jet … read more (subscription*).

Log in on the top right of each page, or click here to purchase a subscription or a $1 site day pass, to read Wood’s column:

A few words about an old friend

Click here for Chris Wood’s’s page, with all of his columns for F&O.

*Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O serves and is entirely funded by modest reader payments. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from non-journalism foundations or causes. Why?

 

Posted in Current Affairs Also tagged , |

F&O Weekend

F&O has a veritable treasure trove of new work for your weekend reading:

Cinco_heroes_cuban_five_2

The Cuban Five

The Cuban Five

In 1998 Fidel Castro had his good friend Gabriel García Márquez, the Nobel prize-winning Colombian novelist, carry a top secret message to American President Bill Clinton. It revealed a terrorist plot against Cuba, devised on American soil. What happened next led to the arrests of the Cuban agents, the myth-making of heroes, and a tale of stunning intrigue and complexity. In THINK/Magazine, F&O is pleased to publish an excerpt of Stephen Kimber’s book about The Cuban Five. (Public access)

Drought, and the price of water

Never let it be said that F&O Natural Security columnist Chris Wood is anyone’s tame journalist, or “sides” with the easy left or the easy right. In his previous column Wood tackled favoured causes of the ‘left’ including  nuclear energy and GMO foods; now, he argues in THINK/Commentary that the growing crisis of drought will only be solved by pricing water. (Subscription)

Iran’s Backlash and Afghanistan’s Reckoning

International affairs columnist Jonathan Manthorpe has two new pieces this week. In an examination of the backlash in Iran against closer ties with the international community, Manthorpe notes an upsurge in executions amid hardliner’s fears for the Islamic regime. And in a piece on Afghanistan’s Reckoning he notes that soon that country, and the world, will determine whether the bloodshed, treasure and agony since the invasion has been worthwhile. (Subscription)

American Civil War, 150 years on

CSS HunleyJim McNiven, author of Thoughtlines, toured America’s south early this year with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War on his mind. His new column,  Sesquicentennial Rumbles Blues, reflects on political posturing, how entrenched partisans have swapped positions over time, and on the powerful ideas that endure. (Subscription)

We also have two new public access pieces from ProPublica this week:

Journalism’s new Golden Age? Not so fast

A thoughtful new column in THINK/Commentary is a speech  to young journalists by one of America’s most senior veterans, ProPublica chief Paul Steiger, on the Golden Ages of American journalism.

PTSD afflicts civilians

And in DISPATCHES, ProPublica journalist Lois Beckett reports on how the incidence of  PTSD amongst victims of violence has reached the levels suffered by injured soldiers in some violent-prone neighbourhoods.

Enjoy — and have a good weekend.

— Deborah Jones

Use the form to the right to sign up for free email notices of new F&O work, and/or buy a $1 site day pass or a subscription here to support our independent, non-partisan employee-owned journalism boutique.

 

Posted in All, Current Affairs Also tagged , , , , , , , , , |