Thursday, February 23, 2017

West's challenge is still water scarcity, wet winter or not


Pioche, Nev.—The number of “For Sale” signs compete with “Open” in the storefronts along the main street in this hilly town, where fortunes evaporated with the silver and zinc mines that created it. There’s no bank or grocery store. Mining has mostly vacated the area, leaving a clutch of retirees, some county workers, and not too many others. But this part of Nevada still has one resource that residents to the south in glitzy Las Vegas desperately want and need – water. A controversial proposal would send a big chunk of this region’s water southward, through a 250-mile pipeline that, critics say, would dry up ranchers and farmers to supply a sprawling metropolis defined by its embrace of nightlife and all-day pool parties. “The people in Clark County want to put a pipeline in here to drain our water. We don’t want to give it away to them. We do just fine up here,” says Don Spaulding, a retiree in Pioche. But there’s a larger reality, too: Whatever happens with the pipeline, water has been getting harder to find for urban and rural residents alike. Even with big snows and rains across parts of the West this winter, aquifers and forests remain taxed. Long term, the water challenges of the American West look increasingly beyond the scale of traditional infrastructure projects to resolve. Lake Mead, a major reservoir serving the Southwest, has recently been at record lows, pressuring Las Vegas to look for water sources outside the Colorado River system. And here in Pioche, residents say a long drought has taken its toll. “We’re not getting as many tourists,” says Ann Mills inside her trinket shop called Rag Doll. “They come up for recreation, but even the lakes are low. Echo Lake gets really low. It’s not even good for fishing anymore. Eagle Valley is getting mossy and stinky.” A new era of water management Yet in the face of these challenges, residents of the West aren’t resigning themselves to a bleak future. Instead, states in the Colorado River basin have been turning a page toward a new era of water management. With climate change affecting water supplies that are already strained by urban growth, the region is being forced to innovate and adapt. •Cities are conserving through steps like encouraging desert landscapes, by prohibiting grass lawns for newly built homes, and paying people with existing lawns to abandon them. •Advancements in treatment technology are making it more possible to recycle water and harness rainfall for later use. •Farmers are shifting to drip irrigation and other methods to use less water.  •Increasingly farmers are trading water through formal and informal markets to use it more efficiently, shifting away from a system of use-it-or-lose-it allotments. •Water managers are making dams more efficient at serving both hydropower and irrigation needs.•And a pragmatic outlook is prompting states, cities, and rural areas to bargain over water, not just fight over it. Behind all this is a slow, cultural shift that recognizes conservation and scarcity – and the need for innovative and multi-layered responses.

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