Thursday Dec 01

Fall 2022

MONEY MATTERS - When the West Dries Up (spoiler alert: it already has…)

With the announcement of Biden’s student debt forgiveness program, one can imagine the hoot and holler about to cascade on us from every rightwing pundit vying for attention. “A give-away!!” “Welfare for the elite!!” “Inflationary!!” will echo from every outlet. But let’s be honest. Farmers in the West run circles around the best loan hustlers you can imagine. For over hundreds of years, federal and state governments have been financing 19th century notions of “manifest destiny” as America spread out across the arid west. Billions were spent to build a vast system of dams and diversions. Deserts bloomed. Cities thrived. Las Vegas happened. Farmers and speculators made out like the bandits of old.

Now, however, Mother Nature is intervening in a most unwelcome fashion. From the NY Times (8/16/22):

With climate change and long-term drought continuing to take a toll on the Colorado River, the federal government … for the first time declared a water shortage at Lake Mead, one of the river’s main reservoirs. The declaration triggers cuts in water supply that, for now, mostly will affect Arizona farmers. Beginning next year, they will be cut off from much of the water they have relied on for decades. Much smaller reductions are mandated for Nevada and for Mexico across the southern border. But larger cuts, affecting far more of the 40 million people in the West who rely on the river for at least part of their water supply, are likely in coming years as a warming climate continues to reduce how much water flows into the Colorado from rain and melting snow.

The political fallout from climate change induced drought in the West is only just coming into focus, but it is sure to challenge the inevitable MAGA tenet that “government is the problem.” Water in the West wouldn’t exist as it is without governments having spent billions over decades to build the infrastructure.  The coming revolution in rural farm country isn’t likely to sound anything like the Sage Brush types of years past who simply wanted the Feds to turn over federal land to private interests. No, the problem – if it is solvable at all – will need governmental regulation and finance. Here’s what Arizona’s super-MAGA candidate for governor, Kari Lake, has to say about the impending water crisis in her state:

Our population, along with that of the entire Southwest and Northern Mexico continues to grow. Unless we develop a new, sustainable source of water, we will soon be facing a very bleak future. Instead, the future is desalination. Israel - facing very similar circumstances as Arizona in regards to a growing population and dwindling water supply - has proven and improved this technology to the point that the majority of water now used in Israel comes from desalination, and an Israeli company just built the largest desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere outside of San Diego.

Another option we will explore is pipelining fresh water from both the Missouri and Mississippi River basins. These are proven technologies. They work. What will the cost be? Right now, we don't know. In either case, the cost and scale will require Arizona to forge agreements with the federal government, other Western states, and Mexico. Whatever the price tag ends up being, it will be far less than the cost of a future without the water we need to survive.

Now, last time I checked, Arizona lacks a coastline – kind of an essential component of desalination plants (which are expensive, super energy intensive, and produce toxic brine that has to be disposed of). So that leaves this cockamamie scheme of “piping” water from the Mississippi over to Lake Powell. While sending Elon to Mars seems like an attractive idea, it would probably cost a fraction of this “pipeline.” This scheme of wannabe Governor Lake has been bandied about for a while. Here’s one response that points out just a few of its problems:

Uh oh, math! I write concerning Mr. Siefkes’ letter proposing transferring Mississippi River water to Arizona.

One number leaped off the page of his letter: 250,000 gallons/second. Moving water requires water to be either lifted (pumped) or dropped (sent downhill naturally). His letter pinpoints the Old Control Structure in Louisiana as the proposed water source, near sea level.

Lake Powell stands over 3,600 feet above sea level with the Rocky Mountains between the two points. Any water diversion from the Mississippi to Arizona must be pumped about 6,000 feet up, over the Rockies. The diverted flow would require massive water tunnels, since a flow of 250,000 gallons/second exceeds the average flow of the Colorado River itself, rupturing standard pipe capacities. Aqueducts only work downhill.

Consider the largest pumping station in the United States, the Edmonson Pump Station on the California Aqueduct. This station pumps around 33,000 gallons/second while lifting 2,000 feet. Proportionately, the suggested Mississippi-to-Arizona lift would require about 24 tandem Edmonson-sized pump stations strung along several locations between Louisiana and New Mexico.  Likely, the system would consume over $2 million of power daily. Best maybe to stop here and do the construction cost math separately.

[Letter to the Editor from Todd York, Palm Springs Desert Sun; 7/7/22]

The point here is that Republicans distain the idea of government redistributing wealth and income and they absolutely hate taxation (which is how government pays for things). But building a huge water diversion project to keep those farms wet and air conditioners humming? No prob. This kind of intellectual dishonesty belongs more in some dystopian novel than in the political conversation of today.

Driving from San Francisco to LA via Interstate 5 near Tracy, you will begin to parallel the California Aqueduct - the enormous diversion of water from the Sacramento River, literally a manmade river that travels hundreds of miles up hill. Somewhere south of the Los Banos cutoff, you’ll arrive in the heart of modern agribusiness in California. Towns like Lemoore, Delano, and Wasco populate what was previously a desert-like environment before the diversion from the delta where the Sacramento and San Juaquin rivers join before drifting out to the Pacific through San Francisco Bay. It could also be called a war zone in the forever conflict over water that began a century ago.

As cars and trucks fly past vast tracts of ag land in what is called the Westlands Water District, a major protagonist in California’s water wars, one of the most prominent of GOP oxymoronic policy positions takes on stark profile. Alongside the Interstate, you’ll encounter homemade signs railing against Congress. “Congress created Dust Bowl” screams one amidst a sea of dead water-guzzling walnut trees. One the one hand, the Westlands Water District was created out of the largess of the federal and state governments that created California’s huge Central Valley Project that provides insanely cheap water to farmers. (A 2004 EWG study calculated that the cost of an acre foot of water for ag use, as charged by the District, was about $17; LA residents – the politically critical constituency justifying the CVP – paid about $915/af.)

One might imagine that farmers would be among the federal government’s biggest boosters having bestowed on owners of marginal grazing land the water to get rich off crops like almonds, cotton, and walnuts. Through the chicanery that defines modern politics, water in the CVP intended for family farmers ended up subsidizing the likes of JG Boswell who amassed a 200,000-acre farming business with vast amounts of government-financed cheap water, not to mention crop subsidies. The GOP seems to think such subsidies are part of a rather oddly defined free enterprise system and in no way akin to “welfare.” The flip side of the coin is that Republicans HATE the “deep state” and all its environmental regulations and the like that make it difficult for these mega-farms to operate. That dust bowl along I-5? Most likely the result of irrigation water being cut off because its drainage water turned out to be toxic to birds because the soil is too high in selenium and other metals to be suited for intensive ag use. “Give us (essentially) free water, but screw the birds.” For that matter, let’s not have to abide by the state’s labor laws or any number of “intrusions” on the freedom to exploit the land for private profit.

The western part of the United States has always been an arid place, save the immediate areas near the Pacific Coast. As settlement accelerated after the discovery of gold in California in 1850, railroads were given vast subsidies in the form of land grants, on which farmers then settled and the need for managed water systems to compensate for extended dry seasons emerged.   Eighty years later, as FDR was seeking to find ways to employ armies of idle workers, vast public works were dreamed up to build dams and canals that basically replumbed an entire region. Marc Reisner’s seminal work, Cadillac Desert, captures much of this history. He reminds us that, in 1930, the population of the entire west was all of 11 million, half of whom lived in California. One of the largest projects was the construction of the Boulder Dam that forms Lake Mead on the Colorado River near what is now Las Vegas. As a reflection of the times, it was built in an amazingly short 4 years providing water for a century of hyper development, especially in California, Nevada, and Arizona. But long before the dam began filling, the political battles raged over who had rights to the Colorado’s water.

The pre-dam, free flowing river meandering down the CA-AZ border created an obstacle impinging on railroads trying to connect California to the east. Cadillac Desert recounts how the floods of 1905-1907 destroyed railroad beds and caused the American oligarchs of the day to realize their futures were tied to corralling the river’s spring floods. In 1907, the river ran at a record 25-million-acre feed alone. These exceptional weather years led to one of Herbert Hoover’s lesser-known failures as Secretary of Commerce in 1922. As pressure was building to build a dam, how the water would be allocated needed to be settled.  They started with a calculation of volume probably 25% higher than average flows, split evenly between the upper and lower basins. Even that led to a fight in part because the Chandler family owned vast lands in Mexico and wanted water pointed in that direction over the proposed All-American Canal that now runs through the Imperial Valley to southern California. The log jam was finally resolved by Congress, but Arizona refused to ratify, leading to continued fighting until the late 60s. That fight was resolved with the hugely expensive Central Arizona Project – living proof that water flows uphill toward money.

For many water diversions out of the Colorado River, gravity mostly fills the need; not so Arizona. While agreements in the 1920s allocated water to the state, where it was needed was decidedly uphill. After years of contentious argument, Congress resolved the impasse with the Central Arizona Project. The cost in 1973 for the 20-year construction: $4 billion, or about $27 billion in today’s dollars – more than the entire NASA budget this year.  Now that they are discussing cutting off ag water entirely for what might be years, what’s also being discussed? You guessed it: multiple billions to compensate farmers to NOT grow stuff.

I’m just trying to find the right meme that blends “welfare queen” with “rich farmers.” Somehow, I don’t expect MAGA world to embrace the concept.

There are myriad problems designed into the crazy water systems in the western US, and they are being exacerbated by our current 23-year long regional drought. Whether climate change will moderate or accelerate is anyone’s guess, but if I were a betting man, I’d go with the latter. Water intensive agriculture is far better suited to the eastern US, but those who have used taxpayer subsidies to build personal fortunes are unlikely to change. In the ‘30s, people endured the Dust Bowl for years, each spring plowing the land and hoping for rains that never came, only to watch the soil blow away.

For more than a century, water in the west has fueled amazing growth. The question is what will an unending drought bring?


Drummond Pike, a frequent Organizers’ Forum participant and contributor to these pages, was the founder and CEO of Tides in San Francisco, and continues to be involved in philanthropy and social change.

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