Desalination and water reuse may help ease burden on basins
Early in 2023, the seven states on the ebbing Colorado River missed a deadline to agree on sharing its water, so the United States government is stepping in. Water allocations are guided by the century-old Colorado River Compact, which has become increasingly obsolete as climate change and overuse have revealed a more water-scarce reality for the West. The federal Bureau of Reclamation is considering three allocation plans, but none is likely to please stakeholders.
The Upper and Lower River Basins
The seven states of the Colorado Compact are divided into the Upper and Lower Colorado River Basins. Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico constitute the Upper Basin while California, Arizona, and Nevada constitute the Lower Basin.
Most of the precipitation that feeds the river comes from the Upper Basin, but development has been slower there and it has never used its full water allotments. The Lower Basin has seen explosive growth, with Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and nearly 6 million acres of irrigated farmland all depending on the river.
Three Options to Share the Water
To divide that water among the states, the bureau has proposed three Colorado River water allotment options. The first is the No Action Alternative. The states would be expected to negotiate a solution, but they have already failed repeatedly. That alternative would mean worsening hydrological conditions, including dangerously dropping water levels at Glen Canyon and Hoover dams.
Colorado River water now is allocated based on seniority, and the proposed Action Alternative 1 would be as well. Cuts would affect younger and rapidly growing Arizona the most, as more senior California would receive the largest allocation. However, Scott Horsley, Harvard instructor of water resources policy and watershed management, points out that the most senior stakeholders have no seat at the table: Native Americans.
Action Alternative 2 would cut water allotments across the board on a percentage basis. California would be affected the most, especially its Central Valley agriculture that provides 25% of the nation’s food. Litigation is likely to follow quickly, but Alternative 2 could avoid hardships for Arizona, Nevada, and tribal communities.
Exploring Other Strategies for the Basin
U.S. Department of the Interior Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau has put the states on notice, warning, “Failure is not an option.” Many ideas have been floated to avoid the reckoning. Arizona has considered a desalination plant in Mexico with a 200-mile pipeline, but long pipelines come with crushing costs on top of the plant construction cost.
A more cost-effective solution could be desalination of brackish groundwater closer to home, like the project in Alice, Texas. Not only does this avoid long pipelines, but it is also far less costly to desalinate brackish water than seawater.
Las Vegas has initiated large-scale water reuse to return treated wastewater back to Lake Mead, and a great deal of opportunity exists for smaller entities to treat and reuse wastewater.
About reuse, former commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation Dan Beard said, “It’s a reliable source of water. It’s always there. It isn’t subject to drought or other changes. People still flush their toilets.” He explained that plants that treat wastewater for reuse are far less expensive than desalination plants and can be commissioned more quickly.
Seven Seas Water Group specializes in delivering such desalination and wastewater reclamation facilities on any scale, with advanced capital optimization options that make infrastructure viable even where it hasn’t been before. Contact Seven Seas to tap all the available water resources.
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