Water Showdown in the West

March 08, 1991

The Dust Bowl is an enduring image of pain for the families which fled west to escape during the Great Depression. It rises anew with the drought now choking Western states.

Most of the focus is on California, whose population has zoomed to almost 30 million and whose farmers produce half the nation's vegetables. The worst dust pockets, however, are in Wyoming, Idaho and the valleys of Washington and Oregon east of the Cascade Mountains.

Southern California, with its 15 million people, has plans to get more water from Colorado River reservoirs. Lake Powell and Lake Mead contain more water than the California Water Project uses in 15 years, despite having already lost as much water as Los Angeles could use in 14 years.

This drought has brought home that much of the American West a desert. Enterprising developers and government agencies have hidden that from a public driven to chase sunshine and dreams. Sparse rain, declining water tables and depleted aquifers have made people reflect on the true meaning of "desert".

In Arizona, serious attention now goes to conservation and "water ranching" -- buying land for its water rights. A state law promises to curtail wasteful growth of Eastern-style greenery on parched lands and to shift from the water-intensive agriculture taking up 89 percent of Arizona's water. Well it might. Metropolitan Phoenix used as much water as New York state 10 years ago. In Colorado, where federal objections have all but killed a $1-billion dam project, conservation may be forced to the forefront of discussion as well.

In California, agriculture -- especially cotton cultivation, alfalfa and rice, all high-water users -- takes 85 percent of the water but produces less than 5 percent of the state's income. Resetting the balance to move more water to urban centers, whose industries produce the lion's share of the wealth, will be difficult due to federal and state subsidies and regulations that restrict such shifts.

Difficult is not the same as impossible, though. Californians themselves note that saving a quarter of the water cities use only lops 2 percent off the state's thirst, but that ending wasteful agricultural uses could more than provide for the cities. With a population expected to grow almost 10 million over the next 20 years, it is something California will have to grapple with -- as will the rest of the West.

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