Middleton Stream Teamers knew Kerry Mackin, former director of the Ipswich River Watershed Association, was visiting Arizona, site of world infamous water projects. We asked this lady with river savvy eyes and ears to write an article for the Water Closet. She kindly obliged with the following.    


Salt River Project near Phoenix has built 6 dams to impound the Salt and Verde Rivers leaving them dry for miles downstream.
Kerry Mackin Photo

Water Closet for 10-25-13 Southwest Water

I was in Arizona this past August – something I would not recommend, as it was 113°F in the shade! Folks in the southwest are fond of saying, “but it’s a dry heat.” Right. It is definitely dry, as the area averages only 8” of rain a year, and so far this year has only received 3.7”. http://average-rainfall.weatherdb.com/l/27/Phoenix-Arizona

The dryness is apparent in the riverbeds near Phoenix. The Salt River Project (SRP), major water supplier, has built 6 dams to impound the Salt and VerdeRivers, leaving them dry for miles downstream. The SRP also taps groundwater with 255 high-capacity wells. It delivers half of Phoenix’s water via 1300 miles of canals, which lose a lot of water in transmission. Dry riverbeds are now the norm in Arizona.


Havasu Falls on the Colorado River, AZ
Internet Google Photo


So, of course, water is a big deal, and water conservation is state-of-the-art, right? Yes and no.  Phoenix and other Arizona cities are taking action to control water demand, in part by innovative programs such as using treated wastewater for golf course irrigation and recharge. There are many (many!) new subdivisions and commercial developments that use native landscaping – a step in the right direction. But the use of the rivers is the opposite of “sustainable.” Growth represents new water demand that offsets the savings they are achieving, and even if it uses treated wastewater, irrigating golf courses represents a net loss of water in an ultra-dry region. Some places that you’d think would be water conscious are not really; for example, at a Phoenix school that I visited, sprinklers come on regularly all day, watering ornamental plants and lawn as well as athletic fields. There are more than 200 golf courses in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Scottsdale’s “greenway” is lush, but at what cost to the rivers?

The trip reminded me of the excellent book Water Follies, written by University of Arizona law professor Robert Glennon. He focuses on groundwater pumping and has several case studies from Arizona (as well as including the IpswichRiver). He says, “In Arizona, groundwater pumping has dried up or degraded 90% of the state’s once perennial desert streams, rivers, and riparian habitats.”

  • On the Santa CruzRiver, which supplies water to Tucson, “…groundwater pumping has lowered the water table, drained the river of its flow, killed the cottonwood, willow and mesquite trees, and driven much of the wildlife elsewhere.” By 2000, groundwater pumping from the Santa CruzRiver’s groundwater source was more than double its annual recharge rate.
  • The SanPedroRiver is a Globally Important Bird Area and one of The Nature Conservancy’s “Last Great Places.” The river and riparian forest and wetlands support 390 bird species, 83 species of mammals and 47 species of amphibians and reptiles, including federally-endangered species. Explosive growth in this watershed, with groundwater pumping to meet demand, now threaten the San Pedro ecosystem.
  • In northern Arizona, a pristine ancient aquifer lies under Hopi and Navajo land. In one of the most insane uses of precious water anywhere in the country, water from this aquifer was used to transport coal to a power plant via the Black Mesa coal slurry pipeline. This project threatened springs and the water supplies that native people in this region have relied on for many generations. Native people need the jobs from the coal operation, but many fought to stop using water to transport the coal, arguing to use rail or trucks instead. The mine was shut down in 2005 and the issue of reopening the mine is winding through the courts.

Just south of the Grand Canyon, plans to pump groundwater to serve a large development threatened critical springs, including Havasu, Hermit and Indian Garden Springs. To avoid pumping groundwater (and an environmental battle), plans evolved to divert water from the Colorado River and transport it for hundreds of miles and uphill almost 7000 ft. Really, I’m not kidding – that’s what was proposed. It got even more complex, with plans to transport water from the Colorado River to Phoenix to recharge aquifers there, earning water “credits.” In 2000, the estimated cost per acre-foot was $20,000, as compared to $13.50 paid for Colorado River water used for irrigation in California.  (An acre foot is the amount of water that would flood one acre to a depth of one foot – about  325,000 gallons.)  The developer was on board with that. (It was still much cheaper than bottled water!)

The Colorado River is the best-known example of a river that is so severely over-allocated that it no longer flows to the sea.  Here are links to several articles on this topic: http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/17/all-rivers-do-not-run-to-the-sea/?_r=0




The Colorado River has not reached the sea since 1998 and ends in a cracked and desolate expanse of barren mud flats.
New York Times Photo for Peter McBride

Because the Colorado flows through 7 states, crosses the border into Mexico, and involves extensive federal and Native American lands, water rights there are extremely complex. They have been the subject of many disputes and changing agreements. Here is a summary of the “Law of the River.” http://www.azwater.gov/AzDWR/StateWidePlanning/CRM/LawoftheRiver.htm

In a nutshell: the Colorado River is greatly over-allocated and in most years, there is little or no water in the river as it reaches the sea.  The river supplies water to more than 36 million people in 7 states and Mexico, including 22 Native American tribes, and supports 11 national parks, 7 national wildlife refuges and 4 million acres of farmland. More than 16.5 million acre-feet are allocated, yet the total average annual flow of the river is only 13.5 million acre-feet.

From the NYTimes:  “…the Colorado River has not reached the sea since 1998 but ends rather in a cracked and desolate expanse of barren mud flats and abandoned boats.”

Filmmaker and photographer Peter McBride, who has worked to raise public awareness about the Colorado River, also points out the impacts on Mexicans in the delta region, which has shrunk drastically:  “Mr. McBride noted that not many people live in the delta region, and that those who do are mostly poor Mexican farmers. ‘If the river ended in San Diego, I guarantee it wouldn’t run dry,’ he said.

He joined writer Jonathan Waterman (good name!), who paddled 1450 miles of the Colorado, but they had to walk the last 70 miles in Mexico because the river was dry.

From the Smithsonian article: “The river has become a perfect symbol of what happens when we ask too much of a limited resource: it disappears.”

Now add historic drought. In the past few years, water levels in some of the large Colorado River reservoirs have dropped more than 130 feet, and some experts believe that the reservoirs will never be filled again. Is this the new norm? Climate change models indicate a reduction in flow of 5-20% in the next 40 years, according to Brad Udall of the University of Colorado.  Here is more information on impacts of the drought.  http://www.lasvegassun.com/news/2013/aug/16/more-water-being-choked-drought-stricken-lake-mead/

In this age when there is a lot of talk about “sustainability,” the undeniable reality is that the Colorado River cannot sustain all the demands placed on it.

Final thoughts: Although the Ipswich River is much smaller, and our water laws are different, the same is true here. Perhaps Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) decided to use the Colorado River as its model of “sustainable water management” (a misnomer if ever there was one). I say this because, if their proposed “safe yield” were removed continuously from our rivers, as the law specifies, every river in Massachusetts would run dry for months each year and become “severely degraded.” For those like the IpswichRiver that are already “severely degraded” – by the state’s own criteria – there is no requirement to restore them to health.

For those who are interested in reading Water Follies, the IpswichRiver is one of the case studies. The book was published in 2002, before IRWA undertook litigation that found that MassDEP was in violation of the Water Management Act by allocating water without determining the river’s capacity, or “safe yield.” After those court victories, the state began its  misnamed “Sustainable Water Management Initiative.” In the end, MassDEP failed to honor its commitment, to IRWA and the court, that “safe yield includes “ecological health of river systems.”

Water Follies is available here: http://www.amazon.com/Water-Follies-Groundwater-Pumping-Americas/dp/1559634006 Members can borrow it from the IRWA library.