How Not to Solve the Water Crisis

Last week Paul Danish, a well-known iconoclast in my home of Boulder, Colorado (itself a town of iconoclasts), wrote a column in our local alternative paper entitled “How to Increase Colorado’s Water Supply.” Danish has, no doubt, had some good ideas but this was not one of them. To wit:

Here’s a different way for Colorado to secure its water supply against the horrors of global warming: Build some seawater desalination plants. It wouldn’t take very many of them to make a huge difference.

Of course, there are two small complications: Colorado is about 1) 1,000 miles and 2) a mile uphill from the Pacific Ocean. This would make getting the desalinated water from the Pacific to Colorado, well, challenging. However, Colorado wouldn’t have to move a drop of desalinated water to Colorado.

That is because in a normal year about 8.66 million acre feet of water flow out of Colorado toward the Pacific Ocean, almost all of it via the Colorado River and its tributaries. This represents more than half of the total amount of water in the Colorado River Basin in a normal year (about 16.5 million acre-feet). Under the Colorado River Compact of 1922, which allocated the water among the seven states in the Colorado River Basin and Mexico, Colorado currently gets to keep 3.86 million acre-feet of the 16.5 million. California’s allocation of Colorado River water is 4.4 million acre-feet.

So the way to augment Colorado’s water supply with Pacific Ocean desalinated water is to cut a deal with California. Swap the water produced by Colorado-built desalination plants on the Pacific coast for an equal amount of California’s Colorado River allocation and reduce the amount of water that leaves Colorado accordingly. Better yet, swap the desalination plants themselves for an equal amount of California’s Colorado River allocation. That way California becomes responsible for running the plants.

Danish sure is thinking outside the box with this one. I wrote a letter to the editor, shortened to meet the paper’s word count limit, but here is my response in full, with some added images and comments:

Why should we build Los Angeles a new really expensive water supply? Or, indeed, any new one at all? Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Why should we build Los Angeles a new really expensive water supply? Or, indeed, any new one at all? Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Among my friends who study and work on management of western water resources, I usually get a lot of grief over being the guy who’s most willing to add to supply, to develop new “evil” reservoirs and pipelines, who doesn’t castigate the irresponsible cities and wasteful farmers of the arid southwest, who doesn’t believe that conservation and land-use planning can get us where we want to be. But even I have never come up with a drought-response solution as wild as that of Paul Danish in the February 20th Boulder Weekly.

Mr. Danish, a man I heretofore associated with policies limiting the growth of the City of Boulder, might have proposed a similar solution to ending the water crisis in the West: conserve and reuse, limit new developments, live within our means. Instead, Mr. Danish has come up with a plan in defiance of all principles of economics and common sense: He proposes that Colorado build, at its own expense, desalination plants off the coast of California in order to guarantee that thirsty state a 100% drought-proof supply for the times to come where “drought turns into California’s new normal.” Colorado, in exchange, would gain an equal amount of the Golden State’s allocation of Colorado River water.

The obvious reaction is one of surprise: why should we bail out California when they have been living fast and loose on unreliable water supplies for decades? But Mr. Danish’s proposal seems to be a serious one, and deserves a serious response. Mine operates on three principles: first, the plan contains very bad applied economics, second, it’s a bad deal for California, and third, it’s a bad deal for Colorado.

A reverse osmosis desalination plant like this one spends 44% of its operation budget on electricity and a further 37% on fixed infrastructure costs. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

A reverse osmosis desalination plant like this one spends 44% of its operation budget on electricity and a further 37% on fixed infrastructure costs. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

To the first point, Mr. Danish claims that for $2.5 billion dollars (yes, billion, with a B) we could “double Denver and Boulder’s water supply in a normal year and or… completely replace it in a period of extreme drought.” This begs an obvious question: where exactly would we put all this water? Doubling our water supply necessitates doubling our storage capacity. I would love to hear where Mr. Danish proposes to build over 600,000 acre-feet of new reservoirs on the Front Range. Without new storage, the water we bought from California for $2.5 billion will run downhill toward the Pacific Ocean, where I guarantee California will be perfectly happy to use it anyway. So we can add to the exorbitant cost of desalination the further cost (and political turmoil) of major reservoir construction.

Mr. Danish attempts to defuse what now sounds like an extraordinarily bad investment by offering that water projects often overcome their “sticker shock,” and cites that Hoover Dam was built for just $49 million in 1936. He is right about that, but, to be blunt, Hoover is a dam, and desalination plants are not. Hoover represents one very large sunk cost that was paid off with sales of cheap water and hydropower to willing buyers in Southern California. Our desalination plants would use, not produce, electricity, to make water, so there is less reason to believe that the benefits of such a project would outweigh its tremendous operating costs. Most water projects in the west, students of history will know, have never overcome their initial costs even with insanely favorable accounting practices, and most of them didn’t require electricity to run.
To the second point, the plan makes no sense for California. Why would California choose to use these expensive machines (even if their construction is free) rather than their essentially-free water from the Colorado River? Right now California gets to use 4.4 million acre-feet of Colorado River water no matter how much water is actually in the river. A normal year, with 14-16 million acre-feet available? They get 4.4. A very dry year, with 7-10 million? The upper basin gets largely cut off, California gets 4.4. The worst year ever, as reconstructed from tree ring data, would be something like 5 million. Here even Arizona and Nevada get cut off, and California gets 4.4. There would be lawsuits galore as soon as levels started falling this far, so this is a tad speculative, but California’s priority as written is ironclad. Throwing away any of that water, which costs them only some pump operation and treatment, in exchange for very, very expensive desalinated water, is a losing proposition that makes no sense for our friends on the coast.

Finally, if it’s a losing proposition for California, then it’s a whale of a loser for Colorado. Let’s recall that the Danish Plan seems to supply Denver and Boulder with around 600,000 acre-feet of new water every year. First, assuming we also built sufficient storage space, why would we want it? What use would we have for it except undoing all the good conservation programs done by utilities in both cities since the 2002 drought, or watering twice as many homes, committing us to use more and more, making the original supply problem worse? Mr. Danish seems to want to allocate it to agriculture, but the price paid by municipalities for water is far, far higher, and it seems obvious that farmers would miss out. Second, this new 600,000 acre-feet of water is just as drought-prone as the 600,000 we already have. If the high Rockies suffer a drought like that of the high Sierras this winter, with snowpack in the range of 10-15% of normal, there won’t be 600,000 acre-feet of new supply to divert through the mountains to Denver and Boulder, much less 1.2 million. We will have paid California in drought-proof water while our shiny new reservoirs sit as empty as our pocketbooks.

I give Mr. Danish a lot of credit for thinking outside the “conserve, conserve, conserve” and “buy and dry” boxes that seem to dominate much of the discussion around meeting Colorado’s water needs. He is 100% right that interstate cooperation will be needed, that there does need to be additional supply for the Front Range, and that desalination will play a role in California’s management portfolio. But it’s clear that the solution he proposes is no solution at all: such a plan is unlikely to have benefits outweighing its costs, it would make California worse off, not better, and it would make little sense as a remedy for Colorado’s water problems.

Unlike California's delicious almonds, these do not grow on trees. Image courtesy, which, apparently, exists.

Unlike California’s delicious almonds, these do not grow on trees. Image courtesy, which, apparently, exists.


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