Do Pipelines in the West Threaten Water Sources?

Lake Meade, with its white bath-tub ring, is an iconic example of depleted water resources in the west. Photo: Chris Van Pelt / (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Keystone XL isn’t the only pipeline conservationists are worried about. Pipelines that transport water—not oil or gas—are also a concern. These conduits could actually make water resources less reliable in the future, eventually taking a toll on the communities that both fund and depend on the projects, a new NRDC report finds.

Aptly titled “Pipe Dreams,” the report analyzes recent large-scale water pipeline projects in Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. It notes that western water projects are tending in two directions: some water managers are focusing on conservation and reuse of water, while others are pursuing large-scale pipeline projects. The problem with the latter is that soon there might not be enough water to go around. Climate change models forecast far less water in the future, while a region-wide drought suggests that the future is already here. Now, the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) report paints a worrying picture of water management plans in the west.

In the past, large pipelines were constructed along side new surface water storage facilities, like dams, that created a water source. Lake Meade is one such reservoir, created in the 1930s by building the Hoover Dam across a section of the Colorado River. But most new projects lack these storage facilities. Instead, they draw water from already depleted surface or groundwater resources. In some cases, groundwater is being removed faster than it is being recharged, or replaced.

“The reason this new generation of proposed projects, unlike past water projects, include so few surface storage facilities is simple,” writes report author Barry Nelson. “There’s little or no water left to capture in many western rivers.”

The NRDC report recommends that future water management projects take into account:

• Water-saving alternatives
Agricultural water use could be reduced using drip irrigations systems or technology that waters crops based on local weather. Urban water efficiency could be improved by switching to low flow appliances and increasing stormwater treatment.

• Energy use & sources
Moving water from its course to those who need it uses an enormous amount of energy. For example, the report notes that “the California Energy Commission has concluded that in California 19 percent of electricity use, 30 percent of non-power plant related natural gas, and 88 million gallons of diesel fuel are consumed annually for water related uses.” Water pipeline projects should analyze energy use and explore renewable sources of energy.

• Greenhouse gas emissions
Given the large energy needs of water projects, future projects should also include assessments of additional greenhouse gas emissions.

• Climate change
Water projects need to assess the reliability of water sources, especially in lieu of the potential impacts of climate change.

• Biodiversity
Further stressing rivers and other water systems will have a detrimental effect on western wildlife, including birds. The report notes that “desert riparian ecosystems have the highest density of breeding birds in North America, with at least 400 different bird species observed.”

These guidelines are intended to help water managers assess the true cost ands benefits of pipeline projects. The report maintains that “new water supply projects in the West should be designed to reduce, rather than increase, the current imbalances in water use.” Where western water is concerned, “pipeline” may become a new dirty word.

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