Straining Water Supplies in the Southwest

  • Nancy and Dave Tom bought this home near Apache Junction, Arizona. They have to haul all the water they use with their pickup truck, so they quickly learned how to conserve. (Photo by Mark Brush)

Many areas in the Southwest are booming. With all this new
development, pressures on water supplies are growing. Mark Brush takes
a look at the lengths people go to, to get water in the desert:


Many areas in the Southwest are booming. With all this new
development, pressures on water supplies are growing. Mark Brush takes
a look at the lengths people go to, to get water in the desert:

Nancy and Dave Tom used to get their water from a city water supply.
That was back when they owned a home in Tempe, Arizona. Like a lot of
people in the area, they had a pool, plants that needed water year
round, and a green lawn out back. Not exactly a desert scene. It took
a lot of water to support their lifestyle.

But life in Tempe was getting crowded. And when somebody rang their
doorbell and offered to buy their house for almost twice what they paid for
it, they jumped at the chance to move to a smaller town.

(Sound of birds)

They found a house for sale just outside of Apache Junction. It’s a
small city in the desert about an hour’s drive from Phoenix. The house
is at the foot of a dry mountain range and has spectacular views. But
the house didn’t have city water service:

“When we saw this piece of property we pretty much fell in love with it
immediately. And it was stated in the multiple listings that you did
have to haul water. And that the water trailer conveyed with the
property (laughs).”

(Sound of hooking up the truck)

To get their water, Dave Tom hooks up a trailer with a big plastic
water tank. He tows the trailer about 4 miles into Apache Junction.
There’s a water filling station here. He gets about 90 gallons of
water for each quarter dropped into the machine:

(Sound of truck parking)

“I’ve got my four quarters here – we’re going to put it in the vending
machine and have at it.”

(Sound of quarter and water rushing)

He makes about two trips a week, so he figures they’re using about 600
gallons of water a week. That’s quite a bit less than the 6000 gallons
they were using in Tempe.

Some of the things they did to cut back were obvious. Since they no
longer had a pool – and they didn’t water a green lawn – that helped.
But in their new place, they also bought a high efficiency washer and
dishwasher. And, when they don’t have guests around, they cut down on
the number of times they flush the toilet.

And they’re not alone in trying to cut back on water use. Even their
neighbors who have a well are really careful with their water. Phil
Reinhart lives just up the road. He’s rigged up a system of gutters
and pipes to catch rain water:

“You see it drains the front of my house and it comes down these
gutters into these storage barrels. And then I have a little pump that
I use and a little twelve volt battery that I use to pump my washing
machine full and then my washing machine then discharges into my citrus
trees – this is a lemon – here, take a lemon back with you.”

Reinhart is careful with his water. And he’s worried that the
population boom will put a strain on his well.

(Sound of water)

The tank on David Tom’s trailer is full. He tries to shut the water

“Alright we’ll push the shutoff button – and watch out, you’re going to
get wet… no the shutoff isn’t working. We’re going to dump 25 to 30, maybe 40,
gallons of water, which to me it’s a shame they need to come down and
fix this.”

(Sound of water flowing)

A lot of this water spilling onto the ground has traveled a long way to
get here. The Central Arizona Project pumps water from the Colorado
River 230 miles away.

“Rather than a river than runs downhill by gravity, we’re a river that
runs uphill by pumps. We’re the largest electric consumer in the state
of Arizona.”

Sid Wilson is the general manager of the Central Arizona Project. He
says most of the water pumped into this region is used for farming.
But with rapid development, that’s expected to change. More water will
be used to service the new homes sprawling out into the desert.

“The CAP right now provides 40% of the water to this area, 40%, and that will increase
some over time.”

Wilson says people are going to continue to move to the Southwest. So,
future water supplies will have to be developed.

Back at their home near Apache Junction, Dave Tom has finished filling
up their underground storage tank. It’s taken him two trips with the

(Sound of gurgling)

His wife Nancy says their new home has changed the way they think:

“Life out here in the desert has given me a greater appreciation for
water. There’s a part of me that says this is how everybody should
live in the desert. That they should have that awareness of their
water usage and embrace the fact that you live in the desert rather
than trying to change it into a lush tropical paradise.”

For the Environment Report, I’m Mark Brush.

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Ten Threats: Southwest After Great Lakes Water?

  • This billboard was displayed along several major highways in Michigan. The sponsors were hoping to raise awareness about water diversion, but do these arid states really pose a threat to the Great Lakes? (Photo courtesy of Central Michigan Life )

We’re continuing our series on the Great Lakes. One of the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes that experts identified was water withdrawals. Our guide in this series, Lester Graham, says the next report looks at one of the myths of water withdrawals:


We’re continuing our series on the Great Lakes. One of the Ten Threats
to the Great Lakes that experts identified was water withdrawals. Our
guide in this series, Lester Graham, says the next report looks at one of
the myths of water withdrawals.

Environmentalists and policy makers say a thirsty world could pose a
major threat to the Great Lakes. Water wars have been predicted in arid
parts of the globe, and some say the laws of supply and demand might
one-day lead to a raid on the region’s fresh water. Reporter Mark Brush takes a
closer look at one claim: that states in the southwest will one day come
after the Great Lakes water… and finds that it might just be H2O hype…

Taking water out of the Great Lakes is a hot button issue, and no one is
more aware of this than politicians looking for votes. In the 2004
campaign, President Bush used the issue to rally a crowd in Traverse
City, Michigan:

“My position is clear. We are never going to allow the diversion of
Great Lakes water.”

(Sound of applause)

The issue taps into people’s emotions. People get outraged when they think
of someone taking water out of the Lakes – especially when they’ve seen lake
levels dropping over the years, and the region’s political leaders have listened
to those concerns. The states and provinces that surround the world’s largest fresh
water system are working on a compact that will prevent water diversions.

But where is the threat to Great Lakes water coming from? We
conducted an informal poll on the streets of Ann Arbor, and we asked
people: “who wants water from the Great Lakes?” Six out of the ten
people we talked to pointed to the west:

(Sound of street)

“Las Vegas, the Southwest.”

“Probably the dry states in the West. Arizona, Nevada.”

“I think the west should keep their damn hands off our water.”

But do the arid states in the West really pose a threat to Great Lakes
water? It turns out – this same question was asked more than twenty
years ago.

In the 1980s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers studied the possibility of
moving Lake Superior water to the Missouri River. It’s a distance of
about six hundred miles. Farmers in the High Plains states were hoping
to use this water to irrigate their crops.

Jonathan Bulkley is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at
the University of Michigan. Bulkley and his colleagues analyzed this
diversion plan, and he says the whole project would have been too

“We found it would take seven 1000 megawatt power plants dedicated to
lifting the water, because water needs to be lifted to reach these distant
locations, and in addition there would have to be conveyance structures
built to transport the water, and our conclusion was the total cost would
far exceed the value of the water.”

In other words, Bulkley found that it would be cheaper for these states to
find other sources of water – or to find ways to conserve the water they
had left, and this was a diversion of only 600 miles. A diversion all the
way to the Southwest would mean piping the water almost twice that

“We are always looking for extra water – everyone in the Southwest is
looking for extra water.”

Bob Barrett is a spokesperson for the Central Arizona Project. It’s one of
the biggest water suppliers in the Southwest. The Project pulls water
from the Colorado River and delivers it to southern Arizona. Barrett
says he can’t imagine a situation where Great Lakes water is pumped for
more than a thousand miles to the Colorado River:

“Most people don’t realize it, but a gallon of water weighs about eight
pounds, and if you’re going to push that up and over the Rocky
Mountains you’re going to need a lot of power. (Laughs) So, it’s a good
idea, but I don’t see how anybody could pay for it.”

But some observers say even though it might not happen today – it could
happen in the future. They point to a fast-growing population and a fast-
dwindling fresh water supply in the southwest. They say that
combination could drive engineers and policy makers to devise a way to
get Great Lakes water.

But Barrett says for states like Arizona, California, and even Texas – it
would be cheaper for them to build desalinization plants… these plants
convert ocean water into drinking water:

“I mean why should Texas build for a canal and then have to maintain it
from the Great Lakes down to the state of Texas when they can go to the
Gulf Coast and build several desalinization plants, and then just pipe it
wherever they need it?”

So, a large-scale water diversion to the southwest seems unlikely.
Experts say water from the Great Lakes is much more likely to go to
cities and towns right on the edge of the basin, but as legislators move to
tighten restrictions on diversions – even these places will
have a hard time getting access to the water.

For the GLRC, I’m Mark Brush.

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