Is there enough water in the United States?

         ‘Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink’ from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge summarizes the plight of the people living in the southwestern United States. I watch the news and see abundant water in the United States, but look out my window and wonder whether the southwest will have drinking water in the future.

Water in the US

         Looking at the average annual rainfall in inches per year across the United States from 1934 to 2002, you can easily see why the problem exists. Arizona and New Mexico get fewer than 5 inches per year, and most of that comes quickly and runs off before it can sink in. In the southeast (the dark blue area on the map) the average rainfall is 20-25 inches per year. Most of the water sinks into the ground except during flood events.

Most of us probably think of water that falls from the sky as free, but that is not the case. Someone owns and has the right to use the water.

Rights

         There is an immense body of law related to water ownership and use. In the east (all states east of Texas) where water and rainfall are plentiful, the Riparian Doctrine applies. The Riparian Doctrine states that anyone whose land fronts on a body of water can use all he wants. They base this doctrine on English common law.

However, in the drier western states, water laws follow the Prior-Use Doctrine. Rights to water use are owned by those who used them first. This explains why cities in Arizona buy up the ranches within the state to get the water rights that those ranchers had. The cities then can use those rights to supply water to the Phoenix Valley and its residents.

New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico are in a multi-year legal fight over whose water is whose. An adverse decision in this legal battle could leave New Mexico without the water it needs for agriculture and residential use. So how did this growing need for water in the west come about?

It has come about because many people, especially as they grow older, want to live where it is warmer, and they have to work less to get by in the warmer climate. In the northern and north-eastern states, where they have severe winters, it takes a lot of effort to live in the environment. Many people move to the southwest and southeast to avoid this severe weather. If they like a warm and dry climate, they move to the southwest (Arizona and New Mexico are warmer and drier.) The most common comment from winter residents was they didn’t want to shovel snow anymore. So they moved south.

The first summer we lived in the Phoenix valley, the temperature reached 122 degrees Fahrenheit. It forced the airport to close because the planes didn’t have charts showing the speed necessary to get the lift to leave the ground safely. But seriously, people tailor the environment to their wants. The Phoenix Valley sets new records for electricity use each year as more people move in and use air conditioning to change the environment.  More people equal more water.

So, how can we fix the water problems – too little in the southwest and too much in the southeast?

Solving water issues in the US

         The solution to both the east’s excess water and the west’s scarcity of water is conceptually simple. Move the water during flood seasons in the east to the west, store it, and then use it when needed. Sounds simple, right? Unfortunately, it is not.

         During the annual flood season, billions of dollars in damage to roads and structures occur each year. We tried to fix this problem with Dams and levees along rivers but have been unsuccessful. It is time to think outside the traditional box and look for other solutions, like moving the water from the east to the west.

This simple common-sense solution creates a new set of complex problems. Things like

  • an unwillingness to cooperate between east and west,
  • the cost of moving the water, and
  • then who would have the rights in the west to this extra water. 
  • Would the easterners give up their rights to the floodwater each year?
  • How can we move that much water?
  • A legislators’ nightmare and judicial system overload.
  • If the water is used to grow food, who gets the profits?

         I’m just a simple retired engineer, but I will offer some solutions to the problem:

            1. Build water pipelines and move excess water west. Probably won’t get many claps for this one. One Idea here would be to build pumping stations at each dam site and pump the water west to lower the water level behind the dams. I’m sure based on projected rain events that the amount of water calculated and removed.

         2. Move the water through the existing oil pipelines. We already know how to filter and clean the water up if it picks up any oil particulates.

The oil companies might object, but the pipelines already exist. As water pipelines, they won’t explode.

         3. Move it in rail cars. We have tanker cars that move liquids from one place to another. Why not water? We can calculate how many tanker cars it would take to move enough water to reduce the levels behind dams. If we can move millions of tons of coal each year, surely we can move water.

         4. Freeze it and move it to the west in refrigerated trucks as ice cubes. (My favorite solution.) This is not my most environmentally friendly idea. But as the need grows, it could be done.

         Any combination of these options may work.  And they are probably cheaper than trying to take the salt out of seawater and rebuilding flooded homes and towns each year. So why not get started? Regardless of the solution, the time is coming when the west will have to have more water from somewhere. Why not from the east!

“Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing, in the end, can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.”
― Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad