The Southwest's Desert Dilemma 🏜️
Understanding the Impacts of Drought on the Colorado River 🌵🌊
Welcome to Fostering Our Earth, a space for untangling the complex systems needed for a sustainable future — from infrastructure and policies to lifestyles and cultures.
This is a case study about the threat that drought poses to hydroelectric power generation. For more about renewables, see this post here.
Look at the images below — what do you notice?
This is the Colorado River, a major water supply to the southwestern United States, and because of climate change, it is disappearing. Similar life-supporting water sources worldwide are under threat due to our unsustainable practices. Renewable energy sources, like hydropower, are superior because they are clean and unlimited. However, the threat of climate hazards, such as drought, on these renewable sources must be considered. Therefore, it is essential to understand the relationship between urban development, consumption habits, and climate hazard mitigation efforts to avoid environmental damage and logistical challenges. This is the Colorado River analyzed.
What is the Colorado River, and why is it important? 🗺️
The Colorado River (aka “America’s Nile”) is a nearly 1500-mile river that runs through seven states in the southwestern United States. Approximately 40 million people depend on it for various water needs, including agriculture, industry, and recreation. The 1922 Colorado River Compact governs the river's management and water distribution across Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California. The compact divided the river into upper and lower basins and set limits on water usage between them, allowing for irrigation and the development of various water works programs, such as the construction of the Hoover Dam. These dams along the Colorado River provide hydroelectric power to nearly 2.3 million US households.
Climate, Consumption, and other Challenges 🎯
Unfortunately, the increasing frequency and severity of climate hazards, particularly drought, have put the compact under increasing strain. Prolonged drought in recent years has resulted in reduced water flow and lower reservoir levels, leading to a significant decrease in water supply for the communities and businesses that rely on it. All the while, the demand for water and electricity, particularly because of rising temperatures and the growing use of electric vehicles, continues to increase as the population grows. These unsustainable consumption patterns put the Colorado River at risk of reaching a "dead pool," which is when elevation reaches 3370 feet or less; at this point, water would be too low to flow and produce electricity.
Some Technical Info About Hydropower 🔬
Hydroelectric dams work by first holding back water in a reservoir. When the water is released through the dam, it spins a turbine that is connected to a generator, producing electricity. The water then rejoins the river downstream of the dam. There are fifteen dams along the Colorado River and two of the hydroelectric ones are the Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams. These two and their attached reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell are the largest along the river.
Hydroelectric generation has an efficiency rate of up to 95%, which is significantly higher than fossil fuel energy sources, with an efficiency rate of around 50%. However, dams require sufficient water storage to produce electricity, and drought threatens this process, potentially leading to reduced electricity production, higher energy costs, and an increased risk of blackouts. In some cases, it could lead to increasing crop prices. Furthermore, reduced hydroelectric production may lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, as energy production may shift back to fossil fuel-based sources, further worsening drought conditions and undermining climate mitigation efforts.
So what do we do? 🤔
Imagine you are an official in one of the Compact states; your primary water source is running low — what would you do? Your options include the following:
Encouraging water conservation programs involves promoting more efficient water use and reducing waste. However, while conservation can help reduce water demand, it does not really address your immediate water shortage issue.
Importing water from other locations in the US involves transporting water from other, more water-abundant parts of the US. However, this might be expensive and require significant infrastructure investment to build new pipes and water storage.
Implementing water reuse programs involves treating and recycling wastewater for non-potable uses, such as irrigation or industrial processes. However, this would also require investment in treatment facilities and storage tanks to build a water reuse system. In addition, you’ll have to overcome the potential negative public perception about recycled water and address health concerns.
All of these plans, each with its tradeoffs and challenges, could curb the impacts of drought while ensuring a reliable water supply; they are all actual initiatives being considered by Compact states. With pressure to act immediately, six of the seven compact states proposed a framework called the Consensus-Based Modeling Alternative – a sort of stop-gap plan while working on a formal agreement. This plan offers adjustments to the current guidelines, including measures to reduce releases from Lake Powell and Lake Mead and account for losses in the Lower Basin. The goal is to prevent Lake Mead and Lake Powell from reaching dead pool levels in the meantime.
The southwest is deeply dependent on the Colorado River, and if we fail to mitigate climate hazards, the consequences will have significant ripple effects, impacting us all. Water is arguably the most crucial natural resource our planet provides, so we need equitable and sustainable solutions to manage it.