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HoustonChronicle.com -- http://www.HoustonChronicle.com | Section: National
July 22, 2001, 12:50AM
Water crisis foreseen for California
Experts: Supply shortage could hit state harder than energy crunch By MORT ROSENBLUM Associated Press
PALM SPRINGS, Calif. -- The desert around here, so dry that imported Arizona cactus needs watering, has sprouted a man-made ski lake, 100 lush golf courses, outdoor air conditioning and gardens fit for the tropics.
A quarter-million residents use an average of 375 gallons of water a day at home, twice the national norm. That costs a household only half as much as cable TV.
Beyond the Salton Sea to the south, 400 Imperial Valley farmers receive as much Colorado River water as Arizona and Nevada combined. Their main crop is alfalfa, a thirsty, low-profit feed for dairy cows and horses.
There, rain is a curse. It wilts the lettuce and unbalances the water district's cash flow by cutting demand for irrigation.
This is just a start. The Colorado is piped to the fastest growing cities in the United States: Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson. What little is left irrigates Mexico's richest farm region.
To water specialists, the overtapped Colorado River basin is symbolic of a calamity facing much of the world. Fresh water reserves are disappearing fast.
These experts see the California power crisis as the harbinger of much worse to come.
"No one thought that a state richer than most countries could fail to deliver reliable supplies of electricity," warned RichardBrusca, a University of Arizona environmental scientist. "Well, guess what's next?"
People can survive power cuts and even live without oil, he adds. Water is another matter entirely.
Like China's lifeline Yellow River and other waterways on six continents, the Colorado often runs dry before reaching its mouth. Across America and the world, ancient underground lakes are squandered by overpumping.
Pesticides, fertilizers and solvents poison some aquifers far below the surface. Others take on salt water when levels drop too low.
The planet has no more fresh water than it did millennia ago. But with today's rocketing growth in arid zones, conflicting needs of farms, cities, industry, recreation and wetlands promise bitter water wars.
"We foresee serious problems," said Bruce Smith, the U.S. Defense Department official who supervises 300 projects in 100 countries designed to help provide water and reduce political tensions. "This is getting very bad."
He said the Pentagon and State Department now give high priority to preventing violent conflicts in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
Yet water managers across America say the public and political leaders who can bring change appear to be ignoring the danger.
"Planners always say that we can worry about water supplies in the future," said Tom Turney, the New Mexico state engineer. "That doesn't work anymore. The future is now."
The Rio Grande is as overcommitted as the Colorado. Albuquerque, N.M., whose underground reserves were until recently vastly overestimated, could dry up by 2050.
Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, has soared beyond a million inhabitants, typical of northern Mexico's growth. It could run out of water in five years.
Linda Vida, of the Water Resources Center at University of California-Berkeley, sees the same phenomenon across the American West and beyond.
"Nobody is looking out," she said, "The stakeholders want what they want. No political leader is willing to go out on a limb and make some people very unhappy. No one wants to deal with tying growth to resources. They just squeeze out more."
As a result, she said, a drought that otherwise might be managed with water reserves could hit California far harder than the energy crisis.
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), July 22, 2001