A little more physics – of water

As we move into spring, the snow/water equivalent (from the snow page) is currently 74% of the 40 year average in SW Colorado. This is important because unlike the water rich East, in the arid west, our water is banked up in the mountains, during winter as snowpack. How much accumulation and how fast it melts has profound impact on all aspects of life here. From recreational impacts, to growing crops and feeding cattle, down to being able to boil some – to cook noodles for dinner, to powering up your computer.

In other words, this water is used, but not treated as the finite resource, that  it is. Used to generate hydro-power it lights up Vegas and our homes. It waters the browse for beef cattle, without it, feed must be augmented at additional cost to bring the beef to market. It irrigates our crops for food. It provides incalculable recreational income to the public and state coffers in all it’s myriad forms: from skiing, rafting, fishing, waterfall viewing golfing, and more. Let alone power generation from hydro, to cooling towers for coal or gas fired units. Or, our perceived “use by right” to water our lawns, shower, cook and drink, launder, and flush toilets with – in most cases, potable, treated clean water.

In the East, water is problematic because it is plentiful, and often in places where it is unwelcome, but never in short supply.This is slowly changing as population density increases, in the East, reaching a tipping point for water supply.This density of people,in the East, and a pleasant dry climate in the West, has driven a migration of citizens west, bringing along an understandably imbued sense of plentiful, inexhaustible supply of water. Inhabitants of the Pacific North West have a similar perception. (The Columbia River dwarfs the flow of the Colorado).

Industry, also has treated this resource with no regard to value or necessity, beyond their needs. An Intel plant in Phoenix that uses an absurd amount to wash silicone – on the order of the city of Santa Fe every day; or the booming fracking industry, where the water is irreversibly polluted with toxins and can never be reclaimed.

The interesting aspect of this diatribe is the amount of water available here, in the West, for any use.Consider the Ogalalla Aquifer spanning the great plains from South Dakota to Texas. This enormous reservoir of ground water has been tapped with so many straws that wells need to be extended  2-300′ deeper than when originally tapped. The Colorado River has been most famously over allocated. The flow rates calculated in the 1920s, during wet times, were a poor baseline to start with.Tributary rivers include the Gunnison, San Miguel, Uncompahgre, Green, Yampa, and more have also been over estimated over allocated, and diverted.  A cubic foot per second can be easily visualized by using a standard 5 gallon dry wall or paint bucket – that is a cubic foot. But time is involved here as well, so when you picture it in your mind, think of the Grand Canyon at 10,000 cfs (a pretty standard flow these days), or Cataract Canyon at 100,000 cfs. Or the Dirty Devil at 100. Get 100 of those buckets, 100 friends, and tip ‘em all over in your driveway, at once, to see what a 100 cfs/second looks like. Few of these tributary rivers ever exceed 10,000 cubic feet per second, even at runoff/flood stage.

But, there are creeks, springs, and streams that feed those rivers, to maintain the flow. Cities, Towns and industry, all have straws in these sources that were not envisioned when flow allocations were divided up. Even without drought affecting flow these consumptive uses change the equation substantially.

Because more people live here, in the West, than at allocation. And more are coming.

The result is in many watersheds more water rights have been claimed, allocated, bought or sold, than what actually exists in the flow. It’s like six people deciding to divide a hundred dollar bill at some future date – but when the time comes, it becomes apparent they only have $80.00 – and in fact never had the entire hundred to start with.

So, ask yourself, where does your water come from? The answer is not the tap, or your municipality. Find out. Is it surface water? Diverted water? Ground water from an aquifer? While your at it, find out where your electricity comes from – and no, not the wall socket. You will likely be amazed when you find the source of these vital commodities.