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Big, simple water solutions are a mirage

Alan Braunholtz

Water is getting scarcer in the world. In the past few years the Colorado, the Nile, the Indus and the Yangtze have all run dry.

We are mining groundwater reserves at rates far faster than replenishment. Beijing’s water table dropped 60 meters in the past 40 years. Aquifers across the United States are falling and being polluted by agricultural and industrial runoff.

The easiest and quickest technological solution is to use less water more efficiently. This solution can be hard culturally, since it asks for cooperation, community action, river basin organizations and low-tech work. There’s lining ditches, fixing leaks, digging rain collection ponds, diverting excess monsoon rains down wells to recharge ground water, changing farming methods and high-use habits.



In short it requires compromise, cooperation and hard work.

It’s not very glamorous compared to the shiny big dam approach, where after a very large sum of money a few self congratulatory “our water woes are behind us” speeches and a naming ceremony we can all forget about where our water is coming from. Provided there is enough rain to fill the dam, of course.



After air, water is our most essential need. We shouldn’t be blase about the small miracle of modern engineering that allows us to turn a tap and get clean water. It would also be unwise to abdicate all thought of water decisions to distant parties, be they government or multinational water corporations.

Recent talk of a reservoir at 4 Eagle ranch should have everyone reading the details in the paper. It’s good to see so many organizations offering their views on this possible plan as that allows us to stay informed. From what I’ve read it looks like a good plan for all involved, perhaps an example of compromise and cooperation.

Referendum A, the dam-building bond issue, is not so good on public input/information. Under Referendum A the governor and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (appointed by the governor) get to choose a water project from a list of alternatives, issue bonds for the recipients of that project to pay off, and that’s about it. Little in the way of public vote, mitigation or discussion about whether you wanted to pay for a new dam flooding your favorite fishing hole to supply water to more sprawling development and private golf courses. I guess you’d better hope the CWCB represents your interests. Their opposition to recreational water rights shows they don’t support mine.



Globally, there seem to be two trends in water schemes. There is a spontaneous growth in “people’s technology,” where rural farmers no longer wait for the big dams and irrigation schemes. Instead they revitalize old infrastructures and methods and harvest all the rainwater they can by digging ponds, catching water off their roofs, rebuilding cisterns and use new water-efficient farming methods.

If the whole community participates in managing their water as a communal resource, they can make a big difference. In Rajastan, India, the villagers now not only have enough water in drought years, but the water table has risen enough for some rivers to start flowing again.

Here in the U.S. we have some very talented and hard-working water harvesters called beavers. Given a chance, they will recharge aquifers and store a lot of water for us.

In Gansa, China, millions of farmers are doing this and the estimated extra stored water is equal to the Three Gorges dam. Southern California could meet half its water needs if it collected its rain instead of shunting it straight into the ocean via storm drains.

At the other end of the scale, big water projects are back in vogue. The World Panel on Financing Water Structure (chaired by a former IMF chairman) is pushing for the privatization of the world’s water with large-scale water storage and diversion projects as the way forward. This ignores the World Bank’s commission that reported very unfavorably on large dams; they caused unacceptable social and environmental damage while delivering little.

This is popular with multinationals that see the control of scarce water as an opportunity for profit. Look at how Enron helped created energy shortages in California, which it then profited from. In England, when service was handed to for profit companies, water quality went down and price up.

In Third World countries, privatized water ends up being only supplied to those who can pay – the commercial farmers and urban elite. Worse, these projects often cut off the water the rural farmer relies on. Suddenly his little reservoirs run empty or are illegal infringements on the “free flow of water” to the large dams.

It is hard for civil engineers to look at illiterate villagers as a source of knowledge, but modern engineers could learn from these traditional water-harvesting systems. These locals know their area’s agriculture, ecology and climate dynamics. They know their soil, their culture and needs. Failing to understand these underlying circumstances will lead to a “solution” that causes problems for the people living there.

Privatization of water will never help the world’s rural poor. Multinationals are not interested in digging ponds, ditches and cess pits. Big projects moving vast amounts of water are where the money is, and there are lots of these projects in the pipeline.

Colorado is looking at the “big straw,” where we suck Colorado’s entire unused share of water from the Utah border to the Front Range. There is talk of buying Canada’s Arctic River water and somehow getting it to the dry Western states. China and India are both planning vast diversion schemes spanning their whole countries.

Big projects usually come with big problems. India’s will displace 2 million people. Dams waste large amounts of water to evaporation. Canals transmit disease, pests and are wasteful. Two-thirds of water sent down canals never reach the crops, and irrigation leads to soil salinity. There are always unavoidable environmental costs.

The World Wildlife Fund points the finger at dams for the sharp decline in freshwater fisheries. Often this water ends up too expensive for anyone to afford without subsidies. The Ebro project in Spain will divert much of the river’s flow to the arid south, but this will cost twice as much as desalinating sea water in the south.

Big water projects may be part of the answer to the global water supply. But we embrace them too readily, hoping they’ll provide a simple solution to a complex problem. Money would often be much better spent on small local projects.

Sustainable use of water resources isn’t simple and needs a more holistic approach with river basin and ground water communities coming to view their water as a shared resource. That’s a difficult cultural shift.

Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.


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