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Colorado River

The Story of Hoover Dam

I get a kick out of propaganda videos like these created by the U.S. government (Canada has done quite a few as well).  I have just never seen one that used Cold War language to describe their battle against the Colorado River. 

Remains of a River: source to sea down the Colorado

From October 2011 to January 2012, Will Stauffer-Norris and Zak Podmore hiked and paddled from Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains to Mexico following the Colorado River system from its farthest inland source to the sea, filming and narrating on the fly. The resulting film, Remains of a River, is an unforgettable story of friendship, adventure and environmental degradation.

The Colorado River Runs Dry

The United States and Mexico are trying to fix that

Until 1998 the Colorado regularly flowed south along the Arizona-California border into a Mexican delta, irrigating farmlands and enriching a wealth of wildlife and flora before emptying into the Gulf of California.

But decades of population growth, climate change and damming in the American Southwest have now desiccated the river in its lowest reaches, turning a once-lush Mexican delta into a desert. The river’s demise began with the 1922 Colorado River Compact, a deal by seven western states to divide up its water. Eventually, Mexico was allotted just 10 percent of the flow.

Officials from Mexico and the United States are now talking about ways to increase the flow into the delta. With luck, someday it may reach the sea again.

It is paradoxical that the Colorado stopped running consistently through the delta at the end of the 20th century, which — according to tree-ring records — was one of the basin’s wettest centuries in 1,200 years. Now dozens of animal species are endangered; the culture of the native Cocopah (the People of the River) has been devastated; the fishing industry, once sustained by shrimp and other creatures that depend on a mixture of seawater and freshwater, has withered. In place of delta tourism, the economy of the upper Gulf of California hinges on drug smuggling operations that run opposite to the dying river.

City Report on Water Consumption

Growing up on a river, you never really think about water consumption outside of your water bill.  That started to change when we bought our house twelve years ago.  It has a boulevard out front but since we are on a corner lot, it also has a large one along the side of the house that is unbroken by a sidewalk.  The entire yard was a mess and by the time I got to the boulevard, it was a couple of years later.  We had fertilized it and watered but the problem was that the grass (basically a quack grass) was growing on clay which meant no top soil, shallow roots, and zero water absorption.  I bet 90% to 95% of the water ran off the boulevard and went straight down the drain.

Our house What I should have done was rotor till the entire boulevard, bring in top soil, organic matter and reseed but I didn’t have the money to do so and I am not sure you can do that to a city boulevard anyways.  I took another approach in that I stopped bagging my grass with the hope that it would stop some of the evaporation of the 5% of water that was being absorbed and eventually break down and decompose to provide some organic matter.  In addition to this I started to spread both some peat moss and compost down on the lawn.  Finally I started to aerate the lawn and boulevard which helped out a lot.  Over the next five years the well beaten path of people cutting through the lawn came back (we did over seed with a hearty mixtures from Early’s Farm and Garden) and the boulevard started to transition from rock hard to developing a spongy feel like there was actual soil underneath.  Now the lawn isn’t healthy enough to be organic and I do have a vacant weed infested lot behind be which causes all sorts of problems with noxious weeds which means that I tend to use a lot of weed and feed on the boulevard on the back half of our lot but we have made a lot of progress.  Last year for the first time I spread out a mixture of home brewed compost tea (recipe and instructions) after seeing how it has made a difference at Harvard (less mowing, less water, deeper roots and it absorbs wear and tear of students better).  The end result of all this has been our water consumption is way down the last several years.

Now it looks like a lot of work but it was actually less work than you think.  First of all, not picking up the grass after we mow saved a lot of time.  There are some times when a combination of rain and schedule that I do bag up our grass, plus, I do need some grass for the compost container once in a while but most of the time, it’s a big time saver and the rest of the work needs to be done anyways.  The big change has been to go to the compost tea and I am hoping that it will make a big difference over the next couple of years.

One thing that strikes me is that we don’t do a lot of talking in the city about reducing water consumption.  The average Canadian uses about 120,000 litres (26,396 gallons) of water per year which is why I was happy to see that in the full report that the Saskatoon Environmental Advisory Committee presented to the Administration and Finance Committee included five recommendations related to water conservation.  Here are their recommendations in summary

  1. amend existing bylaws to require water efficient fixtures (low-flow toilets and shower heads) for new and existing building construction and renovations in residential, commercial, industrial, and institutional sectors,
  2. implement a low-flow toilet rebate program similar to other Western Canadian municipalities,
  3. enact a bylaw implementing an outdoor water schedule,
  4. report back on a strategy to implement a water monitoring program, and
  5. promote and develop new programs and incentives for water conservation.

Number 3 is the most interesting option to me.  Okotoks’s schedule works like this

Due to the increase in water consumption in town, outdoor watering is now only permitted two days a week.  One hour of watering per week is adequate for established lawns.

Odd numbered addresses may water lawns:  (Addresses ending in 1,3,5,7,9)
Thursdays &/or Sundays

Even numbered addresses may water lawns:  (Addresses ending in 0,2,4,6,8)
Wednesdays &/or Saturdays

Watering may only occur during the following hours:
6:00 am – 9:00 am
7:00 pm – 11:00 pm

Flowerbeds and vegetable gardens may be watered by hand at any time using a watering can or hose with a trigger spray nozzle.

Please respect the specified watering days and hours, as water is a limited resource. The fines for not obeying the water regulations range from $100—$2500.

Cambridge has a similar plan but will it work and be accepted here.  It’s a big shift in behavior for Saskatoon, especially when much of our water consumption goes right back into the South Saskatchewan River (once treated).  Mark and Oliver have grown up running through the sprinkler in the yard and Maggi takes a nap under the sprinkler on many days.  To lose that or have that restricted would be a big change.  It would also lead to conflicts among neighbors.  Someone is always complaining about one neighbor on our street because they think his vehicles take up too much street parking (which makes no sense to me).  Every summer someone from the city comes by because (probably the same neighbor that complains about the parking) is sure the maple firewood we have in the backyard is elm (and banned).  Watching a recent show on Melbourne, Australia which has more severe water restrictions than what Okotoks has (Melbourne has had a drought since 1997), people put up signs saying that their gardens are being watered by excess shower water.

Saving water in MelbourneWhile we aren’t in a situation of drought, the South Saskatchewan River is under some pressure and this where I get upset.  On one hand, I totally agree with the recommendations being made to Saskatoon City Council yet on the other hand, this isn’t a Saskatoon issue.  Most of the water being taken from the South Saskatchewan River is from irrigation projects in Alberta.

“We know virtually nothing about actual use or consumption of water,” she says. “No one does.” Her assertion catches There are nearly 12,000 licensed users of river water and 80 percent of the water allocated under these licences is withdrawn in Alberta’s sprawling irrigation districts. Users typically meter their intake pipes, but the standards for reporting are lax, and withdrawal numbers alone cannot tell us actual water use. Some water is taken up by growing plants, some evaporates or is lost from leaking canals, and much simply flows back to the river. Since none of this is measured, actual consumption is just an estimate based on assumptions.

The article goes on to state

When it comes to water, getting the big picture is never easy. The truth can simply vanish in the details. Since the future of the river is, in the broadest sense, a supply-demand equation, I set off to the university’s department of economics to find Joel Bruneau, co-editor of a comprehensive technical report called “Climate Change and Water Resources in the South Saskatchewan River Basin.” The ponytailed professor does his part to avert a hotter, drier future climate by getting around Saskatoon by bicycle year-round. But his report suggests the challenges are here and now.

“The whole story is irrigation,” says Bruneau before I am quite seated in his office. His studies show there is sufficient river water to cope with regional population growth and worst-scenario climate change, but not if we keep irrigating at the present rate.

In fact, irrigation is still expanding. Even though Alberta stopped issuing new water licenses in the South Saskatchewan River Basin in 2006, room to grow comes from “efficiencies” — converting leaky, evaporation-prone canals to low-loss pipeworks. Trading in water allocations, which further maximizes Alberta consumption, is on the rise. The net result of such “savings” is less water in the river for downstream users.

“They are already overallocated on the Oldman and Bow rivers and borrowing from the Red Deer to pay the ‘bill’ to Saskatchewan,” says Bruneau, who can foresee a day when Alberta will want to buy some of Saskatchewan’s share. For years a poor cousin to its western neighbor, Saskatchewan has seen its economic fortunes rise meteorically, and some farmers have called on government to directly match Alberta’s irrigation investment.

Bruneau doubts new irrigation projects would make economic sense now, if they ever did, but he dismisses the idea on more fundamental grounds. “We are taking a third of the river for irrigation already,” he says. “There’s no way we can double that. The water would become warm, covered with algae. The fish would die.”

So Saskatoon gets to pay the bill because Alberta farmer’s want to grow crops that are more profitable then would be allowed by normal farm conditions.   I remember seeing the dry river beds of California and the Colorado River and thinking, I am so lucky to have the South Saskatchewan River.  Let’s hope enough people agree and we come up with ways to guarantee that it is always going to be there.

The South Saskatchewan River