Responding to Ed Firmage Jr. on Water “Banking”

In last Sunday’s SLTrib (8 May 2011), Ed Firmage Jr. had an op-ed piece titled:  “Depending on water “banked” in agriculture is poor policy.”  For the first 3/4th of the article, he stated that global climate change is coming and its going to have a severe impact on Utah.  “The bottom line is that Utah is heading into a water crisis, and no one at any level of government here has a plan for dealing with it.”

While I agree that all levels of government should be planning for climate change, there is one point that needs to be emphasized:  modeling future climate change is a dicey business.  There are just too many interrelationships and variables.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t heed the warnings; it does means that we should be very leery of tossing numbers around.

Firmage’s whipping boy is the Bureau of Reclamation.  It should be noted that this Federal organization has constructed 20+ dams in Utah and these physical structures are cornerstone in helping Utah manage its water, whether it is during a wet year like this one (2011) or during periods of drought (like we’ve encountered in recent years).

Another potent water management tool is water banking.  On this, Firmage and I disagree.  He states:

The reason the state’s not yet in panic mode is that it believes it has an ace up its sleeve, the water that is “banked” in agriculture, where 80 percent of our water is consumed.

The state believes that if we run short, we’ll just farm less and take some of that agricultural water. . . .

Firmage goes on to make the following dire prediction:

With massive projected drops in supply, and equally massive projected increases in use, this means the end of Utah agriculture.

Utah’s agriculture is not going to end, and Firmage’s prediction is an exercise in hystrionics.  There is a form of water management called “water banking.”  It involves a formal process where, on a year-by-year basis, water goes to the highest-valued use.  It doesn’t involve a permanent transfer from one sector to another.  Actual “water banking,” has great potential for helping Utahns better manage their water.  It is currently practiced in the Delta, Utah, area with great success.  The Bureau of Reclamation is encouraging this type of banking through its WaterSMART program.

The “banking” that Firmage is talking about is a permanent conversion of agricultural water to municipal and industrial (M&I) water.  This largely happens when subdivision are constructed on land that was previously farmed.   During the process, the water right is frequently converted from an agricultural water right to a municipal one.  This conversion makes a lot of sense.

All of the water districts in Utah are currently taking steps to improve urban water conservation.  These efforts are having a real impact on municipal water demand, particularly outdoor water usage.  So the per capita demand for municipal water is declining.

There is another way of dealing with the potential impacts of global warming, and that is with geoengineering.  I have discussed this option elsewhere in my blog and will not repeat it here.  I feel that a significant research effort is needed to study whether it is feasible to manipulate climate/weather is a constructive way.

Firmage correctly states that irrigated agriculture is a major user of water in Utah.  But the irrigation water is not always used as efficiently as it should be.  So it is possible to reduce the total amount of water diverted to agriculture without harming agricultural production.  The Bureau of Reclamation has been assisting irrigators by improving their water delivery systems and the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service has been assisting with on-farm irrigation systems improvements.

I greatly appreciate Ed Firmage Jr. for bringing up the issue of the global warming its potential impacts on Utah.  This is a dialogue that needs to continue.

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7 Responses to Responding to Ed Firmage Jr. on Water “Banking”

  1. Roger,

    Let me respond to your response issue by issue.

    First, let’s talk about conservation. Utah has made some progress on this front, and hopes to make more, and, for a time, that progress will help meet our increasing demand. But if we step back from the minutiae and look at the big picture, here’s what we see. I’ll focus on the Jordan River Basin as an example, since it is the one I’ve looked at most closely.

    As I mention in the op-ed, according to the state’s own numbers, the JRB is presently at 86% of “dry-year” capacity, the amount of water that the system can reliably deliver in a significantly dry year. This means that we have very little wiggle room when it comes to a drought of any length or significant severity. A ten-year drought such as we experienced during the Dust Bowl years, would strain Salt Lake’s water system to the breaking point, and it would force huge changes in the way people live. One casualty would almost certainly be our landscaping, most of which is not planted with an eye to water usage.

    Drought, as human phenomenon, is not just a matter of hydrology. The greater the demand on a water system, the greater the exposure to the effects of drought. Thus, even a modest hydrological drought can have huge human impacts if the demand significantly outpaces the supply. We in the Salt Lake valley represent a huge demand that, as I said, hovers near the edge of what is sustainable in a short drought. The longer the drought, the greater the stress on the system. Many people are not aware, for example, that during the 1999-2004 drought, which was severe, Lake Powell came scarily close to reaching “dead pool,” the point at which no water can leave the reservoir. It’s thought that another two years of such drought would have brought Lake Powell to this point. At seven years, such a drought would still have been short of what we experienced during the Dust Bowl.

    Now, such drought has occurred many times in the history of region. It is part of the natural climate of where we live. Thankfully, even the severest droughts eventually have an end, and there is a chance for an ecosystem and its inhabitants to recover. But even the five-year drought from 1999-2004 has left Lake Powell permanently depleted. Many hydrologists predict that even without climate change Lake Powell will probably never be full again. If we were to experience another severe drought like that of 1999-2004, it is entirely possible that Lake Powell would reach an even lower permanent low that could endanger the future of the Colorado.

    Independent hydrologists (those not connected with the Bureau of Reclamation) have stated that there is now insufficient water to keep both Lake Powell and Lake Mead alive. The likely truth of this claim could well be tested within the next decade. One noted climate scientist has said that there are 50-50 odds that BOTH Lake Powell and Lake Mead will cease to be water storage reservoirs by the early 2020s. The story of Lake Powell and Lake Mead is emblematic of the likely future of water resources in our region.

    Now, all of this would be true without climate change. What climate change will do is exacerbate everything I’ve just talked about. As I mention in the op-ed, the Bureau’s prediction that the Colorado River Basin will lose 8.5% of its water by mid-century is among the most conservative estimates I have seen. Others, from credible climate researches, suggests the number could be in excess of 25%, and that’s just by 2050. Climate change is presently taking place at worse-than-worst-case rates, and it appears likely that we will see similarly large reductions in water supply into the indefinite future. By 2100, we might well see our water resources cut in half.

    This problem is not something that we can conserve our way out of. This is a permanent and devastating change to the very fabric of the West, and it will stress every system to breaking point and beyond.

    The solution to climate change will almost certainly NOT be through geoengineering, though futurist-types like to imagine the possibility. At the rate we’re going, the solution to climate change will be a self-regulating phenomenon of societal collapse, because the proactive response that could PREVENT catastrophic climate change is simply not to be seen anywhere in America today, nor is the response in the developing world (China in particular) encouraging.

    In the past, we have engineered ourselves out of sticky wickets like this. But, in this respect too, climate change is unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before, because it will be challenges on many levels, many of them so great entire human systems collapse. Hurricane Katrina was the greatest natural disaster America has experienced, and it cost our economy an estimated $150 billion. That’s just one storm. If, as expected, climate change makes such storms more frequent or more powerful, we will yet see worse. And storms are just one manifestation of climate change. Drought, crop failure, famine, disease, desertification, sea-level rise, political conflict and war will all be exacerbated by climate change, and all of these effects will come not in some manageable sequence in which we have time to recover, but all at once, pressing even the richest nations such as the U.S. to breaking point. Poor nations, that have no conceivable chance of handling a downward spiraling nexus of disaster will be devastated. One has only to look at Pakistan and Afghanistan to see the implications of such third-world collapse on the first world.

    So, while we in the West might be able to deal with a crisis on the Colorado or in the Colorado Plateau if it were the only crisis on our agenda, we will not be so lucky in the future that present climate change trajectories are making for us. We will not be able to engineer our way out of climate change effects if for no other reason than that we will not have the means. Already, in the wake of the recent recession, America is feeling the financial pinch, and this recession is firefly compared to the firestorm of climate change effects that lie ahead.

    So, while Roger thinks I’m engaging in histrionics, I think I’m actually understating the nature of the crisis. What we face in climate change is the greatest challenge humanity has ever experienced. But we are not responding to us as the greatest-ever challenge. LIve, including our our thinking about water, continues as if nothing has changed, when in fact everything has changed.

    • rogerdhansen says:

      Thanks for the response. Sorry I’ve been so slow to respond. I’ve been working in southern Utah.

      As for the JRB, I can’t help but think that there are all kinds of options for present and future water supplies: (1) water conservation; (2) groundwater recharge; (3) unused Jordan River water (with higher levels of treatment); (4) a currently being constructed transbasin diversion (hooking up SL County to Strawberry Reservoir); (5) Bear River imports; (6) water banking; and (7) agricultural conversions. The Utah Division of Water Resources is doing a good job of working out future water supplies for the Wasatch Front. They probably can’t talk about it much because of the situation in the State Legislature. But I’m reasonably sure they have an across-the-board reduction in supplies as part of their future scenarios.

      Lake Powell was designed for long-term carry-over storage. This means that it is not designed to fill every year. It is designed to help with prolonged drought periods, for which it has done well. Over the last few years, it has begun to fill again. And I’m sure its projected to rise substantially again this year. Whether it will ever fill again, no one knows, but I suspect it will.

      With the current infrastructure in place on the Colorado, the river can be operated under a variety of future scenarios (including reduced supply). Additionally, I think that Utah, and perhaps other Upper Basin states, have unused water, that can help provide a buffer.

      On the issue of global warming, I don’t see the pols making the necessary progress in reducing CO2 emissions. Even if they do, it is projected that global warming will still be a problem. Thus I think we need to examine all emergency options for dealing with a warming earth including geoengineering. We are now “unintentionally” geoengineering a warming earth, why not check out the feasibility of intentionally geoengineering a cooling earth. I know this conjures up images of mad scientists, but I think we at least need to do the research.

      On your concern for global warmings impact on developing nations, I share your concern. I live parttime in Uganda. They have too many people and not enough resources. Right now they have water (but they have partially destroyed Lake Victoria), but who knows about the future? Developing countries will probably be impacted the most by global warming, and are the least prepared to do something about it.

      • A full response to the issues you raise here would be too long, but let me summarize what you can find in greater detail in a presentation of mine on Utah water issues that is available in the Blog section my website,

        1) Water conservation. Absolutely. The state is counting on an across-the-board reduction of 25% in order to meet its objectives for mid-century. I think we’ll need more, and this will mean lifestyle changes.
        2) Groundwater recharge. This is certainly the most sensible way to store water, where we can store it. The Jordan River Basin plan in fact calls for the possible recharge of 25,000 acre feet. But, while groundwater recharge is better than reservoir storage is still suffers from the same basic problem, which is that over the long term reservoirs don’t add water resources to a system. There is a fixed amount of water in the system, and if you consume more than you receive into the system, you eventually run out. Groundwater recharge is not an answer to long-term shortages any more than reservoir storage is, although it is a more efficient alternative than reservoir storage to the storage problem itself.
        3) Unused Jordan River water. Once again, the state is planning on something like 25,000 additional AF to meet the JRB’s needs through mid-century. Once again, there is a problem. This is secondary (low-quality) water. Even treated, it will not meet the needs of our culinary system. It could in principle be used to offset high-quality water that is presently wasted on lawns. But that would require a secondary water system that doesn’t exist anywhere in the SL valley. Building it will be VERY expensive, as all big water engineering projects will be. How many of these can we afford, especially when there are other big demands on the public purse?
        4) More water from Strawberry. I go back to my basic point: we have a fixed amount of total water with which to work. We can borrow from Peter to pay Paul only so long.
        5) Bear River imports. The issue here is much the same as with the Jordan River. This is low-quality water, effective use of which will be VERY expensive.
        6) Water banking. Same issues as with groundwater recharge.
        7) Agricultural conversions. This is the big one, and this is why I wrote what I did in the paper. Everyone views agricultural conversions as the saving grace. The reason I think this is ultimately a no-win scenario is outlined in my op-ed: we will need more, not less, agriculture as the impacts of climate change on our present breadbaskets intensifies.

  2. P. S.
    Am I being extreme? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. The worst-case projected drop I’ve seen for the Colorado is 30% by 2100. But here’s the catch. Almost all of the climate modeling that is being done today does NOT take into account the many feedback mechanisms that could propel climate change beyond anything anyone has yet imagined. So, among “worst-case” scenarios, 30% by end of century may turn out to be conservative. If, for example, we experience large-scale melting of Arctic permafrost, which actually is melting at an alarming rate right now, we could see a DOUBLING of projected climate change effects. If the Amazon, as projected, disappears by 2080, we could see accelerated climate change. And a host of other environmental effects that could be even scarier. The Amazon rainforest is home to an estimate 20% of all species on earth, and it produces about 20% of earth’s oxygen. It’s loss is body blow to planet earth, and that loss will not be in some distant future but in the lifetime of our children, at present rates of change.

    • rogerdhansen says:

      The dire scenario that you paint here represents an excellent reason why we need fund geoengineering research.

      James Lovelock, Gaia theorist, feels that geoengineering is our only hope for dealing with global warming.

      I think that you look at the future and see unsolved problems (I don’t know if you would see yourself as a neo-luddite?). I look at the future and see problems, but I can also see solutions. We probably represent extremes, reality is hopefully somewhere in the middle.

  3. Pingback: Transhumanism and the Optimism Bias | Tired Road Warrior

  4. rogerdhansen says:

    Yes, water from Utah Lake and the Bear River will need to be heavy treated (unless it is exchanged for “cleaner” water). And will be expensive. But urban water users can afford to pay a lot more than they are currently paying. And if the price of culinary water goes up, then this will encourage water conservation. Additionally, there is a lot more than 25K AF available from the Utah Lake/Jordan River basin.

    I have children and grandchildren that live along the Wasatch Front, and there are many things that I worry about, but water is not one of them.

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