Where Does the Water Go?


Below you can watch three stories George Knapp produced in 2015 about the increasing water issues America's southwest is still facing today

MYSTERY WIRE — A moment of reckoning has arrived for western states. For the first time in history, the federal government has ordered cuts in water allocations from the Colorado River, which is a primary water source for tens of millions of people.

Climate change and persistent drought led to the cutbacks, but bigger changes are likely needed, and they could eventually affect all of us.


Decades of intense population growth and sprawl in the American southwest have finally collided with grim environmental reality – there isn’t enough water to go around.

The Colorado River serves seven states and around 40 million people in the west. Earlier this week, the Bureau of Reclamation announced a Tier 1 water shortage at Lake Mead Monday, a first on the Colorado River system.

The drought that has gripped the west for years is not only persistent, but likely permanent.

Arizona and Nevada just had their allocations from the Colorado River slashed. Arizona lost about one-fifth of  its allocation from the river and most of that will have to come from its agricultural sector. 

The biggest water user, California, kept its water allocation from the river intact, but how long can that continue?

According to some critics, one particular water consumer, agriculture in the Imperial Valley, has become the poster child for water waste. Even in 2015 more than 80% of all water used in the west went to agriculture.

Southern California’s the Imperial Valley is known as one of America’s breadbaskets,  the source of at least at least 75 different crops including 80% of the nation’s winter vegetables, along with citrus orchards.

The desert southwest is one of the hottest, driest regions of the country, which means farmers need a lot of water to grow anything. Imperial Valley farmers have chosen to grow two of the most water-intensive crops in the world, namely alfalfa and cotton.  Since most of the alfalfa is subsequently shipped overseas to be used as animal feed in China, critics say this practice is the equivalent of exporting American water to the Chinese.

“I think in the world we live in today, it’s pretty hard to justify growing cotton and alfalfa in the southwest United States,” Dr. Peter Gleick, an environmental scientist with the Pacific Institute said in a 2015 interview.

To date, Imperial Valley has resisted calls for widespread changes to its water consumption. 

The Colorado River Basin drains seven Western states. The Lower Basin is more heavily developed than the Upper Basin and consumes more water. USGS


The same is true for another huge water customer – gold mining. Massive pit mines in the west, so large they can be seen from outer space,  have caused water tables in the Great Basin to drop by hundreds of feet.

Huge pit mines are carved into the landscape below existing water tables, meaning the mining operators must pump tens of thousands of gallons of water per minute out of the pits.  The largest mining companies have spent millions of dollars on systems to capture and then return about 60% of that groundwater. The rest is wasted.

Years from now,  once the mining has ended ,  groundwater will refill the pits, creating huge toxic lakes with being drawn from water sources miles away, often from sources that would normally feed into the Colorado River.

According to hydrologist Dr. Tom Myers, the long-term impact of pit lakes on the hydrology of river systems is massive. He estimated the lakes will eventually siphon off an amount of water equal to three times what Nevada is allowed to take out of the Colorado River in a year. 

Mine manager Dr. George Fennemore said his industry does not hide from the environmental challenges. There will be consequences he said, but the industry isn’t leaving anytime soon.

“If cash flow and taxable income and jobs and those sorts of things are important to an area, then this is a pretty good use for this land and this water,” Fennemore said in a 2015 interview.

Expansion plans for Fennemore’s company stretch past 2030. The industry currently spends millions to reclaim and recycle water including chemicals to treat pit lakes, and it pays into a trust fund for long term issues.

Femmemore admits the pit lakes are a tradeoff that Nevada has consciously accepted.

RELATED (opens in new tab or window): Colorado River water shortages highlight the urgency of reducing water waste

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