Water in the Balance

SPLASH FIGHTS: Water issues chronically become water wars. Here are some collisions in progress—from bang-ups over how to divide spoils to clashes over big cleanups—that need to be resolved in the years ahead.

Aug 1, 2003
Outside Magazine

Arizona's Lake Powell    Photo: courtesy, Arizona Tourism

All About H2O

The wet stuff is always there for us—it grows our food, puts splash and spirit in our adventure, and (by the way) keeps us alive. CLICK HERE for a special report on the health of America's most vital resource.

CLICK HERE for a complete list of Outside's articles on American water, from William T. Vollmann's filthy Salton Sea journey to the new hero of the Mississippi.

Colorado River
File Under: Toxic threats The Case: Since 1997, 1.7 million tons of perchlorate—an ingredient in rocket fuel—has leached from defense-industry sites and turned up in groundwater and crops in Southern California irrigated by the Colorado River. A 1999 EPA report suggests that four to 18 parts per billion of perchlorate should be considered dangerous, and numerous studies have linked the substance to tumors and thyroid pathologies in adults. Meanwhile, some sections of the Colorado have perchlorate levels up to nine parts per billion. The Crystal Ball: In April, the Bush administration reportedly told EPA officials not to talk about perchlorate until the National Academy of Sciences completes its review of the chemical. California senator Barbara Boxer, who has introduced two bills on perchlorate contamination and a community's right to know about it, plans to keep pushing on the issue. "I will continue to fight attempts by the Department of Defense to be exempted from state and federal hazardous-waste cleanup laws," she says, "so that taxpayers and local water districts don't have to bear the burden of cleaning up someone else's mess." Contact: Environmental Protection Agency, 202-272-0167, www.epa.gov

Mattaponi River, Virginia
File Under: Threatened wetlands The Case: Eastern Virginia's Mattaponi River, a tributary to the York River and one of the most pristine coastal systems in the state, is the proposed site of a 1,500-acre drinking-water reservoir that would serve approximately 600,000 residents in four counties and four cities. Two serious problems: First, constructing the reservoir, which involves building a 70-foot-tall, 100-foot-wide earthen dam, would destroy 400 acres of wetlands—potentially the largest single wetland loss in Virginia since 1972. Second, the local Mattaponi and Pamunkey tribes fear the reservoir would adversely affect shad populations, which they rely on for food. The Crystal Ball: Newport News mayor Joe Frank hasn't presented an alternative to the reservoir, but local activists have come up with a few of their own. They argue that water needs could be met by dredging existing reservoirs, using water from nearby cities, or desalinating ocean water. Contact: Virginia Marine Resources Commission, 757-247-2200, www.mrc.state.va.us THE WATER: Yuba River, California
File Under: Endangered habitat The Case: The California State Water Resources Control Board released a decision in 2001 that could require the Yuba County Water Agency to let out up to 1,000 more cubic feet of water per second than what was required in a 1965 agreement—a move lauded by conservation groups and booed by the Yuba County Water Agency. The YCWA wants the water for its customers—local townships and irrigation farmers. Conservation groups want to preserve one of the best remaining chinook salmon and steelhead runs in the West. "This is a classic water dispute, and stuck in the middle are the poor fish," says Chuck Bonham, an attorney with Trout Unlimited. The Crystal Ball: Currently, the decision is tied up in litigation, and it may be months before the fish actually get any water. Contact: Trout Unlimited, 800-834-2419, www.tu.org

Maalaea Bay, Maui, Hawaii
File Under: Reef destruction The Case: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has a plan to extend an existing breakwater in this harbor by an additional 466 feet, turning the wind-whipped Maalaea Bay into a safer and larger area for boaters. But in order to build the $16 million concrete-and-rock buffer, workers will have to blast through 4.8 acres of living coral reef—home to 120 marine species, including endangered hawksbill turtles—possibly altering the Maalaea Freight Train, the world's fastest ridable wave. The Crystal Ball: Surfrider Foundation is raising funds to hire independent consultants to review the Corps's plan, and will go to court if necessary. Contact: Surfrider Foundation, 949-492-8170, www.surfrider.org; Sierra Club Maui Chapter, 808-579-9802, www.hi.sierraclub.org/maui

Gunnison River, Colorado
File Under: Whitewater war The Case: Thanks to rapid population growth along Colorado's Front Range (the area is expected to double in population in the next 40 years), developers want to tap the Gunnison River for their future water needs. But more water withdrawn from the Gunnison could choke Black Canyon—a popular stretch of whitewater in the Rockies. Local paddlers are riled. The Crystal Ball: Front Range growth isn't slowing down, but the answer is not to siphon off more surface water. "If Front Range residents would use water more efficiently, they wouldn't need to take it from the Gunnison River," argues Drew Peternell, a Trout Unlimited attorney. Contact: Trout Unlimited, 800-834-2419, www.tu.org

Deschutes River, Oregon
File Under: User conflict The Case: Of the 28 U.S. rivers that have management plans requiring permits for use, the Deschutes is the only one that has not implemented a permit system. Commercial guides love the status quo, but private boaters are suing state parks to introduce a first-come, first-served plan that would issue permits and manage the traffic on this wild waterway. Private boaters are willing to take a chance on regulated (and possibly reduced) access if it means they won't play second fiddle to commercial outfitters. The Crystal Ball: For the past six years, the BLM and local government agencies have failed to approve a permit plan, and it's unlikely they will anytime soon. Contact: National Organization for Rivers, 719-579-8759, www.nationalrivers.org

Rio Grande, U.S.-Mexico Border
File Under: International incidents The Case: Since late 2000, the U.S. government has locked horns with the Mexican government over water use along the 1,885-mile Rio Grande, more than 800 miles of which forms the U.S.-Mexico border. Mexico currently owes the U.S. 326 billion gallons of Rio Grande water, according to allotments designated in a 1944 water-sharing treaty. The debt, exacerbated by severe drought in the region, has angered Texan farmers in need of water. The Crystal Ball: Mexico is water-strapped and will most likely default on a large part of the debt. Bottom line: Until it rains, the lion's share of owed water will have to wait. Contact: American Rivers, 202-347-7550, www.americanrivers.org

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