Drought in the American West
Western states had very little reliable information about how much water was being used for things like landscaping and commercial interests or simply lost to leaky pipes. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty)

The West’s Water Shortage Is Fueled by Human Error

The inability of western states to track water usage is exacerbating the region's drought crisis

Drought in the American West

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Back in 2013, Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, an environmental advocacy group, asked Utah’s Division of Water Resources (DWR) for the data used to create a landmark study of the state’s water usage. Seven years earlier, the state legislature had commissioned the massive, expensive Lake Powell Pipeline to suck water out of the Colorado River, based on the needs predicted by that study, and Frankel was suspicious about the underlying numbers. But, he says, the DWR couldn’t fulfill the request. Because while the agency had decades of water-usage data in its archives, it hadn’t saved the methodology it used to assemble the study. (Officials at the DWR say they have no record of this exchange, but they did acknowledge that there wasn’t enough documentation to replicate the predictions.) That, Frankel said, was shocking—the state was spending billions of dollars on one of the biggest water developments in the West yet couldn’t produce justification for the investment.

Two years later, in 2015, at the prodding of the Utah Rivers Council and other environmental groups, Utah audited its DWR. In a scathing report, auditors described the division’s data as “mired with errors.” Water-usage data provided by local agencies was full of gaps and mistakes, and the process used to fill those gaps was inconsistent. As a consequence, the state had very little reliable information about how much water was being used for things like landscaping and commercial interests or simply lost to leaky pipes. In one particularly egregious instance, the small city of Saratoga Springs listed the wrong number of water sources and unbelievably high usage. When the auditors sniffed around online, it became clear that the data was from the city of Saratoga Springs, New York.

Given the West’s history of drought, it stands to reason that states in the region would know exactly how much water is available and where it’s being used, but that isn’t the case. Despite widely reported warnings of an impending water crisis in the American West, conservationists and water-law experts say, shortages may be fueled as much by human error as a lack of precipitation.

Water shortages are a two-part equation: undersupply and overuse. A study from the World Resource Institute early this summer pointed out that places in the American West are on par with Israel and Qatar for water stress—the gap between the amount a region has available versus the amount it consumes—and as snowpack declines with climate change, the shortage will only get worse. Despite a wet winter in 2018–19, Lake Powell is almost half empty, and the states that depend on that reservoir will be subject to dramatic cuts in water usage if levels fall much lower.

But right now, five of the seven water-stressed western states along the Colorado River—Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Wyoming—don’t yet track how they use their limited water in any kind of systematic, accessible way, teeing up potential shortages as the region dries. (Colorado’s Divison of Water Resources, which publishes both water rights and availability data online, is ahead of the pack.)  

A Nature Conservancy report from last year found that 86 percent of California’s streams are undermonitored. Kathleen Miller, a Wheeler Water Institute research fellow at UC Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment, says that means water managers must make decisions in a drought based on snowpack estimates from high in the mountains rather than from water that’s actually in the stream. It’s akin to “driving with gauze pulled over our eyes,” she wrote in an editorial this spring.

Given the West’s history of drought, it stands to reason that states in the region would know exactly how much water is available and where it’s being used, but that isn’t the case.

It matters whether or not a state’s water data is accessible, says Michael Kiparsky, director of the Wheeler Water Institute, because it can be used by states to help adapt to a drier future. “We don’t actually care generally about the amount of water we have,” he says. “What we care about, ultimately, is what we do with that water.”

It might seem like an obvious point, but it has big implications for water development and conservation. “You can’t develop creative solutions without understanding all the moving parts—rural, urban, and agricultural,” Kiparsky says. 

In Utah there are perverse incentives around water use and conservation. The second-driest state in the country has some of the cheapest water rates, and because of this, the second-highest water consumption per person. Frankel says that has created an unnecessary shortage—if the state charged more for water, it wouldn’t be so close to running out. “Our cities use most of their water for grass. If my grass dies, has it impacted me? This claim we’re running out of water—take it with a grain of salt,” he says.

But as long as the public thinks the wells are going dry, he continues, they’ll pay for massive water-development projects. Utah has authorized two such efforts, the Lake Powell Pipeline and the Bear River Project, that will divert millions of gallons to supply growing towns. (Saint George, the primary beneficiary of the Lake Powell Pipeline, glugs nearly twice as much water per person as Tucson, Arizona—much of which is apparently used to keep the desert city’s lawns lush.) Together the projects will cost more than $4 billion. Even the state’s auditors seemed to question the need for the projects, writing in their 2015 report that “state policy makers need assurances that when they support large-scale water projects, the need for additional supply is real.”

It’s a pricey way to address a problem that could be better managed with more careful oversight.

Kiparsky agrees that a lack of comprehensive usage and availability data has led to a false sense of a crisis. “The narrative of water scarcity is a powerful and motivating one,” he says. “It’s the kind of universal storyline that can be used to shake loose public actions and dollars.” But for the most part, he says, states haven’t collected data because it takes an enormous investment of resources. Stacy Timmons, a hydrologist with the New Mexico Department of Geology, says that one of her colleagues recently spent three days retrieving and formatting a data set from an archive. Getting dozens of state, municipal, and private sources of data to harmonize is a massive undertaking that would cost a significant amount of money.

But the picture is beginning to change. In 2016, during the throes of a multiyear drought, California enacted the Open and Transparent Water Data Act, which directs the state’s Department of Water Resources to create an open-access platform for water availability and usage data. New Mexico followed suit this spring, passing a Water Data Act that requires the state to publish data on everything from streamflow to water quality to municipal water use. 

But it has yet to be seen whether the statewide laws will generate the kinds of regional water-saving innovations from data that are needed to keep the West livable.

Making the data accessible will allow New Mexico to build tools to adapt to a drying world, says Melanie Stansbury, a state senator from Albuquerque who helped sponsor the bill. “A lot of the modeling that’s needed to understand how climate change is going to affect specific places hasn’t even been done yet,” she says. “We won’t know how that will affect communities until that data is put together.”

Timmons, who is helping implement the new law, says that previous attempts to democratize water-usage data have already led to benefits. Since 2013, Albuquerque has installed about 100,000 smart water meters in homes and businesses that make usage data instantly available online. The program, which will eventually encompass the entire city, has led to substantial water savings, largely because the city can immediately catch leaks in the system. “We tend to not do anything until water isn’t coming out of the tap,” she says. “But if people can say, ‘Looks like my water meter has been spinning for three days,’ they think about conservation.” Before, she says, they were pumping the aquifer “like crazy.” Now the levels are starting to come back up.

“We use big data for everything from getting around to shopping to weather data,” says Stansbury. “But one of the things we don’t have sophisticated tools on is water.” She thinks this is a first step in investing in technology that would help the state better manage its available water—having tools that would minimize water use on crops and recycle water from oil and gas drilling in the southeastern part of the state.

Utah has made enormous strides as well, officials with the state’s DWR say. Water-usage estimates are based on data collected since the 2015 audit, and the state has released both a public-access data platform and smart metering tools. Just allowing people to see their usage in comparison to their neighbors has reduced consumption, officials say. And because of those better estimates and water savings, they’ve pushed back the timelines on the largest infrastructure projects. Initially, the DWR thought that the Lake Powell Pipeline would need to be online by 2020. Now they say 2028.

It has yet to be seen whether the statewide laws will generate the kinds of regional water-saving innovations from data that are needed to keep the West livable. Technically, says Kiparsky, California could fulfill its obligation by slapping a giant Excel spreadsheet on its website. The Wheeler Water Institute is pushing the state to develop something more user-friendly so the water data doesn’t just sit unused on a website, he says.

However, people have to actually take time to sort through the data and figure out where a state could be saving water. “That argues to me that it’s not just about data,” says Kiparsky. States will also have to spend money to turn such data into water-saving opportunities.

Frankel is more pessimistic about the state of Utah. Although tracking has improved since the 2015 audit, he’s not convinced that new data will lead the state to manage its water more carefully. “We’ve demonstrated backwards and forwards that we’re not running out, and it doesn’t matter,” he says. “There are billions in special-interest dollars at stake, and they don’t care what the data says.”

Corrections: (03/28/2023) The original version of this story misstated how much more water per capita residents of Saint George, Utah use than residents of Tucson, Arizona. The story has been updated to reflect that Saint George uses nearly twice as much water per person as Tucson. The story has also been updated to reflect that Utah’s Division of Water Resources says the Lake Powell Pipeline needs to be online by 2028, not 2050. Outside regrets the errors. Lead Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty

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