Mismanaged Water in the West

The California Drought is part of the greater Water Crisis in the Western United States (WUS), affecting not only California but also Arizona, Nevada, and other states. The causes of the crisis are both anthropogenic and natural, however, since water resources management should be done in a way that takes into account hydrological cycles and overall water fluxes, it could be said that this is an entirely anthropogenic disaster. A brief history of the WUS shows clearly the need for Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) in changing ‘water rights’ in the US.

A recent project by ProPublica, “Killing the Colorado”, outlines different aspects of the crisis, ranging poor regulatory understanding of hydrology with a relentless agricultural and population growth to generally unsustainable management (Lustgarten, 2015a). A major source of water is the Colorado River Basin, which has a fluctuating amount of water capacity, with approximately 18 MAF of flow being measured during the 1922 Colorado River Compact, but flows ranging from 3.8 MAF in 2002 to 22.2 MAF in 1984. with one of the first major interstate management efforts being the 1922 Colorado River Compact. The 1922 Compact apportioned 15 MAF throughout the Upper and Lower Colorado River Basin, and 1.5 MAF were allocated to Mexico, so there’s 16.5 MAF allocated, but natural average flows could be about 13 MAF (Gelt, 1997).

The exact specifics of how much the water is changing aren’t very important, and will probably change with more accurate modelling and in-situ and satellite data availability, but the results still stand: The amount of water is in flux, and continuing growth will result in massive shortages during years of lower flows. Of course, the Colorado River isn’t the only source of water in California. Large amounts of groundwater are also being depleted, in fact to the point that parts of California are subsiding at an average of a foot per year, with parts of San Joaquin Valley going at 2 inches a month (2 feet per year). The USGS estimated about 12.3 Billion GPD of groundwater removal in California (population 37 million), roughly 12 times the amount of water NYC daily consumption (population 8 million), or nearly 20% of all groundwater pumped in the United States (Bell, 2016).

Outside of the unsustainable amount of water being used, the people managing it aren’t acknowledging the science. Scientists have identified that surface and ground waters are connected, and as the ProPublica piece “Less Than Zero” shows, California isn’t acknowledging that (Lustgarten, 2015b). In fact, a recent piece of California legislation mandated that regulators were not allowing to mention the connection between groundwater flows and surface water until 2025. This is meant to give them more time to prepare better regulatory measures, but it’s a common symptom of management without science.

A remedy to this has been proposed, but it does not appear to have been used in this management policies of the West. Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM), espoused by UNESCO and hydrologists, is a process which promotes the coordinated development of and management of water, land, and related resources, in order to maximize the resultant economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without comprising the sustainability of vital ecosystems. (Loucks et. al 2005) The IWRM is a system that could be used to fix the WUS, but only through the push by scientists to have their science be a part of policy.

By considering the links between surface and groundwaters, by using drought (availability) models that are able to reasonably discern seasonal and yearly fluctuations in availability, and by making sure that these predictions form the backbone of allowances, a system will be developed that allows growth to occur without collapsing unto itself. Edward Abbey said that, “growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell,” an ideology that should be considered when developing massive urban and agricultural developments in an arid climate.

I have not gone into the different water users and how efficiency may be improved, but the biggest portion of water savings can come from better agricultural practices. The hydrological climate in the WUS isn’t great for growing crops, and this needs to be considered – more efficient irrigation has to be used, and the federal government needs to consider removing subsidies for crops that really shouldn’t be grown in the WUS.

One major lesson of the California Drought and the Water Crisis is the same that the former Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, pushed for in his tenure: Let science guide the way we develop our resources, but have a staunch conservatism in development. Do not let development go unchecked, and don’t let managers who have no knowledge of water systems make the final decision on how water is managed.


Bell, T. E. (2016). “Peak Water? Choices Are Tough in California’s Epic Drought.” The Bent, Winter (2016), 10–18.

“Climatic Fluctuations, Drought, and Flow of the Colorado River.” (2004). USGS, US Geological Survey, <http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2004/3062/&gt; (Mar. 12, 2016).

Gelt, J. (1997). “Sharing Colorado River Water: History, Public Policy and the Colorado River Compact.” Arroyo, 10(1).

Loucks, D. P., Beek, E. van., Stedinger, J. R., Dijkman, J. P. M., and Villars, M. T. (2005). Water resources systems planning and management: an introduction to methods, models and applications. UNESCO, Paris.

Lustgarten, A. (2015a). “Killing the Colorado.” ProPublica, ProPublica, <https://www.propublica.org/series/killing-the-colorado&gt; (Mar. 12, 2016).

Lustgarten, A. (2015b). “Less Than Zero.” ProPublica, ProPublica, <https://projects.propublica.org/killing-the-colorado/story/groundwater-drought-california-arizona-miscounting-water&gt; (Mar. 12, 2016).


Flint as a lesson

Last week, the Flint, Michigan Fire Chief announced that the recent water crisis had come to his domain. A new truck has corroded valves and pumps, with an estimated $65,000 in needed repairs (Sabella, 2016). This is only one of many headlines coming out of the totally mismanaged situation in Flint. A federal state of emergency has been declared in an American city for lack of clean, safe drinking water, something that a Michigan Department of Health and Human Services employee said “sounds like a third world country” (Michigan, 2016).  These are the sort of newspaper stories that our descendants will see as marking a time of massive crisis in the US. A major part of this story is that it is essentially the fault of managers, and not due to a climatic or unforeseeable consequence.


The crisis in Flint began during the Michigan financial crisis, with control of the municipal water supply being put into the hands of the state emergency manager in 2011. Following decisions by the state emergency government, water from the Flint River entered the municipal water supply, and the Detroit Water and Sewage Department no longer provides water. There were immediate complaints, about the taste, odor, and color of the water. Analysis by Marc Edwards, Professor of Civil Engineering at Virginia Tech, revealed highly corrosive water (Michigan, 2016). Edwards’s team has been in Flint since at least August 2015, while Genesee County declared a state of emergency in January 2016. Some of the team’s data is publicly available (Edwards, 2016). The damage to the system has also been found to be largely permanent, with so many pipes corroding that full replacement of lead pipes will be needed. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality never installed corrosion control measures, and actually lied to the USEPA about installation of measures (Michigan, 2016).


The state emergency manager claimed that the move to the new water system was done as a cost saving measure, but over $100 million of aid from Federal and State governments was announced in just two days in January, 2016 to remedy the totally artificial disaster. A 2012 request by then-emergency manager in Flint, Mike Brow, for blending of Flint river water with DWSD states that blending alone would save Flint $2-3 million annually, which is only 50x less than the emergency cost that higher levels of government have given to repair the system (Michigan, 2016).


There was a comment in a 2013 email, by Genesee County Drain Commissioner Jeff Wright, that “nobody … should have these decisions made by people who live outside their community” (Michigan, 2016). In the context, he was advocating for the switch to a new regional water system. He is reflecting an often neglected attitude that the best community decisions come from the community itself. Given the proper information, community leaders can make the right choices. However, given the wrong or incomplete information, they can make disastrous mistakes. Of course, you can have the situation in Flint where even with the information there was nothing done to fix the issue.


Providing the right data and analysis is the responsibility of the engineers and scientists. Local and regional professionals should understand the environmental and public health impacts of decisions made, especially regarding access to clean and safe drinking water. This can range from making sure that the water is sustainably and renewably sourced to making sure it isn’t corrosive enough to destroy your distribution system. This case should serve as a guideline for analysts in all aspects of water resource decision making. This guideline should enumerate the ethical and moral obligations of a water resources engineer, in light of the transition to hydromorphology as advocated by leading water scientists (Lall, 2014). Engineers need to take into account water quality, availability, and renewability when designing their systems. Let the lessons from Flint lead the way to institutional reform in the water resources field.




“Disaster Day by Day: A detailed Flint crisis timeline.” (2016). Bridge Michigan, The Center for Michigan, <http://bridgemi.com/2016/02/flint-water-disaster-timeline/&gt; (Feb. 16, 2016).


Edwards, M. (n.d.). “Flint Water Study.” Flint Water Study, <http://flintwaterstudy.org/&gt; (Feb. 16, 2016).


Lall, U. (2014). “Debates-The future of hydrological sciences: A (common) path forward? One water. One world. Many climes. Many souls.” Water Resources Research Water Resour. Res., 50(6), 5335–5341.


Ross, J. (2016). “In Flint, bad tap water runs politically deep.” Washington Post, The Washington Post, <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/01/14/in-flint-bad-tap-water-runs-politically-deep/&gt; (Feb. 16, 2016).


Sabella, A. (2016). “Flint Fire Chief: Water damaging fire engine water pumps.” WJRT RSS, <http://www.abc12.com/home/headlines/flint-fire-chief-water-corroding-fire-engine-pumps-368271731.html&gt; (Feb. 16, 2016).