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).


The Irony of the Irony of Waste

After one of the largest Climate Change rallies in the world took place in New York on Sunday, a lot of the common trends of opponents to enviromental reform came out. The People’s Climate March (PCM) was accused of being trash generating monsters and hypocrites. The hypocrisy thing has been around for the past 40 years ago and would require much more than the length of what I plan to say to address, so I will give someone else the pleasure of addressing it. It is necessary to address the critique’s of the PCM charging it with being a wasteful, hypocritical event.

To begin with, there were 400,000 people present. Most of these people were Americans, and many were New Yorkers. The amount of waste that was generated is being criticized for being left in the streets and not in “trash” cans. What if there are no trash cans because the NYPD is paranoid that they’ll have to shut down the city looking for backpack bombers? Would the New York Post’s response be, “Environmentalists Bring Terrorists and Death to New York.”

The amount of waste that was generated in sad in itself. Over 150,000 signs were left in the street. That is unacceptable of people to do, and they should try to reuse them or find some way to recycle them. However, many of these signs were handed out by the organizers of the event, and not brought by people. Several of the people I spoke with said they were given signs off the side of the street when they arrived. The organizers of the event should be contributing to trash clean up if they are going to be giving out many large signs. The masses of groups selling goods and handing out free 8 oz (236 mL) water bottles are generating much more trash, and of a worse quality.

Some have pointed out these signs are made of cardboard, and that the many people present are promoting the logging industry. So, having seen a few protests in the last year and photographs of previous years, especially in the 20th century, do people ever bring signs not made out of cardboard? A friend of mine told me I should’ve brought a small piece of metal that has a lab safety warning printed on it. That would’ve been awesome, except it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to be able to do that. Then again we’re not talking about people with reasonable expectations. Should everyone have bought solid plastics to write on the back of? Would they have pasted paper on the back so you could write legibly? The last I checked, trees come back in a human’s life time. Oil derivatives come back in a species’s life time. Many of the signs were also re-purposed from old cardboard. That is often what people do, since it’s free.

The real problem is the Starbucks coffee. Now why it was necessary to buy Starbucks coffee is questionable, but also reasonable in the situation many were in. It is physically exhausting to shout and cheer for several hours. My abdomen is still sore, and I’ve lost my voice. Water ran out before the march began, and we had to wait until about half way in to get more. I saw some people carrying their empty Starbucks cups looking for water refill stations. This was at about 11am. At around 2pm, a friend of mine, pretty exhausted, said to me, “Look…I can go to Starbucks for just a minute…it’s worth it.” A woman next to us looked at him and said, “Oh you’re not going there. You’re going to hold out.” He stayed with us. He didn’t get some burnt and overpriced coffee. Maybe some of the older people in the crowd couldn’t hold out and had to buy a coffee. Are they now hypocrites who aren’t allowed to comment on the status of the overall trend of the climate to be changing?

Lastly, maybe these same people should comment on the massive waste and destruction caused by other people. Here’s some mountains that don’t exist anymore.

Credits to Google Earth for the image.

Thanks, and keep on fighting.

“I started thin…

“I started thinking about that, and I used to think that the Talib would come, and he would just kill me. But then I said, ‘If he comes, what would you do Malala?’ then I would reply to myself, ‘Malala, just take a shoe and hit him.’ But then I said, ‘If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harshly, you must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education.’ Then I said I will tell him how important education is and that ‘I even want education for your children as well.’ And I will tell him, ‘That’s what I want to tell you, now do what you want.'” – Malala Yousafzai, The Daily Show

People are beyond human, beyond what we are biologically constrained to be. There are some people, some human beings that have overcome the rat race of this world. The ideologically pure, the idealist, the girl that believes anything is surmountable. These people believe there is some idea that is truly bigger than them, something that society and mankind needs to advance. It’s so goddamn beautiful. She has a little heart and it goes out to all the children in the world that need an education. It is the heroism of people that has led to great social change, that inspired the Civil Rights Movement, that led to socialist uprisings across the world, to fascists seizing power in Germany, to the Greeks fighting for freedom against the Turks. 

We are saved and led by our idealism, our burning desire in something greater than ourselves, our hope.  Today, the fighters of Al-Qaeda and radical groups are in Somalia, Mali, Nigeria, Syria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Unions struggle for workers in Mexico, Brazil, Spain, Greece, and across Latin America. In the United States, hard line Republicans refuse to back down from their demands to overturn the Affordable Care Act. Environmentalists sacrifice the comforts of modern consumerism for eco-sancutaries.

It’s so motivational to know people are inspired by beliefs they hold higher than thsemelves. That if you truly believe in something there will be people with you that will fight with you and go for that change. That as a human being you can make a real change to the rest of humanity, to your community,  If reading about the latest government shutdown and how they refuse to solve anything and you want to change it, you can. Inspire your local community, do better than what has been done. 

You’re better than what’s come before you, so you better prove it. It’s your duty to overcome the restraints set on you by the former generation and to rise above it. So go do something, be a Malala or a John Muir or a David Brower or a MLK Jr. or a Ghandi or a George Orwell. Go out and be the change you want.