On the Road: A Midwestern Hydrologist Eyes the Increasing Demand for the Diminishing Waters of the American West and Southwest


Photo by Bob Otwell. Traverse City resident Laura Otwell stands at the high-and-dry boat launch at the Lake Oroville State Recreation Area in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California.

Bob Otwell

By Bob Otwell, FLOW Board member

This past April, my wife Laura and I took a month-long car trip from Traverse City through several arid states—western Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California—enroute to visit family in Seattle. We mostly camped and visited tourist sites, and enjoyed the dry, warm weather, as early spring cold lingered over the Upper Midwest.

As we have on previous trips, Laura and I observed how water in the Southwest is undersupplied and overused. The experience reminded me about one of the primary reasons I joined FLOW’s Board of Directorsto help ensure that Great Lakes water stays in our watershed and is not diverted to dry, Southwestern and Western states.

The experience reminded me about one of the primary reasons I joined FLOW’s Board of Directors—to help ensure that Great Lakes water stays in our watershed and is not diverted to dry, Southwestern and Western states.

We camped at the Lake Oroville State Recreation Area in the Sierra Nevada foothills, east of the Sacramento Valley in California. The above photo shows Laura at the Lake Oroville “boat launch.” This boat launch is high and dry, as the lake was about 200 feet below normal pool. The Oroville Dam, an earthfill embankment dam on the Feather River, is the tallest in the United States at 770 feet. Serving mainly for water supply, hydroelectricity generation, and flood control, the dam has suffered structural problems over the past decade. The water held back serves the California water project, which provides water to the San Francisco Bay Area, Southern California, and the almond groves of the Central Valley. What is not visible in this photo are the results of the fire that devastated much of the far hillside in September 2020, including part of the campground where we stayed.

After Lake Oroville, we travelled to northern California and stayed at Castle Crags State Park. On a hike, we met a State Forest Service forester who was working with a crew to thin out the forest while piling the debris to be burned. Her concern was the drought was already in effect, and she was worried the weather was too dry to burn the piles.

I have observed the harmful effects of unsustainable water use during multiple trips to the West and American Southwest in the past decade. Ten years ago, Laura and I took a 10-month, 9,000-mile journey around the perimeter of the western United States on touring bicycles. As I wrote in a subsequent story published in the Northern Express, “we passed many state lines, the geography changed subtly over days as we travelled at the speed of a bike. Coastlines, mountain tops, watershed divides, and river valleys [were] the features that defined our trip.”

I have observed the harmful effects of unsustainable water use during multiple trips to the West and American Southwest in the past decade.

When we returned home to Traverse City in 2012, I immersed myself in reading about the development of western water projects. Cadillac Desert (Reisner, 1986) was particularly revealing regarding the scope of massive western water projects. The book discussed how projects were planned, funded, and built despite questionable and perhaps short-term benefits, not to mention all of the enormous cultural and environmental impacts.

The construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s really ignited the colossal federal water projects out West that created unsustainable new farming acreage and uncontrolled population growth across the arid landscape. From the 1930s through the 1970s (when the modern U.S. environmental movement slowed the relentless pace), hundreds of major dams were built. These projects were mostly federally funded, and what western politician wouldn’t love a project that would bring water and also electricity to her/his area? As the water fever grew, merits of a particular project became less important than just getting your fair share of the federal dollar. The concept of users paying for the cost of the projects also fell by the wayside.

One goal of many of the projects built in the 1930s was to provide jobs. This made sense at the time, but rings hollow now. In 2011, we camped for two nights at Fort Peck Dam on the Missouri River in northern Montana. Built by the Army Corps of Engineers, this dam created a reservoir 130 miles long and 200 feet deep. Picture an artificial lake that would stretch from Traverse City almost to Lansing. In the 1930s, 10,000 construction workers lived in the Town of Fort Peck and area shantytowns. Yet during our 2011 trip, we could not buy a loaf of bread within 20 miles of the mostly abandoned town.

Because of these water projects, a sizable U.S. population moved westward, in turn, shifting Congressional votes and political power. For example, in 1932, California and Michigan had nearly the same number of congressional seats (20 versus 17). California will now have 52 seats, and Michigan will drop to 13 seats for the next presidential election. This growth could not have happened without federally funded water projects.

The unprecedented artificial environment that has been created out West will not last. Where will they look for new sources of water?

The problem with all of this, and what it may mean to those of us in the Great Lakes region, is that the useful life of many of these projects will be coming to an end sometime soon. Dams eventually fill up with silt, and the structure deteriorates. Irrigation in arid climates dewaters aquifers and can increase the salinity of the soil. Climate change will put additional stress on the system, with rising demand for irrigation water, increased evaporation from reservoirs, and less snowpack in the mountains. The unprecedented artificial environment that has been created out West will not last. Where will they look for new sources of water?

The West’s need for water is not diminishing, and conservation is ingrained only in isolated pockets of populations on the landscape. For example, on that 2011 trip, Arizona state parks were the first ones we encountered in the West where the showers were free—all the hot water you wanted, for free (not that we complained). At the same time though, Tucson is monitoring its depleted groundwater levels, and that data is now reported in the daily news, like the weather. There is perhaps a growing realization of the need to conserve Arizona’s limited water.

The West’s need for water is not diminishing, and conservation is ingrained only in isolated pockets of populations on the landscape.

Those of us living near the Great Lakes have a treasured resource that we need to be vigilant to preserve, value, and guard for our future generations. Massive projects can be built, and maintained on life support, with a region’s unchecked demands and political will. Shipping Great Lakes water to the arid West no longer feels like an idle threat.

About the Author—Bob Otwell, who has served on FLOW’s Board of Directors since 2013, is a hydrologist, civil engineer, and founder of Otwell Mawby engineering in Traverse City, Michigan.


2 comments on “On the Road: A Midwestern Hydrologist Eyes the Increasing Demand for the Diminishing Waters of the American West and Southwest

  1. Micheal Vickery on

    Bob sees what is right there in front of us with clear eyes and an open mind. The water issues that climate change is bringing to the trustees (residents and citizens)of Great Lakes water are real, not as slowly arriving as some have hoped, and staggeringly important. Much is asked of us if we are to transfer the treasures of clean water, land, and air to those who come after us.

    Reply
  2. Bonnie on

    This is a very relevant piece of writing and needs to be shared and discussed with others. The threat of Line 5 pipeline contaminating and altering this expansive fresh water resource is so frightening to me, not to mention what will happen to Michigan’s economic foundation if the Great Lakes are viewed as a political bargaining chip.

    The general public has little awareness of how many water rights across the country have been purchased and are currently owned by private citizens. These water issues were outlined in the book, Cadillac Desert, as far back as 1986. Sadly, like other key environmental issues, the general citizenry shows little urgency, as water resources become more and more scarce.

    I believe in educating the public. An entire interdisciplinary curriculum should be developed on the Great Lakes watershed and should be accessed through local public schools. It is critical young people understand the water challenges we face now and in the future.

    Does anyone know if the Great Lakes could be given national sanctuary status? Enbridge must de-commission Line 5 immediately and we must elect to protect the Great Lakes waters from any present or future threats.

    Reply

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