Another Big Ditch

Night closed in like the crash of a coffin’s lid. Clouds low enough to catch the spire of the light plant, were ominous and threatening. The noise and vibration of full belly-dumps rolling by on one side of my post by the light plant every few seconds were met in counter point by others returning empty on the other side. The din of the endless lines of full and empty trucks and the chatter of their drivers on the radio was unrelenting. Lightning flashed, thunder rolled and I tucked my Bureau of Reclamation, BUREC, Earth Manual under my shirt and into the back of my trousers with all of the skill of a police officer stowing a spare gun. July nights in southern Arizona’s deserts can be hot, with temperatures into the 110s degrees Fahrenheit. This was such a night and I was way out of my comfort zone; a recently graduated power engineer monitoring dirt work on a high fill embankment as part of the Red Rock Pumping Plant, one of fourteen along the $4.7 billion Central Arizona Project, CAP.

The CAP is a large piece of Cold War (1947-1991) infrastructure constructed by the BUREC, a bureau within the Department of Interior, DOI. It enables Phoenix, Tucson and several smaller municipalities to thrive in a desert environment that cannot support that level of population. A big concrete-lined ditch that lifts over 1.4 million acre-feet of Colorado River water from Lake Havasu to Tucson, Arizona, The CAP was originally planned to extend into New Mexico. Long about Tucson, the project ran out of money. Victory was declared in 1994 when DOI pronounced the project ‘substantially complete’ and proceeded to turn it over to the CAP-AZ for management.

In theory, the CAP reduces ground water use and the sinking of the ground that is a result of pumping ground water. So far, so good, Tucson shut down several well fields. Politics being what they are, I would venture to guess ground water pumping will resume when the CAP allocation is fully used or otherwise dries up.

In 1968, the passage of the Colorado River Basin Project Act[1] turned the Secretary of the Interior loose to acquire the right to 24.3 percent of the power produced at the non-Federal Navajo Generating Station, Navajo Project. Electricity to lift all that water was a key component of making

Mark Wilmer Pumping plant (formerly know as the Havasu Pumping Plant)

Mark Wilmer Pumping plant (formerly know as the Havasu Pumping Plant)

the CAP dream come true. Work on the project began in earnest in 1973 as construction was started on the Havasu Intake Channel Dike and the excavation for the Havasu Pumping Plant, which is now called the Mark Wilmer Pumping Plant. If the EPA has its way, the Navajo Generating Station, along with other coal fired plants, will have to undergo at least $1 billion in retrofitting to meet the new standards and the cost of delivering CAP water will go through the roof.

Colorado River water to feed the canal is lifted over 290 feet straight up Buckskin Mountain and, over the course of the canal, is lifted about 3,000 feet. I had the privilege of participating during the acceptance testing of the big Hitachi vertical shaft pumps. As a ‘rotation’ engineer, my job was to read the visicorder. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness tests on big systems that generally one can only read about in text books. The most memorable test was the short circuit test. The pump was brought on line, isolated to a single transformer at Parker Canyon Dam and short circuited. When the test was executed, I think every air breaker in the place blew. Several levels underground, where I was located, the noise was deafening. The Japanese engineers facilitating the test rushed in from all directions to settle the pump unit down.  However, the angriest person of the bunch was at Parker Canyon Dam. It seems the big transformer we used moved several feet. That little thing we call electricity can wield incredible forces that, in this case, made a multi-ton transformer move. Whew, what a ride!

The CAP was the most recent straw dropped into the Colorado to satisfy the thirst of people and crops. In some ways it has become the straw that broke the camel’s back. The seven states, divided between upper and lower basins, which touch the Colorado River, met in 1922 to divide up the spoils of water. It was a time of plentiful water and snow fall so the Colorado River carried almost 18 million acre-feet of water[2].

We humans are short-lived and equally short-sighted so it was assumed that the Colorado River always had and always would carry almost 18 million acre-feet of water. Although the Colorado River flow is down to about 15 million acre-feet, it is still supporting 30 million people as well as agricultural interests. Oh by the way, what happened to the farming communities in Mexico that also depended on the Colorado River’s flow? Well, for the most part, they are gone in spite of a 1.5 million acre-foot commitment from the U.S. in 1944. Mexico does have very nice protected Colorado River wetlands, however. The Colorado River water that arrives in Yuma, the last stop before Mexico, is too salty to drink or use on crops[3]. The BUREC constructed a desalination plant at Yuma to correct the situation. The plant completed its pilot run in 2011. Desalination using Reverse Osmosis is a solution, but it is a short-term solution as the disposal of the brine will create ever increasing challenges. New technologies with fewer disposal legacies must come on-line for the long run.

Whisky is for drinking and water is for fighting here in the West but the East should take note, the water game will be there soon. International consortiums are investing in water resources. Within the past six years, Prescott Valley auctioned 1,103 acre-feet of effluent (water released from a wastewater treatment facility). A New York Investment firm picked up the water for about $25,000 per acre-foot and has already resold 700 acre-feet[4]. The federal government laid claim to all surface water in the U.S. in the reauthorization of the Clean Water Act in 2012, which makes water harvesting illegal. This significant change should raise eyebrows across the U.S.

The CAP is an expensive and well-intentioned piece of infrastructure that had the unintended consequence of highlighting how ill-equipped the DOI is to manage eco-systems as complex as the Colorado River. The twenty or so dams, lakes, and straws feeding canals provide water and electricity to millions and one cannot argue with that track record. The downside comes with a bureaucratic mentality that refuses to realistically address future impacts in project planning. While one does not know what one does not know, many challenges are known. The idea that something magical will happen to solve future problems has definite short-comings. A non-sexy example is maintenance. The project people knew maintenance would be required but few provisions, like by-pass systems, were included in the design. On September 20, 2012 the CAP canal failed close to Bouse, Arizona. It took three weeks to repair and the entire system had to be shut down for three weeks, meaning that Phoenix and Tucson were denied CAP water for the duration. The Arizona Republic’s Shaun McKinnon wrote an excellent piece about the failure and recovery, although I disagree, in part, with the conclusion.[5]

Whether or not the DOI has mismanaged the Upper and Lower Colorado River Basins can be argued for years. What cannot be disputed is the wisdom, or lack thereof, of a huge population base dependent on a central government’s largess when it comes to water. If the government shuts the water off, as has been done in California’s Central Valley to save a fish that may be endangered, the people are left high and dry[6]. Ghost towns develop quickly and people are herded like cattle to the next stop the government has in mind.

I was attending a bilateral problem solving meeting with Mexican officials in Nogales, Arizona on the topic of water. The Mexican contingent stormed out of the meeting labeling the U.S. insane because the EPA was worried that the action in question might possibly cause problems for a small fish called a chub. Nonsense science had brought this poor little fish to center stage of an international dispute.  I believe the answers to the future survival of the human species are embedded in science and engineering. To achieve this lofty goal, it is imperative that science return to a baseline of intellectual honesty and that engineers stop taking the easy way out. The lights of the new technologies that will save the species are twinkling in the eyes of scientists, engineers, and development specialists. The problem is bureaucracies can only function within the status quo and are, therefore, inflexible to a fault; bringing progress to a halt.



[1] Colorado River Basin Project Act; Public Law 90-537 Public Law 90-537; September 30, 1968; http://www.usbr.gov/lc/region/pao/pdfiles/crbproj.pdf

[4] The Daily Courier; New York investment company sells PV effluent credits to Scottsdale developer; http://www.dcourier.com/main.asp?SectionID=1&subsectionID=1&articleID=65792

[5] The Arizona Republic; Shaun McKinnon; Nov. 25, 2012;  Arizona canal project an uphill journey; http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/news/articles/20121125arizona-canal-project-an-uphill-journey.html

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