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Reclamation: conservation cheapest, quickest solution to West’s water woes

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Never mind towing icebergs or building a giant pipeline to the Missouri River. For the foreseeable future, municipal and agricultural water conservation will be the fastest, cheapest way to deal with the western United States’ water problems, according to a new US Bureau of Reclamation study of the Colorado River Basin released this morning (Dec. 12, 2012).

The study finds that New Mexico and the other states that depend on the Colorado for their water face a growing gap between supply and demand:

Much in the study’s findings has been reported previously. (See here for the supply-demand problem and here for a discussion of population growth.) Now the full study, being rolled out this morning at a meeting in Las Vegas, Nev., puts some preliminary numbers on the costs of fixing the problem. After soliciting suggestions from stakeholders, the Bureau’s technical team tried to plug in rough numbers for the cost and time frames for dealing with the problems.

Among the big water supply augmentation solutions proposed, a giant pipeline to the Missouri River and the notion of towing icebergs south from the arctic are the most dramatic. The idea behind all the ideas is to add more water somewhere in the basin and then meet basin-wide demand by swapping water hither and yon. So, for example, coastal desalination could generate more water in California, leaving some of California’s share of the river for other states. Or a pipeline from the Missouri could bring water to Colorado, leaving some of Colorado’s share for others.

But the Bureau’s analysis shows that, among the major possible solutions to the problem, conservation would be the cheapest and the quickest to implement:

  • Ocean desalination:$1,500 to $2,100 per acre foot of water, 15 to years to see first water
  • Missouri River pipeline: $1,700 – $2,300 per acre foot, 30 years to first water
  • Towing icebergs down from Alaska: $2,700 – $3,400 per acre foot, 15 years to first water
  • Municipal conservation – $500 – $900 per acre foot, 5 years to first water
  • Agricultural conservation – $150 – $750 per acre foot, 10 years to first water
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