Ask most people what they imagine when they think of the West and they'll probably call up an image not too unlike a barren wasteland of cacti and tumbleweeds. Despite the green fields of Utah and the lushly forested banks of Lake Tahoe, this image of lacking water is not too far off the mark. It's amazing that we're been able to farm as much as we do and grow cities numbering in the millions. This could, however, come to an end in the not too distant future.
As California, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Arizona and Wyoming continue to grow at a brisk pace, the thin supplies of water are going to become a bigger and bigger issue. Witness how the members of the Colorado River Compact have been fighting over how the supplies get divided up. The Colorado River's vast network of tributaries is the lifeblood of our region, yet the agreement on how to split the water was based on faulty rainfall data from over 85 years ago and gives an inordinate amount of the water to California.
California is facing some water problems of its own, but more immediate is their power crunch. Since 2000, California has been experiencing regular blackouts and brownouts during peak usage times in the summer but has failed to expand energy usage fast enough to keep up with demand. In 2006, they actually retired more existing power capacity than they brought on-line in new capacity. (Source, PDF) This has been leaving California in a constant state of "power deficit" where they must import power from other states to satiate demand. This is especially true with its large technology sector and the growing number of servers hosted in Bay Area data centers.
It's only going to get worse. With the state's ban on "dirty" power such as coal, California has cut off what is a plentiful and cheap source of electricity with no concrete plan as to where it's going to get replacement power. There's little will to build new hydroelectric dams and the locations suitable for solar and wind power are limited. (Consider that most of the wind and solar potential is within Death Valley National Monument and is unlikely to ever be developed.) Nuclear still has too much baggage attached to it and environmental concerns would sabotage attempts at tidal energy. What's a state in need of electricity to do?
The last resort is to import it. States in the West have significant resources available for wind, solar and geothermal power generation. It's estimated that Nevada alone has enough potential from these three sources to power the entire United States and then some. Utah and Arizona also have significant potential for renewable energy production. Politics in the Mountain West are also such that these projects would not face the same regulatory hurdles that companies face in California.
Meanwhile, California has the solution to our water problems: desalination. There's already proposals to build capacity to produce 47 million gallons per day of drinking water, an amount sure to alleviate usage from the Colorado River and Lake Tahoe. Officials from the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which supplies water to Las Vegas, have been inquiring about building a desalination plant in California and either piping the water to Las Vegas or drawing a similar amount from the Colorado River. Though desalinized water commands a 40-100% premium over pumped water, expensive water beats none at all.
Western states need to sit down at the bargaining table to come up with a mutually agreeable solution to each others' problems. We should build green energy resources in interior states and trade that resource for increased Colorado River water allocations through desalination in California. While this is an expensive proposition, it beats putting the brakes on water usage and growth and could very well lead to less expensive methods of both collecting renewable energy and extracting water from the most abundant source on earth. Our future as a region depends on it.