Vanishing Act: How We Get Our Water... And Why It's Almost Gone

If you stand in the rocky shallows of the Colorado River and let the water run around your ankles, over your foot, through your toes, the water conforms to you. You’re actually redirecting the mighty Colorado – commanding it to change course. In a way, you now control the flow of the river. It goes where you want it to go. It’s a small scale, of course, but you and everyone else in Southern California have received your drinking water through a system of redirection and control in the same vein as your little experiment for more than 70 years.

They say the journey of the Alaskan Salmon is the most impressive animal migration in North America. But compared to the trip that your drinking water takes – melted mountain snow that flows into the river, through more than 240 miles in the Colorado River Aqueduct, and into your faucet – those salmon are frozen fishsticks.

The sheer force and amount of water flowing in the Colorado is a marvel, enough to provide seven Southern California water districts with a major percentage of their total usage. But just as those persistent salmon are now facing dwindling populations and possibly even extinction, the amount of water in the Colorado River Aqueduct is shrinking every year and now stands at a critically low level.

The Long Beach Water Department receives 31% of its water from the Metropolitan Water District, which receives 50% of its water from the Colorado River Aqueduct. So Long Beach is directly tied to those shrinking water levels, and the Long Beach Water Department was the first in Southern California to launch an aggressive conservation campaign in order to combat the effects from a seven-year drought. It’s been working. In fact, the average Long Beach resident uses about 110 gallons of water per day. The average Sacramento resident? About 280.

Unless other cities within the Metropolitan Water District and throughout the state adopt the same tactics, though, California’s water supply is in trouble. The Long Beach Water Department is applauded and recognized as a pioneer in the area of urban conservation, but surrounding departments have been slow to adopt similar techniques. Perhaps some of the blame should go to the MWD itself – provider to Long Beach and dozens of other Southern California water departments – which has stood back while Long Beach conserved, poured research money into desalinization techniques and became one of the first municipalities to use reclaimed water.

But as residents use less water and thus pay lower bills, the Metropolitan Water District is losing money to conservation. At the same time, they’re receiving lower amounts of water from cheap sources like the Colorado River Aqueduct and reservoirs due to low storage levels. So they’re forced to purchase water from other, more expensive sources. It’s a Catch-22 for Southern California residents that are conserving, but see an increase on their bills. In the meantime, we all pray for more snowfall – meaning an end to the water shortage.

After six years of drought and depleted water levels, 2008 finally saw normal snowfall in the Rocky Mountains. It wasn’t enough to reverse the course of the water shortage, but enough to provide reassurance that the drought will not last forever. That snow gradually melted and found its way to the river, which sent the water south to the Hoover Dam. Hoover is, of course, one of the most impressive structures ever made by man – a symbol of Great Depression-era sweat and grit, an incredibly dangerous project that men risked their lives to complete because they knew that millions of people depended on the service their labor would provide. At 115,000 horsepower, each of nine turbines churn the equivalent of one swimming pool per second (3,200 cubic ft.) into the flowing Colorado, capturing the energy provided and supplying millions of homes in the area with electricity.

The water itself travels south through Lake Mohave and Lake Havasu before reaching the Colorado River Aqueduct, along which it encounters a series of reservoirs and aqueducts as it branches off to provide Southern California cities with drinkable water. Most of its path lies out in the open as nothing more than a concrete river. But in the interest of sending the water down a direct path, developers powered straight through mountains of solid rock for miles on end – constructing massive underground tunnels that thrust the water through at more than 10 feet per second.


This impressive ingenuity, combined with the complex system of manipulating gravity to transport water over a path of several hundred miles, makes the Colorado River Aqueduct one of the more truly impressive feats of human accomplishments in our history. It’s also likely the most unrecognized. You place a drinking glass under a water faucet, turn the knob and – voila! – there’s your water. It’s that simple. Most of us simply don’t imagine where the water originated, or how far it traveled, or what pumping station it went through or how it was treated. But that doesn’t make the process any less impressive.

When standing next to a pipe, 15 feet in diameter, constantly humming with the pressure of tons of speeding water, when looking out into a crystal clear reservoir – linked to a series of aqueducts and pumping stations that power the blinking lights of a city on the horizon – it’s easy to see the achievement in harnessing one of nature’s most wild resources.

But it’s also easy to see how far water levels in those reservoirs have dropped in recent years, when photos of Diamond Valley Lake look next to nothing like the scene that stands before you – islands of rock never before visible now standing tall above the surface, shores extending for several meters as the water has receded like a never-ending low tide.

Water conservation and water transportation are forever linked, and other Southern California cities and regions will begin the feel the brunt as the Metropolitan Water District has hinted that water rationing is on the horizon.

Mostly it depends on snowfall in Utah and Colorado, but also it depends on us, our ability to conserve. The state’s population skyrockets but the water levels are shrinking. We’ve mastered the ability to control and harness the power of a raw natural resource, and the Colorado River now waits for our next move.

Photos by Ryan ZumMallen

Disclosure: The Long Beach Water Department is an advertiser of the LBPOST.com.



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