The Water Problems of the Future

California drought pits farmers vs. cities. But neither is the biggest water victim

By Andrew Liszewski

Mar 6, 2009 | 12:09 pm

In April, when City of Portlanders voted on a $1.7 billion bond to buy water from the Willamette River and install pumps to hold it, they didn’t ask themselves whether they were paying more for more water than farmers. Farmers were paying $600,000 for the water that they use every three days. Portlanders will be paid $60 million for the equivalent right to use the Willamette, including $20 million that the cities agreed not to use for the rest of the year.

But on the farm, the drought has hit everything from grain crops to livestock to water-delivering wells. The water is not just important for irrigating fields, but for irrigation, for drinking and for the cities’ water bills.

When the farms are dry, city water supplies are dangerously low.

It’s not just the Willamette Valley that is losing water. Farmers in the southern Sierra Nevada have run out of water for snowmelt and that is causing major problems for the region. The same is happening in California.

There is much more at stake. Farmers and cities use the water not only to grow crops, but to cook food, drink and wash clothes.

The water on the farm and in the cities is used to power heat pumps, air conditioners, sprinklers and cooling towers.

When the water level is low, it makes sense for farmers to irrigate fields. When the water level is high, it makes sense for cities to save water and to use sprinklers to water lawns.

The issue is that as farmers are getting squeezed for every drop of water that they use, cities are not. For decades, cities have been able to use their water use to control water levels – up, down and sometimes back up to flood stage.

For years, cities have been able to flood their water supplies to make sure that water levels wouldn’t get too low and that they could get rid of excess water without getting their pipes plugged.

But with the drought, the water problems are going into overdrive.

“We are now seeing the potential for excess urban water that could, in some instances, completely overwhelm a city’s ability to control its water supply with a simple valve,�

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