Water is the lifeline of the American West—important for farmers, ranchers, small businesses, and industry. But historic drought has befallen the already-arid western states. For example, Lake Mead is at its lowest level ever, and Colorado is already considering pumping water from the Missouri river to meet future water needs, an alternative that would have previously seemed crazy. If something doesn’t change soon, it will be time to start making some tough decisions about who gets water, and who doesn’t.
This week, the Western Energy Alliance released a report claiming that the oil and gas industry is not a significant consumer of western water, and that other uses far outweigh water use by industry. First, it’s important to note that this report was based on current uses, and doesn’t take into account projections as the energy boom in the west continues. For example, just last week Chevron revealed that development of oil shale, a perennial fuel of the future, would use significantly more water than even the largest estimates to date—perhaps over 39 billion gallons annually, which is more than half the annual water usage of Las Vegas.
Western water will also be subject to intense competition between economic sectors. Recreation brings in billions each year, much of which relies on water sports—rafting, fishing, and the like—to sustain itself. But agriculture is by far the largest consumer of water in the west (up to 75% of Colorado River water), and the biggest economic sector in many western states. However, there’s a key difference in that kind of water use. While new drilling technology has allowed for continued energy development, a byproduct is huge amounts of wastewater, consumed and never to be used again. That’s just not the case with watering crops, where return flows make more than half of the water reusable.
The bigger issue here is that in order for western economies to survive, everyone needs water. Instead of going around, pointing fingers, and throwing food producers under the bus like WEA has done here, Westerners should be thinking about how we can get through this drought with all of our economic livelihoods intact. That’s what being a team player is all about.