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Turf MD: No water in the West

By |  September 7, 2021 0 Comments
Photo: Karl Danneberger

Karl Danneberger

When I was a little boy, I was an avid watcher of old Western movies and TV shows. Westerns, which we called cowboy movies or shows, focused on settling the Western Frontier. These old Westerns had a simple plot of maintaining or bringing law and order to the frontier. Conflict was rooted in good versus evil, civilization versus wilderness, settlers versus Indians, sheriff versus gunslinger, schoolteachers versus saloon dance-hall girls.

Watching TV shows like Rawhide, The Rifleman, Bonanza and Gunsmoke, the eventual outcome was assured — the good guy won. In cases where the show’s conflict involved water rights, the outcome was not always as clear. Generally, water portrayed in Western movies was in short supply.

Prior appropriations, the doctrine that governs water rights in the Western United States, originated in the 1850s, initially based on mineral rights associated with the great gold rush in California. The doctrine simply stated the first one to get there and use it gets to keep it. In the face of population growth and demand, however, there was not enough water to go around.

In 1922, seven states and Mexico entered into the Colorado River Compact that divided up the river water into the upper basin consisting of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico and the lower basin consisting of Arizona, California and Nevada. Under the compact, a series of dams was constructed along the Colorado River in which each basin gets an equal amount of water. In the lower basin, California gets almost 59 percent of the water allocated from Lake Mead that was created by the Hoover Dam near Las Vegas.

In 1999, Lake Mead was at 95 percent capacity. From 2000 to 2005, the region was hit with the worst drought on record, and capacity dropped below 50 percent. Since then, the water level has dropped 143 feet to 1,070 feet this year. It is expected by April 2023 to drop to 1,047 feet. On Aug. 16, the federal government announced a water shortage for Nevada and Arizona, mandating water cuts.

Over the last 20 years, Southwestern golf course superintendents have been proactive in conserving and reducing water use on golf courses. In Las Vegas, water reduction on golf courses is achieved through small and large practices. Practices, for example, like leveling irrigation heads, upgrading to more efficient sprinkler heads, frequent irrigation audits and scheduling irrigation during times to reduce evaporation and runoff loss, are significant in reducing water loss and use.

Switching to effluent irrigation water and reducing or eliminating winter overseeding has resulted in significant water savings. In addition, Las Vegas and the Southern Nevada Water Authority have paid golf courses to remove turf areas. The result is golf courses have 20 percent less turf. Golf courses account for less than 7 percent of the water used by Las Vegas.

Since 2000, Lake Mead has dropped 140 feet. If the water level drops an additional 175 feet to a lake level of 895 feet, water will no longer flow through Hoover Dam to anyone downstream. Given the trend over the last 20 years and what looks to continue well into the future, what will impact the economic, social and environmental health of the lower basin over that time? How will urban and rural areas, as well as golf courses, adapt to water cuts? What will golf and golf courses look like or be in 20 years?

Future water allocations, mandates, cuts and planning are not going to be easy or simplistic as those portrayed in old Western shows. The Western show plots where it is black hats versus white hats, us versus them is hard to apply when there is no apparent one thing to blame or fix. One apparent thing that today’s water issues and the old Western movies share in common is there never seems to be enough water to go around.

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