Who deserves the water?

Something that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is water.  Typical.  Specifically, where major American cities get their water.  European cities were historically built on rivers or lakes, where an obvious clean water source could be found.  They developed common sense procedures like withdrawing drinking water upstream of discharging wastewater.  In the US, major cities also developed on rivers, but city planners looked further afield to remote unpopulated water basins to deliver higher quality and sometimes greater quantities of water.  In fact, even today, the highest rated tap water, according to its consumers, comes from New York City, which tapped watersheds up to 163 miles away in the Catskills, and San Francisco, which tapped the Hetch Hetchy reservoir in what would later become Yosemite, 167 miles away.  The east side of the San Francisco Bay, which includes Berkeley, where I currently live, and Oakland, where I currently work, gets its water from one watershed north of the Hetch-Hetchy basin.

In light of this reality, maybe the diversion of the Owens and Colorado Rivers into the Los Angeles Aqueduct and Colorado River Aqueduct, respectively, isn’t so bad – it’s just a longer distance (419 miles and 242 miles) than the aqueducts used by the “environmentally conscious” San Francisco Bay Area.  And Atlanta, my hometown, can’t really be blamed for taking as much water as possible from the Chattahoochee River just to the north.  The city is located in a relatively resource-poor area when it comes to surface water, and the Supreme Court recently affirmed its right to the waters of Lake Lanier (though the exact quantity is still TBA).

Las Vegas is located essentially on Lake Mead, and gets its drinking water from the lake as well as discharges its treated wastewater to the lake.  Is this more sustainable than Phoenix, whose recent growth relies on the availability of the Colorado River, 336 miles away?  I’m having a hard time judging cities in their pursuit of water resources from remote, pristine areas, because very few American cities are located adjacent to sufficient water supplies.  Environmentalists in San Francisco bemoan the fate of the salmon in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta, whose habitat is shrinking due to water grabs from southern California and the Central Valley, but their water comes from an area that was literally made into a National Park!  Water supply inevitably involves some big tradeoffs, so “Let he who is without blame cast the first stone”…

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