Patricia Mulroy, who oversees the operations of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, since 2003 has imposed watering restrictions on golf courses and homeowners and increased water reuse from golf courses while also instituting an incentive program that to date has paid residents $200 million to pull out turf and replace it with water-efficient vegetation. (Enough turf has been ripped out to lay a stripe of sod stretching three-fourths of the way across the planet; overall, she has reduced total water use by a third in 10 years.) She has raised water rates four times in less than a decade while activating long-held water rights in east-central Nevada in 2004 to ensure that the community is less dependent on the Colorado River.
While some experts have suggested more ambitious measures — such as curtailing growth, making it harder for farmers to get cheap water and removing some dams to allow the Colorado River to regain some of its natural flow — federal, state and local authorities have resisted such proposals.
University of Arizona law professor Robert Glennon, author of the book “Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What to Do About It,” describes the Colorado River basin in blunt terms. “It’s a collision,” he said.
Rising temperatures have started to affect U.S. coal plants as well. This summer’s drought disrupted the transport of coal delivered by barges on the Mississippi, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had to use dredges to deepen the navigation channel.
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency granted special exceptions to four coal-fired plants and four nuclear plants this summer, allowing them to discharge water into local waterways that was hotter than the federal clean-water permits allowed. Normally the discharge water cannot exceed 90 degrees, but the waiver allowed utilities to release water as hot as 97 degrees.
And environmental groups such as the Sierra Club have questioned whether new coal plants should be built in areas that could face water scarcity. In August 2011, the Lower Colorado River Authority—which oversees a river confined to Texas’ borders-- postponed indefinitely its decision to provide 8 billion gallons of water to cool the proposed White Stallion Energy Center, and rejected it outright three months later. While the Sierra Club argued the plant would use too much water, local authorities said contract changes prompted their decision.
At the Hoover Dam, which hasn’t run at capacity since 1983 because of lower river flows and other water demands, the Bureau of Reclamation has taken several steps to compensate for the decline in water availability. The dam loses between 5 and 6 megawatts of capacity for every foot in elevation Lake Mead uses, meaning this year it lost the equivalent of a medium-size power plant.