21 Jun 2010

Dead Pool -- The Review

I consider James Lawrence Powell's book to be a worthy successor to Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert. (See several posts on the book over at Waterwired.)

A "dead pool" of water behind a dam is too low for water to flow into the intakes that drive the turbines that generate electricity. A dead pool is an engineering nightmare; it means that the dam is not holding back enough water to generate power, let alone buffer highs (floods that threaten communities) or lows (droughts that limit irrigation).

JL Powell* follows in Reisner's tradition, also documenting the abuses of rivers and dams by bureaucrats and engineers who enjoy job security as they block one river after another. Powell's book differs in its examination of how deep the delusion runs (Reisner wrote when climate change was still emergent as a concern) as well as his fatalistic -- and well justified -- contemplation of a world where dams built for bad reasons are not just a waste of money, but a barrier to natural flows that would be dangerous even if the dams cost nothing.

The book has five parts:
  1. River of Surprise -- the floods and droughts of the Colorado River
  2. River of Empire -- the rise of big infrastructure, how the Bureau of Reclamation was a total failure before the Hail Mary play for the Hoover Dam that brought them back.**
  3. River of Controversy -- Hoover succeeded, so that means we need more dams, right?
  4. River of Limits -- The end of abundance means that many of these dams are failing to meet their performance targets, faster than ever.
  5. River of Tomorrow -- we're in trouble since these dams are expensive to remove and dangerous to leave in place.
I picked up some interesting ideas and facts: The "Concrete Pyramid" (CP) composed of people from BurRec, USACE, politicians, construction companies and agribusiness cooperated to build dams that benefited the few at a cost to the many. (A dam version of the iron triangle for property development that I described here.)

Ironically -- but not surprisingly -- the CP thinks that climate change calls for MORE dams. (Sounds like the folks in favor of the $11 billion California bond.) Glen Canyon -- the largest dams in the US -- was part of a boondoggle. BurRec built it as a means of paying for more dams, elsewhere.

Here's how the Bureau's engineers got their extra dams: They calculated the benefit/cost ratio for ALL projects in a basin, not one-by-one. That allowed them to build many small dams that failed a benefit/cost calculation because they were grouped with "cash-register" dams with good ratios. Glen Canyon was one such dam, and its construction allowed BurRec to build more dams that made no economic sense. Within this general principle, there were several nuances:
  • Besides dams that delivered more cost than benefits, BurRec also underestimated total cost, knowing that they could ask for more money later, since there was no penalty for cost overruns, and no project was killed when its costs escalated.
  • Dams were built in the Colorado's Upper Basin to suit politicians (like Congressman Aspinall, one of many pork kings)
I started thinking "Bureau of Wreckage" when I was reading these chapters.

And it's not just in terms of the environmental devastation from big dams. Powell examines the notoriously controversial accounting for Colorado River flows. He discusses the long term average annual volume (14.6 maf past Lee's Ferry) and compares that supply -- plus 1.2 maf from other sources -- to the current demand: 4.5 maf from upper basin states, 7.5 maf from lower basin states, 1.5 maf to Mexico, and 2.4 maf of evaporation and other losses. As you can see 15.9 maf of demand exceeds 15.8 maf of supply, and that's why the reservoirs -- Lake Powell behind Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam -- are draining NOW.

Powell goes on to point out that Colorado River flows are averaging 60 percent of historic flows in the early 21st century, and that climate change will only make things worse -- a hotter earth will decease supply through higher evaporation and increase demand for water as soils dry out. Things are not looking good. (At this point, Powell makes his one big mistake -- he fails to mention the possibility of controlling, reducing or reconciling demand through some sort of market mechanism. That's not necessarily a mistake, if he thinks that bureaucrats will be in charge to the end, but they needn't be.)

In contrast to this dire future (based on scientific evidence and models), we have the lookin' good! future of the Bureau, a future that takes the 20th century's high flows as "normal" and assumes that the 21st century will look the same. In other words, BurRec sees a drop in supply as highly unlikely and reductions in demand as unnecessary. Powell says -- and I totally agree -- that BurRec is sleepwalking off a cliff of denial, inertia and ignorance.***

But who will suffer when supplies run short and never-before-tested rights on the Colorado River are invoked? What will happen when Lake Powell drops to a dead pool? Who will pay when a huge chunk of the water and electricity supplies to the southwest disappear? It won't be the Bureau of Wreckage. It will be us, and we will be screwed by the guys who built dams that failed benefit cost at that design stage, the guys who felt it was more important to deliver power to subsidized users than to conserve water in a drought, the guys who are telling us that everything's ok when it really isn't.

Just fucking great, I tell you.

And Powell doesn't shy away from how bad it can get. His final chapter is a terrifying vision of unsustainable policies coming home to roost, a collision of delusions brought to ground by a reality as remorseless as gravity. The concrete pyramid is indeed built on sand.

Bottom Line: I give this book FIVE STARS as a fast read on an important topic, that takes from historic roots to future potentials. This book is a worthy companion to Cadillac Desert.

* JL Powell will either confirm nor deny that he's related to JW Powell. I say that he isn't, since any bona fide relative would have said he was related long ago...
** Subject of another new book (via DW).
*** Unfortunately, BurRec and many others ignored the best advice ever given on water in the West, John Wesley Powell's 1879 Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States.


The Outsider said...

David, the comment about BOR calculating one B/C for large number of projects really hit home for me. This sleight of hand is frequently used to argue for increases in spending on education. I have found myself arguing, "Okay, maybe the education we're giving is good, maybe it isn't Whatever. But isn't the real question whether it's good enough given what it costs to improve it?"

It's not the case that if the first dollar spent on a thing is good then every subsequent dollar is equally good. It just isn't.

Bruce Ross said...

Thanks for the hot tip. Just finished it last night, and it's a great read, if a bit overwrought.

Here's why the occasional hair-on-fire crisis tone toward the end put me off. As Powell himself notes, California's managed to grow in population and economically while keeping its total water use flat. Phoenix and Las Vegas, though he doesn't give them equal credit, have done the same. Nor does the dead pool even matter all that much. So Glen Canyon stops producing power. As he writes, it's a tiny fraction of the power on the western grid.

Fact is, it probably will grow warmer and drier in the Colorado Basin. That will pose challenges. And if Phoenix's climate turns into Death Valley's, it won't be so attractive a place.

Even so, the record of sensible water management actually gives a lot of cause for optimism. Hard times ahead, but we'll figure 'em out. Good grief, look at Australia.

My personal favorite tidbit, however, was the part about trying to restore the humpback chubs in the Grand Canyon. The notion of piping warm, muddy water into the river to save the fish is a rich irony after spending so many years watching the fretting over the Sacramento's headwaters.

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