Reclamation Project

logoBORDuring the upcoming presidential debates, you’ll know there’s a serious discussion going on about the impact of climate change if any of the candidates mentions the Bureau of Reclamation.

Tucked inside the U.S. Interior Department, the Bureau of Reclamation is the federal agency—created by Teddy Roosevelt in 1902– that built and operates a sprawling network of 476 dams, 348 reservoirs and 8,116 miles of aqueducts across the Western United States. During the past century, this network has captured water cascading down from snow-capped mountains in the spring and summer months and funneled this precious liquid to the multitude of cities, towns and farms that have sprung up in deserts below.

This system worked really well–until the snow started disappearing. With climate change now spawning biblical droughts in the West, the federal government has issued a stark wake-up call: most of the water infrastructure of the Western U.S. will have to be rebuilt to efficiently distribute dwindling water resources.

“We have to think differently,” Michael Connor, deputy secretary of the Interior Department, told The New York Times in a recent interview. “We have a lot of infrastructure, but a lot of it doesn’t work very well anymore. We need to undertake what amounts to a giant re-plumbing project across the West.”

Connor added that from now on the core mission of the Bureau of Reclamation—think of it as the nation’s water agency—must be to deal with the impact of climate change. President Obama has ordered the Bureau to urgently study the anticipated impact of global warming on 22 Western water basins. The president told the Bureau to use this information to draw up “multi-decade” plans to begin rebuilding the water management system for the Western U.S.

Connor declined to put a price tag on this large-scale national project, other than to say it would cost billions. Probably a wise move, since the president and Congress have been unable to agree on a way to fund the $2 trillion in repairs that are needed ASAP to keep existing roads, bridges and dams all over the country from collapsing.

The news that creating a 21st-century water system for the West will take decades offers little comfort to the people of California, where TV stars and plumbing suppliers alike are being forced to adjust to the new normal in the drought-stricken state.

Everyone in CA needs to quickly get used to using a lot less water, but apparently Tom Selleck didn’t get the memo. Selleck, the mustachioed he-man who plays a private eye on the little screen, got nailed by a real-life detective this week for sending a water truck from his sprawling 80-acre ranch in Hidden Valley to neighboring Thousand Oaks to grab thousands of gallons from local hydrants. According to a complaint filed by the Calleguas Municipal Water District, the Magnum P.I. star has been doing this for months.

Meanwhile, building contractors are preparing to meet new regulations governing construction that place severe limits on the amount of water that can come out of faucets and other plumbing fixtures in California.

Effective for all new structures as of Jan. 1, the rules state that faucets must be adjusted so that they use no more than 1.2 gallons of water per minute in homes and 1.8 gallons of water per minute in commercial facilities (most traditional faucets use about 2.2 gallons of water per minute). Here’s where it starts to get icky: toilets can use no more than 1.28 gallons of water per flush. The national regulated amount is 1.6 gallons per flush, but many toilets today use two, three, or more gallons of water per flush.

And, under the new rules, urinals in California can flush no more than an eighth of a gallon of water per flush. While some newer urinals now flush about a half-gallon of water per flush, most urinals still use about one gallon of water or more per flush–which is eight times the amount that will be permitted in CA as of Jan. 1.

Golden State, indeed.