FLAGSTAFF, Arizona (Reuters) - Like many towns in this part of the arid U.S. Southwest, Flagstaff faces a never-ending challenge in its search for water, and it is getting harder.
"Eight years of drought conditions and a growing population haven't helped," said Randy Pellatz, the assistant director of utilities for the city of Flagstaff.
The heavily forested, mountain town of Flagstaff has grown to 62,000 people from 45,000 in 1990, straining its water resources. Upper Lake Mary, a man-made reservoir that provides up to 40 percent of the town's water needs of 11 million gallons a day, is down to 18 percent of normal levels.
Mark Shiery of Flagstaff's fire department said the area is up to three years behind normal precipitation levels, heightening the risk of forest fire in this high desert town.
"Wild fire is the single biggest threat we face," he said.
It is a stark puzzle: how to provide water for a growing population in desert or near-desert conditions. Then add in the long drought.
"As the population rises in the Southwest, the water system is on a slippery slope toward breaking point," said Mark Svoboda, a climatologist at the U.S. National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
THIRSTY NOW, BUT BOOM ONLY BEGUN?
The U.S. Census Bureau projects California's population will rise to more than 46 million by 2030 from 36.5 million now, while Arizona and Nevada will nearly double to 10.7 million and 4.3 million people, respectively.
Arizona already is the fastest-growing U.S. state, up nearly 70 percent from 1990 to about 6.2 million in 2006.
The projected growth will put further pressure -- from cities and agriculture -- on the Colorado River, the region's lifeline. The river is reduced to a trickle when it reaches the Gulf of California in Mexico.
"Right now, no one's getting any surplus water. But there are no shortages yet," said Bob Walsh, Lower Colorado Region spokesman of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the government agency overseeing water rights in the 17 western U.S. states.
"That should continue for a few years before we begin to stretch the existing supply," Walsh said.
Some scientists warn global warming will worsen the situation. A study published in the journal Science in April projected that the Southwest, with its fast-growing cities, could by 2030 face baking Dust Bowl conditions like those that blew away topsoils in the Great Plains a hundred years before.
"BLUE GOLD" FOR DESERT BOOM TOWNS
Even without the specter of global warming, desert towns already focus on conservation, water recycling, drilling new wells and buying fresh water from anyone who has a surplus.
Towns like Bullhead City, Arizona, have seen a boom in recent decades as retirees and second-home owners have sought to escape harsh northern winters.
Just across the Colorado River from the casino town of Laughlin, Nevada, Bullhead City has grown to 40,000 people from just 10,000 in the mid-1980s -- and planners say it may hit 100,000 in another 30 years.
"Right now, we have a cushion with our water allocation from the river," said Janice Paul, Bullhead City's development services director. "But we will not have anywhere near enough water to support that kind of population without significant changes to water use."
She said within a few years water rationing would likely be enforced with fines.
During the current long drought, the Colorado River has seen below-normal snow runoff for five consecutive years. It's snow in the mountains more than rain that matters here.
The seven states along the river -- Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, California and Nevada -- reached a new deal in April on sharing water during the drought. The deal is awaiting approval from the U.S. Department of the Interior.
NO WASTING WASTE WATER
Flagstaff, further from the Colorado River than Bullhead City, already enforces water restrictions and fines. The town's two 18-hole golf courses use recycled waste water.
Flagstaff also recently bought water rights at a site called Red Gap Ranch, 35 miles away.
But the site "unfortunately is downhill from us, so we'll be pumping it uphill all the way," said Flagstaff city council member Joe Haughey. "That won't come cheap."
Flagstaff may also buy Colorado River water rights and try to obtain water from the nearby Hopi and Navajo reservations.
Navajo President Joe Shirley said water could be sold from the vast reservation, part of the Colorado and Little Colorado River water systems. But the tribe lacks funds to drill for what he called "blue gold."
Any deal with towns like Flagstaff should involve paying to have water pipes built to serve Navajos who "live in Third World conditions without running water," he said.
"We're open to discussion," Shirley said. "We're not going anywhere, and right now neither is our water."
(additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Phoenix)