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Coming Soon to the Southwest: The Age of Thirst

The western United States could soon face the greatest water crisis in the history of civilization.

| Mon Dec. 5, 2011 5:36 PM EST
With the ongoing drought, many ponds in Texas, such as this one in Rusk County, were nearly dry by June 2011.

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Consider it a taste of the future: The fire, smoke, drought, dust, and heat that have made life unpleasant, if not dangerous, from Louisiana to Los Angeles. New records tell the tale: biggest wildfire ever recorded in Arizona (538,049 acres); biggest fire ever in New Mexico (156,600 acres); all-time worst fire year in Texas history (3,697,000 acres).

The fires were a function of drought. As of summer's end, 2011 was the driest year in 117 years of record keeping for New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana, and the second driest for Oklahoma. Those fires also resulted from record heat. It was the hottest summer ever recorded for New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana, as well as the hottest August ever for those states, plus Arizona and Colorado.

Virtually every city in the region experienced unprecedented temperatures, with Phoenix, as usual, leading the march toward unlivability. This past summer, the so-called Valley of the Sun set a new record of 33 days when the mercury reached a shoe-melting 110º F or higher. (The previous record of 32 days was set in 2007.)

And here's the bad news in a nutshell: If you live in the Southwest or just about anywhere in the American West, you or your children and grandchildren could soon enough be facing the Age of Thirst, which may also prove to be the greatest water crisis in the history of civilization. No kidding.

If that gets you down, here's a little cheer-up note: The end is not yet nigh.

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In fact, this year the weather elsewhere rode to the rescue, and the news for the Southwest was good where it really mattered. Since January, the biggest reservoir in the United States, Lake Mead, backed up by the Hoover Dam and just 30 miles southwest of Las Vegas, has risen almost 40 feet. That lake is crucial when it comes to watering lawns or taking showers from Arizona to California. And the near 40-foot surge of extra water offered a significant upward nudge to the Southwest's water reserves.

The Colorado River, which the reservoir impounds, supplies all or part of the water on which nearly 30 million people depend, most of them living downstream of Lake Mead in Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, Tijuana, and scores of smaller communities in the United States and Mexico.

Back in 1999, the lake was full. Patricia Mulroy, who heads the water utility serving Las Vegas, rues the optimism of those bygone days. "We had a 50-year, reliable water supply," she says. "By 2002, we had no water supply. We were out. We were done. I swore to myself we'd never do that again."

In 2000, the lake began to fall—like a boulder off a cliff, bouncing a couple of times on the way down. Its water level dropped a staggering 130 feet, stopping less than 7 feet above the stage that would have triggered reductions in downstream deliveries. Then—and here's the good news, just in case you were wondering—last winter, it snowed prodigiously up north in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming.

The spring and summer runoff from those snowpacks brought enormous relief. It renewed what we in the Southwest like to call the Hydro-Illogic cycle: When drought comes, everybody wrings their hands and promises to institute needed reform, if only it would rain a little. Then the drought breaks or eases and we all return to business as usual, until the cycle comes around to drought again.

So don't be fooled. One day, perhaps soon, Lake Mead will renew its downward plunge. That's a certainty, the experts tell us. And here's the thing: The next time, a sudden rescue by heavy snows in the northern Rockies might not come. If the snowpacks of the future are merely ordinary, let alone puny, then you'll know that we really are entering a new age.

And climate change will be a major reason, but we'll have done a good job of aiding and abetting it. The states of the so-called Lower Basin of the Colorado River—California, Arizona, and Nevada—have been living beyond their water means for years. Any departure from recent decades of hydrological abundance, even a return to long-term average flows in the Colorado River, would produce a painful reckoning for the Lower Basin states. And even worse is surely on the way.

Just think of the coming Age of Thirst in the American Southwest and West as a three-act tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions.

 

The Age of Thirst: Act I

The curtain in this play would surely rise on the Colorado River Compact of 1922, which divided the river's water equally between the Upper and Lower Basins, allocating to each annually 7.5 million acre-feet, also known by its acronym "maf." (An acre-foot suffices to support three or four families for a year.) Unfortunately, the architects of the compact, drawing on data from an anomalously wet historical period, assumed the river's average annual flow to be about 17 maf per year. Based on reconstructions that now stretch back more than 1,000 years, the river's long-term average is closer to 14.7 maf. Factor in evaporation from reservoirs (1.5 maf per year) and our treaty obligation to Mexico (another 1.5 maf), and the math doesn't favor a water-guzzling society.

Nonetheless, the states of the Lower Basin have been taking their allotment as if nothing were wrong and consequently overdrafting their account by up to 1.3 maf annually. At this rate, even under unrealistically favorable scenarios, the Lower Basin will eventually drain Lake Mead and cutbacks will begin, possibly as soon as in the next few years. And then things will get dicier because California, the water behemoth of the West, won't have to absorb any of those cutbacks.

Here's one of the screwiest quirks in western water law: To win congressional approval for the building of a monumental aqueduct, the Central Arizona Project, which would bring Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona agreed to subordinate its Colorado River water rights to California's. In that way, the $4 billion, 336-mile-long CAP was born, and for it Arizona paid a heavy price. The state obliged itself to absorb not just its own losses in a cutback situation, but California's as well.

Worst case scenario: The CAP aqueduct, now a lifeline for millions, could become as dry as the desert it runs through, while California continues to bathe. Imagine Phoenix curling and cracking around the edges, while lawn sprinklers hiss in Malibu. The contrast will upset a lot of Arizonans.

Worse yet, the prospective schedule of cutbacks now in place for the coming bad times is too puny to save Lake Mead.

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