Water crisis sinks to new level
The Biden administration has given seven Western states a deadline to tackle the escalating emergency.
The Colorado River’s literal race to the bottom hit another low last month.
As the waterline dropped farther and shortages hit dire new levels, the Biden administration announced unprecedented cuts, giving Colorado and six other Western states 60 days to reach an agreement on how to radically reduce their water use.
There is good reason for such urgency. Last month, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation imposed the first-ever Tier 2 water restrictions — a “break glass” emergency measure that was unthinkable even a few years ago.
The latest stark cuts mean that Arizona, Nevada and Mexico next year will see their shares of Colorado River water drop by 21%, 8% and 7%, respectively. And there are likely even more grueling restrictions ahead.
“People need to understand how important the Colorado River is for all of us,” said Elizabeth McVicker, Ph.D., J.D., a Management professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver who was instrumental in creating the One World One Water Center (OWOW). “It provides drinking water for 40 million people across seven states, fuels many major cities and generates electricity for 5 million households. If it fails, we all fail.”
Standoff among states
The crux of the current problem? Neither Upper Basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) nor Lower Basin states (California, Nevada and Arizona) want to make further water cuts — they each think the other side should make more sacrifices.
In essence, they are like seven people arguing over who gets the biggest bite of an ice-cream sandwich as it melts away before them.
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However, McVicker sees glimmers of light. “Personally, I’m optimistic that the states will ultimately make progress because there’s a growing awareness that without serious action, we’ll all lose,” she said.
Unsurprisingly, she points out, state politicians are rattling their sabres and fighting their respective corners. “But we are seeing more meaningful collaboration between on-the-ground water agencies,” she added, “and that’s what counts.”
It’s no mystery how we got here. The U.S. is caught up in a historic 23-year megadrought. Our mountain snowpack is rapidly diminishing. Extreme heat is evaporating more water off the top of the great reservoirs. And unprecedented signs of depletion are seemingly everywhere.
Around the Lake Powell reservoir, a white “bathtub ring” outlines the recent steep water loss.
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At Lake Mead, once-sunken boats have risen from the depths like ghoulish tombstones. Last month, receding waters in Texas revealed 113 million-year-old dinosaur tracks.
“We reached this point much more quickly than anyone thought,” McVicker conceded. “Most people thought it would be several more years before we reached Tier 2 status, but then it came along all at once.”
Students with answers
The urgency of the U.S. water shortage has long been recognized at MSU Denver, which runs a range of pioneering water-studies courses, including via the OWOW Center and a noncredit option via Innovative and Lifelong Learning. And many MSU Denver students are rolling up their sleeves to tackle an issue that will likely be around for their entire adult lives.
This summer, Victor Lemus Gomez took part in a Colorado fellowship program designed to give policymaking experience to STEM students. He created a proposal urging water providers to conduct water-loss audits, which would help state leaders plan better for the future. And the best part? He got to deliver it personally.
“It was such a privilege to present my policy proposal directly to lawmakers,” he said. “It gave me a firsthand look at the hard work and urgency that our state elected officials bring to this fight.”
Also in the fellowship program was fellow student Claire Sanford, who focused her efforts on water-wise landscaping. “It’s so important for water conservation,” she said. “Using native plants empowers people to tackle climate change while simultaneously lowering their water bills and encouraging biodiversity.”
Equally important, she said, it gives Coloradans a chance to connect with beautiful native landscapes that flourished in these same spaces centuries ago. “It’s always exciting to see people interacting with regionally appropriate plant life,” she said, “and it makes me feel hopeful for the future.”
Tackling this imminent crisis will necessarily mean improving the efficiency of U.S. agriculture, which accounts for 80% of the Colorado River’s water use. But that’s a tall order, given that there is so much waste, leakage and, sometimes, plain poor judgment.
“Right now, our desert-based farmers are using billions of gallons of American water to grow crops such as cotton and hay for export to competitor countries like Saudi Arabia and China,” McVicker said. “Where is the sense in that?” The whole agricultural industry, she argues, needs to take a strong look at itself.
For a better example of how to do things, McVicker points to Aurora, where a new city proposal seeks to eliminate “nonfunctional turf” in almost all new developments, including residential lawns, medians and commercial properties. “They are taking real, concrete action and standing up for the simple idea that we have to preserve to thrive,” she said.
Persuading Coloradans to adopt a more responsible approach is also at the core of Sanford’s fellowship work. “People are awestruck when I show them how our native plants have complex root systems up to 5 feet deep, as opposed to the shallow Kentucky bluegrass,” she said. “These plants are literally rooted in our tradition, so we should be using them much more.”
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One positive side effect of the ongoing crisis has been that the water industry is growing fast and increasingly becoming a realistic career choice for students. Smitten by the water bug himself, Gomez is encouraging others to explore potential opportunities in this fascinating field.
“Water is one of those critical elements that encompasses every aspect of our lives,” he said. “And the great courses at MSU Denver offer a pathway into a field of study that isn’t just fascinating and rewarding — it can also bring about real social change.”