States remain deadlocked on water crisis
As the Colorado River sinks to a new low, decision-makers refuse to make desperately needed concessions.
The environmental outlook for the Colorado River, long perilous, is starting to resemble something more commonly seen on a dystopian TV show.
In the face of rapidly diminishing water levels, the federal government recently called upon seven states — Arizona, Nevada, California, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado — to collectively agree to sweeping water cuts that might avert disaster. But last month, California bucked the consensus of the other six states, causing a second blown deadline.
Amid a devastating 23-year megadrought, the river’s water flow, which provides water to 40 million people, has plummeted. Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the vast reservoirs that serve the American West, are three-quarters empty.
Lake Powell, in fact, might well lose the capacity to generate hydroelectric power for 4.5 million people this year. And beyond that lies the dreaded dead pool, which would cut off water to millions across four states.
“We have been sleepwalking on this issue for decades,” said Matt Makley, Ph.D., professor of History at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “The massive hydraulic infrastructure we all depend on has meant we could always simply flip a faucet and get fresh water.”
But that’s changing, he warned. “Many Westerners now understand that we have a precarious water future,” he said. “The reality we face is humbling.”
Passing the buck
When the Interior Department first asked the seven basin states to achieve drastic water cuts last year, nobody expected it to be popular. But the negotiations sparked a barrage of fierce intrastate blame-casting and buck-passing that quickly escalated and has since left all parties mired in a standoff.
Cities are pointing an accusing finger at agriculture, which guzzles 80% of the Colorado River’s water. Farmers in turn have disparaged the unsustainable urban sprawl of (often-desert-based) cities, which, they point out, also drive demand for the food they produce.
The Upper Basin states are collectively angry that the more-populous Lower Basin states use more water. But the Lower Basin states argue they have already made the biggest cuts, so now it’s someone else’s turn. The single note of agreement seems to be that everyone is furious at California, which uses by far the most water and so far is proving the most intractable partner.
“California has the best deal, according to the original river compact, and they won’t give that up willingly,” Makley pointed out. “Each time Nevada or Arizona proposes new ways to cut (California’s) allocation, the state simply responds, ‘See you in court!’”
Break the deadlock
All seven states have valid arguments and compelling reasons not to compromise, but that hardly seems the point anymore. If the states don’t voluntarily come up with a plan, the federal government will eventually impose one.
That’s why U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper has been quietly meeting fellow state senators over the past year in a bid to encourage the idea of using more carrot and less stick, so far to no avail.
The clear fact is that if one state falls, they all fall. So why can’t they break the deadlock?
“Because this is a scary situation,” said Nona Shipman, co-director of the One World One Water Center. “Remember, the decision-making authorities from each state have a primary responsibility to secure clean water for their own constituents.”
“If they blink first and make concessions,” she added, “then their water security might be impacted more than the state that concedes last.”
To understand this crisis, it’s important to get one critical point: There never was enough water.
The original Colorado River Compact, signed in 1922, grievously overestimated the river’s total water flow and gave states the collective right to annually withdraw 17.5 million acre-feet of water.
That was way too much even 100 years ago, Makley said. Add in a century of agricultural sprawl, the growth of cities, the impact of climate change and tens of millions more people, and it’s not difficult to see how we reached this point.
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“From the outset, the story of the Colorado River has been marked by naked boosterism and rampant development, with no concern for the future,” said Makley. “We can’t say we didn’t see this crisis coming.”
Amid such a parched outlook, however, springs of good news still occasionally bubble up.
At MSU Denver, for example, growing public interest in the water crisis has led to an enrollment surge in the Professional Water Studies Online Certificate program. (It is administered by the University’s Office of Innovative and Lifelong Learning in partnership with the One World One Water Center.)
And unlike the deadlocked states, the program is pretty adaptable. Although water studies can also be pursued as a minor, students need to simply take three classes to earn the certificate, which makes it accessible to those holding down jobs.
Katie Duke, who works in the environmental-services sector, studied online for her Water Studies certificate in 2020. Although she took the course primarily due to her interest in the issues Colorado is facing, it has brought significant other benefits.
“Having a sound knowledge of water quality, conservation, law and policy, plus of course environmental concerns, is a driving force in my work,” she said. “Taking the course has definitely boosted my career and inspired me to continue in this line of work.”
For fellow alumna Anistacia Barber, the course unlocked a whole new life. Five years after completing her Water Studies certificate, she is a Ph.D. candidate and a successful water sommelier — one of a select few in the U.S.
“The course gave me the confidence to go forward into an entirely new career armed with the knowledge, support and friendship of the faculty,” she said. “It gave me a real sense of accomplishment.”
The MSU Denver program’s success demonstrates how the water crisis has started to hit the public as a real-world concern that could materially affect individuals’ futures.
“The megadrought is no longer invisible,” said Shipman, the OWOW Center co-director. “It now features in news headlines, TV updates, everyday conversations and even White House briefings. You can’t ignore it anymore.”
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But there are still massive obstacles to overcome, and a recent troubling development in Arizona provides a harbinger of where we might be heading.
Last month, the City of Scottsdale cut off the water supply to a recently built neighborhood outside the city limits, leaving hundreds to scramble for alternative sources of water.
Officials cited drought-management measures and seem to be legally justified in their action, but this still felt like the opening salvo in a series of potential water wars. And indeed, other nearby cities are already enacting their own strict water-conservation measures.
“If the Scottsdale action proves to have a domino effect, it could lead to catastrophic economic collapse throughout that whole region,” Makley said.
“And if it goes on to spread further … well, then we’ll really have problems.”