Water in the southwest a ticking time bomb


Lake Mead at a low water level Courtesy of Salt Lake Tribune.

Today’s California particularly the Southern half features cities and agriculture where desert should be.

More likely than not, the water that keeps these cities running comes from a river or stream in Northern California.

The south has been stealing water from the north for much too long. This has been draining our rivers and access. Money can’t buy happiness, but it seems to be able to buy our water.

In fact, in the American southwest (Southern California, Southern Nevada and Arizona) rivers and streams originate from the mountains of northern areas, like the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada.

These rivers are constantly running low because when you build such intensively water-consuming structures in a place with little rainfall to begin with, you are bound to run into disaster.

The main source of water for the American Southwest is the Colorado River, which is the longest and largest river in that region. Stretching from Western Colorado to Mexico, this river has historically provided for most of the water in the entire area. The river has been divvied up among Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, California and Arizona, since the 1922 Colorado River Compact was signed.

However, the lion’s share of the river has gone to California for two very important reasons.

First: The siphoning of water to Los Angeles via an extensive system of dams and pipelines proved key to its development as a city (in addition to the L.A. Aqueduct, which takes an immense amount of water from the Owens River in the Sierras).

Second: The water from the Colorado River is used to irrigate the Imperial Valley, Southeastern California, which is one of the most agriculturally-productive regions in entire world. States like Nevada get absolutely nothing from this compact, and Las Vegas constantly has to recycle its limited supply of water. There aren’t a lot of front lawns made out of grass there for this reason.

The other unacceptable thing about the compact is that it was signed during an unusually wet season in the Rocky Mountains. This means that instead of taking a proportionate amount of river flow each year, every state takes much more than they should.

This has resulted in the river running dry as it reaches Mexico and the Gulf of California since 1998 with the one exception a few years ago, when water was released from its upper dams. The Colorado River delta was once a source of incredible wildlife diversity. Now, though, it’s a parched riverbed, rife with dead fish.

There is a contingency plan in place for lower water levels, but given that the river has been in a drought for over 20 years, it won’t work. Climate change, in addition to human activity, has not only caused the delta to shrink, but has also led to surface water from its reservoirs (Lake Powell and Lake Mead) to rapidly evaporate.

All of this has resulted from the needs of the southwestern United States. In about ten years or so, the flow of the river will no longer be able to support Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix and the extensive agriculture surrounding it. What will happen then? Will more pipelines be built? Will more water from the already-dry north be diverted to the even-more-parched south? We can only hope for a real solution: more water and less waste.

Reed McCoy can be reached at [email protected] or @ReedMcCoy6 on Twitter.