Last month hundreds of Western water managers, farmers and scientists gathered at a conference with state, federal and tribal officials in Las Vegas, where they heard a sobering address about the Colorado River.
The crowd knew the situation was grim. But it was up to Colby Pellegrino, the director of water resources at the Southern Nevada Water Authority, to set the scene. She methodically laid out how bleak the situation had become for the river, which supports roughly 40 million people in the Southwest.
So bleak, in fact, that the federal government could soon begin restricting Colorado River water allocations if the seven states that share the water don’t approve their drought plans to reduce water consumption. The deadline for those approvals is Thursday.
Warnings of doomsday on the river are nothing new. Too many people, farms and factories depend on too little water, which is why the Colorado now rarely flows to its end point at the Gulf of California. The sprawling Southwest has sucked the river dry. Yet the region has thrived in spite of the naysayers.
Until now, it appears. Ms. Pellegrino’s most chilling points were about drought. Since 2000, the Colorado’s watershed has been hammered by a drought of historic severity and duration.
Paleo tree-ring data show evidence of numerous crippling droughts during the past 1,000 years. But that was before the current climate-change era. “We’re bordering on the lowest 17-year period that we’ve observed in the paleo record,” Ms. Pellegrino said. Remarkable, given that the last century produced some of the wettest years on record.
The United States Bureau of Reclamation estimates that the Colorado River’s watershed could face an annual shortfall of 3.2 million acre-feet by midcentury. That’s 1.04 trillion gallons, almost half what Arizona uses per year.
Could the current drought be nearing an end? Or is it the beginning of the end of life as we know it in the Southwest?
We don’t know. What we do know is that the drought is pushing the seven-state region toward geopolitical triggers of national significance. An August report by the federal Bureau of Reclamation projects a 57 percent likelihood of shortages in the lower basin of the Colorado in 2020. For the first time ever, the federal government may need to declare a “shortage” on the river. Last month, the bureau gave officials in those states until Thursday to approve their plans to reduce demand — or the federal government could impose restrictions on water allocations.
If the states don’t all adopt their drought plans, the Bureau of Reclamation will ask the governors for recommendations on how the federal government should proceed. Then the bureau will develop a new water plan before August.
The threat of litigation from farmers and others who depend on water allocations looms. “If past litigation on this river is any indication of what future litigation might be like,” Ms. Pellegrino warned, “we will all be moving somewhere else before the courts decide how this river should be managed.”
After her talk, there was just one question from the audience: “Is anybody working on solutions for additional supplies?”
Over the years, desert dreamers have proposed bitterly contested water diversions from the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, even the Great Lakes, to pipe in water to the Colorado’s basin. But those sound like 20th-century solutions to a 21st-century problem.
These contentious plans have always fallen under their own gargantuan financial weight, not to mention legal and permitting nightmares. Such proposals repeatedly draw attention to Southwestern farmers who use scarce water to grow crops — like hay and turf grass — that could be raised elsewhere.
What’s more, there’s little support outside the Southwest for these kinds of water diversions. “Across the United States,” Thomas Buschatzke, director of Arizona’s Department of Water Resources, said, “states are in a ‘you’re not taking our water’ mode.” Paranoia about a Southwest water grab was a key driver behind the Great Lakes Compact signed by President George W. Bush in 2008, which bans long-range diversions from the lakes.
Decades ago, the federal government did commit to adding water to the Colorado Basin, Ms. Pellegrino said. But to convince anyone that long-range water diversion projects were worth considering, she said, “we have to show a meaningful demonstration that we’ve done everything that we can, and I don’t think we’re there yet.”
Some parts of the Southwest have made great strides in conserving water by converting lawns to desert landscaping and adding innovations like subsurface drip irrigation and other water efficiencies on agricultural land, but much more work remains — in urban and agriculture sectors. It is easier to ramp up conservation, adopt water-reuse technologies and install desalination plants than it is to build far-flung water pipelines that would divide the country and harm ecosystems in other states.
With water diversion arguably off the table, the Southwest needs to look inward for a fix. We’ll soon see if the solution by the Southwest states is transformative, incremental or a whiff. What’s clear is that this century on the Colorado is turning out to be very different from the last one — and it could end up being unlike any century the river has ever seen.
Peter Annin is director of the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation at Northland College in Ashland, Wis., and the author of “The Great Lakes Water Wars.”