Colorado River: The Water War That Will Decide the Fate of 1 in 8 Americans

By Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist and staff writer for Grist, covering climate science, policy, and solutions. He has previously written for the Wall Street Journal, Slate, and a variety of other publications. Originally published at Grist

Lake Mead is the country’s biggest reservoir of water. Think of it as the savings account for the entire Southwest. Right now, that savings account is nearly overdrawn.

For generations, we’ve been using too much of the Colorado River, the 300-foot-wide ribbon of water that carved the Grand Canyon, supplies Lake Mead, and serves as the main water source for much of the American West.

The river sustains one in eight Americans — about 40 million people — and millions of acres of farmland. In the next 40 years, the region is expected to add at least 10 million more people, as the region’s rainfall becomes more erratic.

An especially dismal snowpack this past winter has forced a long-simmering dispute over water rights to the fore, one that splits people living above and below Lake Mead.

It’s a messy, confusing situation, so here’s an overview of who’s involved and what’s at stake:

Users of Colorado River water below Lake Mead — including the cities of Phoenix, Los Angeles, Las Vegas (collectively referred to as the “lower basin”) — rely on the reservoir as a lifeline. The people in the lower basin exist partly at the mercy of what happens in the upper basin, an area encompassing the snowcapped peaks of Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and northern New Mexico, the source region of the river.

Big water users in the upper basin — Salt Lake City, Denver, Albuquerque, among others — are also getting nervous because snowpack in the Rockies has been dwindling, and there’s no physical way for them to store the water they depend on. There are no big reservoirs in the Rockies.

In recent weeks, tensions are rising after states in the upper basin sent a strongly worded letter to one of the river’s biggest users, the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, or CAWCD, which supplies water to Tucson and Phoenix. The upper basin states accused the utility of manipulating the complex system that governs Lake Mead in order to get more water. The Arizona utility denied the charges.

An upper basin city — Pueblo, Colorado — then pulled out of a regional conservation program, further threatening the spirit of long-term cooperation throughout the Colorado River basin. Denver has threatened to do the same. The quick escalation shows just how fragile the system really is.

In an email to Grist, Kathryn Sorensen, director of Phoenix’s Water Services Department, says the city “does not and has never supported CAWCD’s attempt to draw additional water” from the Colorado River. She said that the only way forward “is through collaboration among all stakeholders in the basin.”

The whole thing feels like the beginnings of a water war fought with cryptic, wonky tweets. As longtime Western water journalists Luke Runyon and Bret Jaspers recently wrote, “public shaming is how water managers police themselves.”

What’s happening could be seen as the slow death of an era of easy living, the unwinding of a nearly 100-year-old series of multi-state compacts (collectively called “The Law of the River”) that’s been widely viewed as too permissive. Over-reliance on the Colorado River has helped pave the way for rapid population growth across the region, from Southern California to Denver, which may now, ironically, begin to pose a threat to those same cities.

For many reasons, Arizona is last in line for the Colorado River’s water, and the state is already preparing for the mandatory restrictions that could be less than two years away. The latest official projections from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that manages the Colorado River system, shows that Lake Mead is likely to dip below the critical threshold of 1,075 feet above sea level late next year. That could trigger the first official “call on the river” — a legally-mandated cutback for certain users aimed at avoiding an all-out free-for-all.

In Phoenix, a worst-case scenario is now looking more and more likely. In just a few years from now, if (or, when) Lake Mead dips below 1,075 feet, the city may find itself in a position where it stops building new subdivisions, the state’s agricultural economy comes crashing to a permanent halt, and a fit of well-drilling begins to deplete the local groundwater.

And then there’s always climate change. On the world’s current emissions trajectory, sharply warming temperatures boost the odds of a megadrought in the Southwest sometime later this century to more than 99 percent. Such a drought would last a generation. Nearly all trees in the Southwest could die. The scale of the disaster would have the power to reshape the course of U.S. history.

For now, the spat over the Colorado River offers a glimpse into water politics in an era of permanent scarcity. The low snowpack in the upper basin states means that inflows into Lake Mead will be just 43 percent of normal this year, raising the stakes for conservation programs throughout the West. In the midst of long-running drought, 2017 was the most successful year for water conservation in decades — which is evidence that when there’s less water around, people can make things work.

“We must all find a way to collectively use less water while respecting the Law of the River,”Sorensen says. “That’s of course a tricky proposition because the Law of the River is basically the most complex governance structure ever created by human beings.”


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  1. PlutoniumKun

    Just a small reminder that the Colorado River actually flows into Mexico – the construction of the major dams on the river was a ecological and economic disaster for the Colorado River Delta in the Gulf of California. I would imagine that recent attempts to revive a small area of the Delta for wildlife and fisheries will be the big loser in arguments between the States.

  2. The Rev Kev

    This could go south real fast. I think that it is going to impressed on a lot of people that you can have a civilisation without oil but that it is not possible to have one without water. I know enough American history to know that there is a mythos in the American west about water as shown by the painting “Fight for the Water Hole” ( so this is not something to be taken lightly.
    Without water some cities in these States will simply have to drop their populations, impose water-rationing and liquidate whole groups of water-intensive farms in their regions. You are going to have people screaming about State rights and people demanding that it is their Right to use as much water as they want for their swimming pools and green grass. There will be law suits galore but, as Newt from Aliens said –
    I wonder how many people know that Arizona nearly came to blows with Colorado over the Parker Dam back in 1934 ( The Governor of Arizona at the time declared martial law and dispatched 100 National Guard troops from the 158th Infantry Regiment to the site of the Dam.
    If I lived in this region and could not move, now would be a good time to drought proof where you live, install water tanks, plant natives instead of green lawn, read up on how people in desert regions cope with limited water, etc. I would not be depending on the leadership to get things right in time.

  3. J Sterling

    If “collectively use less water” is just a euphemism for “individually use less water per person”, while no restriction is put on the right of people to move into the area and use their share of the water, then it won’t make any difference to the total use of water: Jevon’s Paradox will apply, as the increased parsimony per person will make it “okay” to bring in more people.

    1. The Rev Kev

      Unless they make the area too expensive to move into except for the well-off that will be able to afford all the measures necessary to desert proof their communities. Just bottle-neck those regions with sky-high property taxes. Just one possible answer.

      1. Yellopig

        And those of us who already live here now will do what?
        Thanks for your opinion, tho.

      2. drumlin woodchuckles

        Here is another possibility: Progressive Punitive Pricing.

        Charge current residential water rates for what is generally agreed to be a survival-necessity amount of water to stay alive, clean and healthy with. For every 100 gallons above that, charge a higher price. Have the prices rise on the “rising brackets of water use” to prohibitively punitive levels.

        Do the same for bussiness and industry. Do the same for farming. Charge tolerable prices for least-feasible use. Charge rapidly escalating prices for escalating use above the “least feasible.”

        1. The Rev Kev

          Hey, how about charging by how much water you use at a set rate? Doesn’t matter if you are a home owner, farmer, businessman, whatever. Homeowners wouldn’t use much typically so will be spared the worse while those who want to, say, grow cotton in the middle of a desert would be hard hit. If you are not making a profit on a crop after paying for water usage, then maybe they shouldn’t t be growing that crop at all.

  4. YL

    Just like in California, there is enough water for people and subdivisions. What there isn’t enough water for is big ag: “In Arizona, about 25 percent of the state’s water is provided by the Colorado River. Of that 25 percent, about 80 percent is used for agriculture.”

    Who owns the farms? What are they growing? Who profits?

    1. PlutoniumKun

      This is the key point of course. There is plenty of water for domestic use – it is agriculture that uses up most of it, frequently to grow crops that have no business growing in a semi-arid region. The obvious solution is a steady reduction in the supply of water for the most water hungry crops, but a lot of powerful people will lose a lot of money if you do that.

      1. Michael Fiorillo

        Yes, it’s absolute insanity that Colorado River water is used to grow alfalfa, for example, a thirsty and low-value crop that is totally inappropriate for the region.

        Mark Reisner’s “Cadillac Desert” is still probably the go-to book for understanding the history of dam-building and water development in the West…

        1. paul

          Cadillac Desert got a mention in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife:

          In the American Southwest, Nevada, Arizona, and California skirmish for dwindling shares of the Colorado River. Into the fray steps Angel Velasquez, detective, leg-breaker, assassin and spy. A Las Vegas water knife, Angel “cuts” water for his boss, Catherine Case, ensuring that her lush, luxurious arcology developments can bloom in the desert, so the rich can stay wet, while the poor get nothing but dust.

          Great climate change dystopian ‘fiction.’

          1. Paleobotanist

            Great book! Speaking as a hydrologist who’s worked on water issues in the West.

        2. Harrold

          “About 47% of Arizona’s agricultural production is in livestock. The other 53% is in crops. In terms of revenue generated, Arizona’s top five agricultural products are cattle and calves, lettuce, dairy products, cotton, and hay.”

          Its almost like they do not realize they live in a desert.

          1. Arizona Slim

            Some of us do. And we’re doing what we can on the water harvesting/local food production front.

            Case in point: This morning’s breakfast featured pancakes that included flour from my front yard mesquite tree’s pods. And that tree lives on rainwater.

            1. Arizona Slim

              If you’d like to discuss this topic in person, hit me up at the next Tucson NC meetup. I’ll be posting the meetup announcement (via Yves) in the next couple of weeks.

          2. ArcadiaMommy

            It was 107 yesterday. I get that it’s a desert. The problem is that people don’t have the knowledge or resources to cope with this reality. Filling in your pool, changing landscaping, installing cisterns, etc. is quite expensive and time consuming.
            Plus I won’t fill in my pool because I have active kids who will destroy my house if they are cooped up for weeks inside.
            Can’t wait to get the hell out of here and go to the beach.

            1. Anon

              As a former Scottsdale city planner/architect: The Great Arizona Bake-Off has begun!

        1. Marco

          Nah…I love bread. I’ll revise my personal cutoff to 241 gallons of water per pound of WHEAT. But you need eggs to make bread so that moves it up to 480 gallons. It’s hopeless!!

          1. Judith

            You don’t need eggs to make bread. Simplest bread recipe: flour, liquid, sweetener, salt, yeast. Everything else is optional.

        2. PKMKII

          Kind of ironic, that the foods that seem more liquid-heavy (cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes, watermelons) actually require less water than “drier” foods like wheat and nuts.

          1. Marco

            I noticed that too. I love cucumbers and eat them several times a week. Same with squash.

      2. Webstir

        It’s not just Ag. It’s all of it. As I commented below, read Wallace Stegner’s “Beyond the 100th Meridian,” a history of John Wesley Powell. Without explicitly saying so, Powell understood the precautionary principle — a principle savaged by capitalism. He recommended major amendments to the Homesteaders Act because he realized it’s basically a desert “beyond the 100th meridian” where people could not survive for long. The dust bowl was just Chapter 1 in realizing his predictions. We’re entering Chapter 2.

        It’s a desert people. A desert. Let all the believers of human ingenuity over nature eat dust & sand …

        1. The Rev Kev

          Lambert posted an article which shows that the 100th meridian “climate border” is now heading east which will turn some of America’s premier crop lands into western desert style lands.
          Hey, I just checked and you can see “Cadillac Desert” the series on YouTube.

    2. Carolinian

      The book Cadillac Desert is often mentioned here and is highly recommended to anyone interested in these issues. And yes inappropriate agriculture is a big reason for the water draw down by Arizona but also, of course, for California. The famous or infamous Central Arizona Project–pushed through Congress by powerful farm lobbies–is an open canal that passes through some of the hottest terrain in the country as it moves Colorado water from below Lake Havasu to Phoenix and Tuscon.

      These days though the state seems to be exchanging agriculture for housing development and house prices are rising. Apparently the attitude has always been that these “facts on the ground” will force the federal government to somehow bail them out. That once proposed canal to Canada may yet be revived.

      I’ve just returned from Phoenix and on the way crossed the mountains that supply the city’s other water source–the Salt River system. Far from showing spring runoff, all the rivers I crossed were bone dry. The Salt itself still has water but is fed by a series of lakes built decades ago. The crisis may indeed, finally, be at hand.

      1. Steve

        Cadillac Desert is a fantastic work! I lived in AZ and used to go tubing down the Salt many times a year. The CAP should have never happened but there is so much corruption around water in AZ that there was no chance to stop it. I sat in a room as a consultant while people openly talked about how they lied and committed felonies to misinform the public on related water votes and then profited off of water treatment. At the same time you could drive through any retirement development and watch retirees from the midwest waste hundreds of gallons a day washing off their driveways. Every roadway into AZ should have a big sign with Herb Steins – If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.

        1. curlydan

          another interesting point in Cadillac Desert was Reisner’s description of how badly Jimmy Carter got burned by trying to stand up to the “big water/big dam” lobbies early in his presidency. Carter was a bit tone deaf politically as usual, but it was hard to turn the spigot off on all that $$ flowing through dam construction and ag spending.

    3. Jack Brown

      “Big ag” is what you and the rest of the country eat. If “big ag” doesn’t get water, then those people and subdivisions will starve.

      1. none

        “Big ag” is what you and the rest of the country eat. If “big ag” doesn’t get water, then those people and subdivisions will starve.

        That’s stupid: the issue is artificially low water costs in places of scarcity. Getting rid of that subsidy means growing in saner locations and depending less on the thirstiest crops. Nobody will starve from the CA central valley growing fewer almonds.

        1. GF

          The artificially low water costs result in less ground water pumping and aquifer depletion by farmers.. The use of solar powered water pumps and improvements in pump efficiencies will reult in farmers getting the subsidies switching to groundwater. Groundwater pumping in AZ has resulted in land subsidence and fissures that threaten developed property. One of the legitimate drivers of the CAP (Central Arizona Project) was the threat of aquifer depletion and subsidence and associated property damage. Building the CAP also allowed continued insane growth at an unabated pace.

        2. baldski

          Absolutely agree. I am from Nevada. Raising cattle in this state is the stupidest thing I have ever heard of but millions of acres of BLM land are leased at a pittance for this. If you want to raise cattle, go to Iowa where cows can graze up to their ass in grass. The first time I drove down I-5 in California and saw cotton growing in Inyo and Kern counties, I did not believe it either. Raise cotton in Mississippi or Alabama.

      2. drumlin woodchuckles

        Most ag is big ag all over the country. When someone says “big ag” relative to this discussion, may we assume they really mean ” irrigate-the-desert-bigly” ag? Specifically?

    4. Car Buglar

      In the coverage of the recent e. coli contamination of romaine lettuce from Yuma Arizona, I was surprised to learn that the area is the nation’s largest producer of winter greens.

      It has always amazed me that so much produce (during the rest of the year, the San Joaquin Valley probably produces most, if not almost all, leafy greens) comes from such a small land area. While soil and climate must account for some of the narrow dispersal, I’ve lived in California long enough to know that cheap water delivered by political pull likely accounts for the rest. You have to wonder if such a small land base is a stable platform for a society as large as this one.

    1. Pajarito

      I noticed that too, Pueblo Co. is far east of the Rocky Mountains, not in the Colorado River drainage. I don’t know what is exactly at issue for them. Albuquerque, NM is also not in the drainage, but it receives a portion of the upper basin Colorado R. flows. They are brought through a tunnel in the mountains (divide) and delivered to the Chama River, part of the Rio Grande drainage.

      Lobbying and legislators have over-allocated the river, in part on rosy projections of yield from a much wetter period when most river data was gathered. This is creating a sense of entitlement in the populations served, which will be a problem.

      Ag use of Colorado river water is huge, as said below. Used to grow cotton, alfalfa, lettuce (most of US supply), dates and pecans. That usage is huge, but the interests are entrenched and have been very influential as a lobby, many likely have a senior water right as well.

    2. spkonieczka

      Technically, you’re right. But neither is Denver. However, Colorado River water is sucked off the western slope and pumped in a straight line through the divide to be dumped into Front Range reservoirs.

      BTW, lest we forget, Colorado River water is also used in the practice of fracking up-and-down the I-25 and I-70 corridors, about which I wish the author had something to report.

      1. pretzelattack

        ah, thanks, i was wondering that too. in a subject close to my heart, i wonder how much water is being used to grow cannabis. i fear the answer.

        1. Tyronius

          Cannabis in Colorado is mostly grown indoors, where the appetite for water is replaced by an appetite for coal fired power.

          Trading one devil for another…

    3. Wyoming

      All of the big metro areas along the Colo front range from Denver to Pueblo collect water from the various headwaters of streams which feed the Colo River. Literally hundreds of thousands of acre feet of water from the west side of the Rockies is moved over to the east for those cities.

    4. LarryB

      Neither is southern California, for the most part, but they still use a ton of Colorado River water.

      1. Anon

        Actually, a small portion of SoCal is part of the Colorado (technically). Flooding along the river is what created the Salton Sea. Now, the All-American canal shuttles water from the Colorado to the big Ag in the Imperial Valley. Another canal feeds San Diego.

        1. Synoia

          The Salton Sea was created when construction of the All American Canal Failed AND DIVERTED The Colorado River.

  5. crow

    As a country we appear to be entering new territory by way of the water in the Colorado basin. Or should I say lack of water? With the exception of local municipal zoning laws, the concept of restricting big time real estate development is unheard of in this country and completely contrary to the sacred American civil religion of unlimited growth. Will the various interests in the basins agree to anything? Limiting growth? Not going to happen in my humble opinion. Instead, basin water managers will probably try organizing raids on other water sources, say those in the Pacific Northwest, the Great Lakes, or even icebergs. And if that doesn’t work and no other solutions comes to pass, then the existing system will crash under its own weight and then nature will decide how many people can reasonably live there. Whatever happens won’t be pretty. But here we are. It’s crisis time.

    1. Carolinian

      Looking at a Google satellite view of my friend’s Mesa neighborhood three quarters of her neighbors have (small) swimming pools. Golf course are also quite a thing in the Phoenix metro area. There is a sense of complacency because Phoenix at least gets most of its water from AZ’s own mountains. However if the snowpack disappears and the monsoon rains fail?……

    2. PKMKII

      And then there’s the knock-on effect for the rest of the country. Those in the SW who see the writing on the wall and have the resources to get out will do so, and that has all sorts of political, social, environmental, and economic implications for the areas they move to, which most likely means parts northeast. So the sprawl intensifies in those areas, and brings its own set of problems.

  6. Pete

    Maybe trying to grow crops in the desert isn’t the best idea? In part, it is only because of proximity to cheap labor….

    1. Felix_47

      Initially the federal government subsidized farm development in these areas. But the cheap migrant labor is what sustains it now. Almost all of what they grow can be grown in the southeast. The problem is that the workforce in these areas is native, talks back, wants to be well paid and is relatively unmotivated. Now even in these areas they bring in agricultural labor from south of the border. This is expensive to the taxpayer since the taxpayer has to support the wives, girlfriends and children and grandma and grandpa and everyone else so the grower can have one cheap laborer. If we want agriculture in the US then we need to pay for it at the supermarket. If we don’t want to pay it would be cheaper and more efficient to just outsource all of it to low wage countries.

      1. Pete

        About paying for it at the supermarket? I dunno, last time I was in Tucson, I bought grapefruits for 6 for a dollar. They’re $3/lb or more up here in NY state.

        So I have a feeling that if you doubled or tripled the labor we would barely notice, but if we enforced labor laws and minimum wage, a lot of the screwy business “incentives” would go away.

  7. oaf

    Can you imagine the volume of water that sculpted the landscapes of that part of the country? Climate change; could it possibly bring the region more water than ever considered? Extreme weather and different weather patterns may someday turn the situation around. Not to the advantage of anyone living there.
    If it happened before; could it happen again?

    1. Edward E

      Yes, very good, I’ve traveled around out there in the land carved by weathering a lot. This planet has cycles of it’s own and a .04% magic gas is probably not affecting those. We’ve been spoiled by a long stable cycle. Some cycles are mercilessly unstable and it’s extremely naive to think a stable cycle is the norm.

      1. Synapsid

        Edward E,

        Let me guess: Your message in saying that “This planet has cycles of it’s [sic] own and a .04% magic gas is probably not affecting those.” is that atmospheric CO2–usually expressed in parts per million by volume (ppmv) but using parts per hundred (per cent) makes the amount look really tiny–isn’t likely to have any effect on climate because of its relatively small amount in the atmosphere.

        Let’s see: CO2 is at a concentration above 400 ppmv currently–it’s called a trace gas. Far more of the atmosphere is nitrogen and oxygen. The 21% or so of oxygen is what keeps us and all animal life on the planet alive. Oxygen is produced by photosynthesis and photosynthesis is dependent on…um…CO2. Huh. And before we began boosting it the atmosphere’s CO2 level was only 280 ppmv. It looks like a relatively small amount doesn’t necessarily mean that a trace gas can’t have an effect on a planetary scale.

        Another effect: Without that trace gas the average surface temperature of Earth would be somewhere around -5 degrees Fahrenheit, or lower.

        The message in your post is in common use by climate deniers. Did you know that?

        1. Edward E

          If this solar physicist changes his mind, I’ll change mine. I’ve been on both sides of this same as he has, opposite in fact a while.

          If all of the outgoing radiation were absorbed (heating the atmosphere), the temperature at the surface TG, calculated from the Stefan-Boltzmann law, G = σTG4, would increase by a factor 1.19, equal to the fourth root of 2, i.e. to 1.19 (255K) = 303K, which is more than the 288K observed, because some fraction of the longwave infrared radiation does
          escape to space without being absorbed. So, the (misnamed) greenhouse effect arises because the surface now receives energy from two sources, the Sun and the heated atmosphere. Without the GHGs (mostly H2O that is up to two orders of magnitude more abundant than CO2) the surface temperature would be a brutal 255K = -18°C, instead of the balmy 288K = 15°C we presently enjoy. It would seem that we should be able to compute from first principles what the amplification should be, but in practice that turns out to be impossible because the atmosphere is much more complicated than the simple model used above and while the CO2 content is only varying slowly and is measured with good accuracy, the water vapor content is highly variable in time and space with intractable feedbacks from other GHGs and climate variables and is beyond the capability of current physical models to cope with, so the effect of GHGs must be assessed empirically with attendant very large uncertainty, as reflected in the IPCC statement referred to earlier that bears be repeated “No best estimate for equilibrium climate sensitivity can now be given because of a lack of agreement on values across assessed lines of evidence and studies”.

  8. cm

    Meh. This isn’t really a problem until golf courses are shut down. Golf courses use an insane amount of water :

    Audubon International estimates that the average American course uses 312,000 gallons per day. In a place like Palm Springs, where 57 golf courses challenge the desert, each course eats up a million gallons a day. That is, each course each day in Palm Springs consumes as much water as an American family of four uses in four years.

  9. pretzelattack

    hey no problem, our government will just privatize the water, which as we know solves all problems. innovation! disruption! ww3!

    1. ObjectiveFunction

      “What I really need is a droid that can understand the language of binary moisture evaporators.”

  10. Wyoming

    Being a transplanted Arizonan I get to read about this issue every year and want to point out that the content of this article is essentially identical to a raft of articles from the last 5 years.

    While it is certain that climate change is slowly drying out the southwest over the long term what happens on a year to year basis is the vagaries of weather. It fluctuates. We were very wet with heavy snowpack in 16/17 and this year not so much. In 2015 we were in a worse crisis than now:

    If we get a heavy monsoon this year the stories will go away again – until the next dry spell.

    This weather overlaying the changing climate makes it very easy for the development interests to be able to keep driving the bus of capitalism. Big money interests run things here. In my area about 100 miles from Phoenix we are already having water issues and the projection is for shortfalls in about 20 years. But that has not stopped development planning here for enough additional houses that it would equal about 20% of the current population. So what is their solution? A proposal for a pipeline to ship water into the area to the tune of several hundred million dollars. Bill Gates recently purchased about 25,000 acres of desert west of Phoenix to build a brand new high tech city with a population projection of about 200,000 people – in one of the dries areas of the entire state – wonder where he is getting his water from.

    And it is not just the wasteful or nonsensical agriculture water use. Residential use is stupid too. In the valley where Phoenix lies there are about 200,000 swimming pools in peoples backyards (which evaporate at inches a day); there are artificial lakes built so folks can have houses on the water; there are still many houses with grass lawns; there are millions of trees and bushes in yards which require irrigation because they are not suited to the desert, etc. Per capita water use in all the cities in AZ is much higher than in Los Angeles – in some cases almost double LA usage.

    Those kinds of factors allow planning boards to say there is lots of water we just have to use it differently. And there is a grain of truth to it. But long term this country is way overpopulated and headed for deep trouble a few decades out.

  11. Ed Miller

    When I was young, growing up in Boise, Idaho, there were studies done on the feasibility of tapping the Snake River in Idaho for the benefit of California and Arizona. Nothing came of it but I wouldn’t be surprised if this is brought up soon. We all know Idaho is filled with those deplorables, so we can’t waste water on them – had to add this snark as I hate denigration of others as inferiors.

    I think that California needs to invest in desalinization, in spite of the expense, to feed its coastal cities. Even though big Ag uses an enormous amount of water, don’t underestimate the importance of food. But I agree that growing acres and acres of almond trees, for example, isn’t the best use of water for food.

    1. Webstir

      This Idaho deplorable understands that, as big a state’s rights advocate as Idaho is, it ain’t never gonna happen. That’s “Idaho’s” water. And Idaho, because it didn’t understand the impact of groundwater pumping on the river catchment, has already over allocated the water.

    2. LarryB

      A similar situation exists with respect to the Columbia. Most Washingtonians and Oregonians are willing to give California all the water they want, as long as it’s taken out downstream of Buoy 10 (the nominal mouth of the river).

    3. Chauncey Gardiner

      See a lot of semis out on I-5 traveling to and from BC for fresh produce from the American Southwest, and a fair number of Canadians have retirement homes there. Maybe the state governments of California and Arizona can cut a deal with the province of BC for a water pipeline. “Win-Win” or everybody, including Wall Street. Justin Trudeau has been a pipeline supporter for transshipment of tar sands oil.

  12. Utah

    So glad to see this featured. It’s such an important topic and so many people in this region don’t know where there water is coming from.
    One of the other major problems in the lower Colorado is salt from agriculture. The oldest fracking site is actually to inject salt into the earth and is on the Colorado-Utah border. They’ve pumped so much salt into the earth that it’s now only in commission 6 or 9 months out of the year instead of the full year, and causing more earthquakes than it used to. We need a new injection well, or we need to stop farming in the region (that’s unlikely to happen.) But the salt just accumulates as it flows because of agriculture.

    I’ve also read reports that the entire region is sinking because the water in the Colorado Basin is so over-allocate that more wells are being pumped.
    Water Rights are something we’re gonna have to deal with very soon. I don’t know if my state is up to the task. (sorry down-streamers!)

  13. Wyoming

    There is another aspect to this problem in that Calif is the 5th biggest economy in the world and, thus, has a lot more money to fight this fight than many of the other locations. An example:

    An acquaintance of mine has a ranch along the Green River (a Colo River tributary) in Wyoming. He owns Territorial water rights (these predate Wyoming becoming a state in 1890). Very valuable as he will be one of only a handful still allowed his full water allocation as the deep water restrictions come in the future.

    What does he use this water for? Growing alfalfa to feed the livestock of course. The ranch makes no profits at all any more but enough to pay the taxes and pay for a very limited number of workers to keep it going. He lives and works on the East Coast.

    I have pointed out to him that eventually they are going to rewrite the water allocations and take away his rights because they will have to do it (you can’t have people dying of thirst to feed a bunch of cows). He agrees this will likely happen.

    So what I proposed to him was that he lease his water rights to Los Angels on a hundred year lease with an inflation clause built in. He would make far more money than he does now and it would be much harder for the govt to take away his rights in the future as LA would be sitting at the table with him telling AZ’s lawyers to go pound sand. He is still thinking about it.

    California could buy a large amount of the water rights on the upper drainage’s far cheaper than the cost of desalinating and once they owned them it would be very tough to get them out of their hands.

    1. JBird

      Northern California has had some fights with Southern California over the south’s use of the north’s water. During the big drought in the 70s they were desperately trying to find ways to ship water from the Russian River into Marin County, and perhaps other counties as well, and trying to find ways to conserve more, and get more water from anywhere, for use in the San Francisco Bay Area, as there was thought that even San Francisco City’s Hetch Hetchy Reservoir was going to go dry. It was big news when developers in South California were building an entire lake (I saw the pictures and it was no pond.). This when they were cutting off water from individuals for having overly lush well watered gardens in the Bay Area especially in Marin. Had the drought not broken the next year, it would have been interesting times. It was noted in the news that the southern part of California has a greater population therefore the greater number of votes for demanding water. There was even semi-serious talk by some of bombing the canals moving the water south especially when the Owens Valley was mentioned. Oh yes, interesting times.

      Note, that was caused the greatest friction wasn’t the shortage of water. God, the universe, nature, whatever decided the rains for us. Who do you get angry at? It was just a fact of life. No rain, no water. It was the prolific wasteful use of the limited available water by some while others had dying gardens that caused the anger; many were facing a possible lack of water for showering, cooking, and just maybe even drinking. Creating an entire lake, and building more swimming pools, as if a third of the entire population of the state was not facing almost certain severe mandatory rationing within a year?

      Note also, that not only was a probable bombing campaign averted only by chance of the then next rainy season actually having rain in it, that although California’s population is much larger now than then, the more frugal use of it since then has allowed water for everyone. Also, the agriculture industry does have immense power in the state, that has allowed them to use water unwisely by growing crops like almonds and alfalfa in the drier parts of the state, which effectively exports the limited water to outside the state. So long as people do have showering and drinking water they can get away with it. When even drinking water is threaten, they might be in for a shock; too many people insist on treating water as if it is a luxury that can be manged by the free market, not a essential requirement to live. The need to manage the supply of water is probably the reason for large scale civilization after all. The lack of water has also caused civilizations to collapse.

      This reminds me of the 2016 election. Once enough people were suffering, and the hypocrisy was too blatant, we got Donald Trump. I have no idea just how bad the water shortage will be in the future, but I do know that having functioning, competent municipal, state, and federal governments will be the determinant of how successfully we deal with it. If the current Democratic and Republican Parties are any sign, we’re screwed.

      1. none

        Well did the lake get built? Is it around now and is there someplace we can find the coordinates? Just asking ;).

        1. JBird

          The lake did get completed although they might have waited to finish topping it off after the rains. As to where it is exactly, I don’t remember. Late 70s fancy housing development complete with lake, and I think golf course, somewhere north of LA.

          I might do some research as it would be interesting to discover how it’s doing now.

    2. Carolinian

      If Congress can take away your friend’s water rights then what’s to stop them from taking them from water greedy California? If California could solve their problem with a checkbook they probably would have done it already. Presumably the existing multi-state agreement is to prevent this sort of end around.

      1. Wyoming

        I decided to go look this up and it turns out that an upper basin water right ‘cannot’ be sold to a lower basin entity.

        It is use it or lose it downstream. But…

        The only reason places like CA and AZ have all the water they need is that Wyoming does not actually use all of what they are entitled to take by the agreement. If they did it would get ugly fast.

        But Wyoming actually has plans to do just that because they are worried that eventually they will lose the rights because they are not using 20% of their allocation. So they are in the planning stages to build reservoirs to ‘save’ the water and use it for….growing more hay and building more houses.

  14. Matthew G. Saroff

    To paraphrase Willie Sutton, you go after agriculture, because, “That’s where the water is”.

    Not only is this a huge proportion of the water usage, it is also the lowest hanging fruit for water savings, because they pay the least and use the most wasteful methods to irrigate.

    The solution is to do away with prior appropriation water rights, and raise the price of water to farmers, particularly large farms.

    It may not permanently fix the problem, but it is a highly effective first move.

  15. Luke

    The best use of the Colorado River would be to enable processing of the Green River Formation (in a radius of about 100 miles from where CO/UT/WY meet) as an oil shale. This is NOT the same thing as fracking in otherwise conventional oil wells, but retorting, or low-Oxygen heating of million-molecular-weight Kerogen, or thermally highly immature potential petroleum source rock. As there are lots of places to graze cattle, but only one Green River Formation, when Peak Oil once again rears its head, this will IMO more likely than not happen.

  16. none

    In Phoenix… the state’s agricultural economy comes crashing to a permanent halt …

    Arizona is a f*king desert state. Why does it have an agricultural economy? That sounds about as clever as opening ski resorts in the Bahamas.

    1. ArcadiaMommy

      There is a pretty diverse set of climate zones in AZ. I can drive from my house in Phoenix to Flagstaff, the white mountains, or the Rim country and go from hot, horrible desert to lush, cool, rainy forest. It’s a big state.

  17. Wukchumni

    Here in the very heart of the drought in California, watching the changes wrought in slow time over the course of lack of water was interesting, and our 5 year bout was nothing compared to century long droughts in the past.

    One thing we always enjoy is drinking from mountain springs, and know where there are dozens of them, and one by one they went dry on us, Mother Nature’s way of going TILT.

    We had a monster winter a few years ago that put paid to coverage of the drought-as the reservoirs had all filled up again, but if we didn’t have that one, the state would be flirting with disaster presently.

    We do a easy-peasy kayak trip once or twice a year down the Colorado River on the Black Canyon part, and you can’t really gauge anything from the ‘river’ flow, as it’s all just release from Hoover Dam, and after our trip on the drive back up along Lake Mead, there are boat launching ramps 1/2 a mile from actual water.

    And then the Quagga & Zebra mussels that have invaded the entire Colorado River system from well up north beyond Lake Powell, all the way into all of San Diego’s reservoirs, most of which rely on Colorado River water, or state water from way up north, as Tijuana-adjacent is last many Charley in a long supply chain.

    The mussels breed like underwater rabbits, and their specialty is clogging pipes…

  18. Ken

    Why are Denver, Pueblo, and Salt Lake City mentioned in an article about the Colorado River? Denver and Pueblo are in the Mississippi drainage. Salt Lake City is in it’s own basin. Yes, critical water problems, but not Colorado River problems, nor Colorado River solutions.

    What solutions? First we need a crisis, this being America….

    1. Muriel

      Denver, Pueblo, and Salt Lake City are cities in states that comprise – along with Wyoming and New Mexico – the Upper Basin states of the Colorado River Compact (referred to as the “law of the river” in the article above). The Lower Basin states are Arizona, Utah, and California (later added: Mexico and the NA tribes with land on or impacted by the Colorado river basin).

      It was an incredibly complex agreement at the time that has become increasingly more complex in the almost 100 years since it was signed . . . and it’s much more about politics than river drainage.

  19. HDView

    Not to defend ag in the desert but at least two attractions are long sunny cloudless days and the absence of some of the typical crop pests. Throw in subsidized water, subsidized grazing land and a cultural history of farming (we were all mostly farmers in the past) and voila, farming in the desert. Another argument against farming in the desert southwest is that it’s generally a high altitude desert with a correspondingly shorter growing season.

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