The American West is Running Out Of Water
Issue 12, Volume 113
When I was little, I would turn the tap on my bathroom sink and stick my hand under the smooth, cool stream. At the time, I treated water as if it was an infinite resource. Now, a mere 0.5 percent of Earth’s water is still accessible and fresh. Our management of this water shortage tests the world’s resilience in the face of the climate crisis. For the 733 million people who live in a region that is critically water-stressed, their lives and livelihoods are at stake. Though water scarcity is most pronounced in developing nations, American resources are being strained as well. If we look to the West, we can see that our nation is running out of water.
The source of this water crisis can be traced to the Colorado River, which flows from its source high in the Rocky Mountains south toward the Gulf of California. Providing water to Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, its significance is widespread. For millennia, the Colorado River reliably made it to the gulf, but over the past century, dam construction and the diversion of water to cities have prevented the river from arriving at its destination. This has led to the disappearance of 90 percent of the original wetlands in the Colorado River Delta, and the proliferation of invasive aquatic species that thrive in the slow flowing, warmer waters.
The threat extends beyond local ecosystems, with the 40 million people who use the Colorado River as a water source at risk due to its weakening flow. These effects are evident in the river’s largest man-made reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell. Formed as a result of the Hoover Dam’s construction in the 1930s, Lake Mead supplies 25 million people with water. An additional 1.3 million people depend on the dam’s hydroelectric power plant. Over the last 20 years, the water level in Lake Mead has dropped over 150 feet, a height equivalent to the Statue of Liberty. Beyond the water shortages, the Hoover Dam will soon be unable to produce electricity. The dam requires a water elevation of at least 950 feet in order to generate hydropower. Anything below this is considered “dead pool” level, where water can no longer flow out of the dam. Unfortunately, water levels have failed to exceed 1,100 feet since 2014, and Lake Mead could reach dead pool levels as soon as 2025. Similarly, Lake Powell provides hydropower for a whopping 5.8 million people and is steadily approaching its dead pool level of 3,370 feet.
The causes of this crisis are clear: climate change and mismanagement. With a two-decade period of historically low precipitation in the West—a megadrought—the Colorado River simply is not being replenished. Though certain states along the Colorado River, particularly California, have received unusually high amounts of rainfall and snow over the past few months, this is not enough to compensate for recent losses due to drought. The higher temperatures resulting from climate change have driven up evaporation rates, leaving behind drier, more absorbent soil and resulting in far less runoff. Compounding the problem is the overallocation of the river. Since the signing of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the seven states along the waterway have been allowed to use a certain amount of water each year. However, this total is more than the river can supply and replenish, leading to a deficit that is driving water levels down.
While it is clear that the Colorado River cannot replenish naturally, there is still not a unified plan to manage water use in the seven states that depend on the river. The Biden Administration set a January 31 deadline for these states to agree on a plan to voluntarily cut water use by two to four million acre-feet. For comparison, a single acre-foot of water is enough to supply two to three typical households for a year. While six of the seven states submitted a joint plan by the deadline, California, which is entitled to one-third of the river’s annual flow, rejected the joint proposal and submitted its own. The ultimate goal of the proposals is roughly the same: cut water use by about three million acre-feet per year. However, the six-state plan is more aggressive with its time frame. The six-state plan calls for California to immediately reduce water use by 766,000 acre-feet per year. On the other hand, California’s plan would only require it to make cuts of 400,000 acre-feet, at least until the year 2026, when cuts would become greater depending on water levels. Given the current disagreements over how to reduce water use, the federal government is expected to create enforceable standards for these seven states, but when and how that will happen remains unknown.
Regardless of the final plan to cut water use, it is clear that this will be a mammoth task for these western states. People are looking to technology for help, but some possibilities are far from ideal. One of the most discussed alternative water sources is desalination, a process that removes the minerals and salts in seawater, leaving behind fresh water. There are two ways this can be done. One is by boiling seawater and capturing the steam, and the second is through reverse osmosis—the process of forcing water through a semipermeable membrane by applying high pressure. In December 2022, Arizona officials agreed to conduct an analysis of an Israeli company’s plans to build a $5 billion desalination plant in Mexico that would connect to a water distribution facility in the state. The ultimate goal is for this plant to provide one million acre-feet of water. Legally, Arizona is currently entitled to 2.8 billion acre-feet of water from the Colorado River each year, so the desalination project would be a huge step toward decreasing dependence on the dwindling water source. However, the byproduct of desalination, a toxic brine, is not easily disposed of. The current practice—dumping the leftover metals, acids, and salts into the ocean—has negatively impacted coastal habitats. Moreover, the costs of delivery and production would be a hefty $3 billion per year. Until better waste disposal methods and energy-efficient desalination techniques are developed, this will not be a reliable alternative water source.
Other proposed solutions, such as diverting water from the Great Lakes or even harvesting freshwater from glaciers, are far-fetched, if not impossible, given current technologies. This highlights the fact that the near-future solution to the Colorado River crisis will come from conserving the resources that still remain.
For starters, the municipal reuse of water through stormwater, wastewater, or greywater (leftover water from sinks, washing machines, and bathtubs) collection and treatment systems could save up to 1.2 million acre-feet of water per year. This year, the Biden Administration has already funneled hundreds of millions of dollars toward water conservation, particularly the processing of wastewater so that it can be recycled for human use. The biggest changes, however, will need to occur in the agricultural industry, which accounts for 80 percent of the water used from the Colorado River. A popular idea to implement sustainable farming practices in the West is to shift toward watering methods like drip irrigation, which uses as little as half the water as traditional sprinklers. Critics have noted that this particular method is expensive for smaller farms, with system installment costs upward of $2,000 per acre. However, with increases in the existing incentives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), this solution could become much more feasible. Similarly, it is suggested that the USDA provide incentives for farmers to phase out water-demanding crops such as cotton and alfalfa in favor of drought-resistant ones.
As frightening as it is to admit, America is out of time. Today, our country is facing its most severe climate catastrophe to date, and this crisis is far from sudden. For nearly three decades, the nation has watched as one of its longest, most idyllic, and most depended-on rivers has dried up. Ultimately, it will take the cooperation of residents and the government to keep reservoir levels from falling any further. Since this issue has been brought to national attention, investments in the future of the West’s water supply have risen. This includes Biden’s allocation of $8.3 billion to the region through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. This funding will go toward improving technologies for harnessing alternative water sources and conserving what is left of the river. In short, all is not lost—this issue may have been created by us, but it can also be solved by us.