The Colorado River and the California Water Crisis
The Colorado River was the last major American river to yield to full exploration. And shortly after John Wesley Powell made his historic descent in 1869, the river was promoted as a key to the development of the West, a conduit of life-giving water sufficient to irrigate vast acreages and supply great cities with all the water needed to sustain a powerful, industrial economy.
Throughout the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, water reclamation proceeded rapidly on western rivers, culminating in the Colorado River Compact, which authorized the construction of Hoover Dam and the distribution of the Colorado’s water among seven states: Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. Today, water from the Colorado River watershed slakes the thirst – and sprinkles the lawns and fills the swimming pools — of 40 million people. It irrigates cropland that generates 15 percent of the country’s food.
But the Colorado River is a desert river. And if people have forgotten (or conveniently ignored) this fact, the river itself is driving the lesson home. When the Colorado River Compact was drafted, the annual average flow of the river and its tributaries were overestimated, and water rights claims exceeded the amount of available water by a great degree. The annual demand for and “legal” claim to Colorado River water is 1.4 trillion gallons more than actually exists. That amounts to 4,308,000 acre feet, or enough water to supply more than 20 million people.
Water that exists in legal documents rather than the real world is known as “paper water,” and that characterizes much of the water claimed in the Colorado River Basin. It has never existed in liquid form, and it never will. Further, the Colorado’s paper water is a ticking time bomb. And when it explodes, it will be more than a crisis. It will be a catastrophe. Millions of urbanites will find themselves without water, and millions of acres of cropland will lie fallow, causing widespread economic dislocation and human misery. The Colorado River water distribution system is based on a fantasy, one that ultimately will have devastating repercussions for the West and the nation.
And the situation is by no means static; it’s getting worse. Urban development is exploding throughout the compact region, driving the already insupportable demand for water even higher. Drought has hammered the Colorado River Basin for the past 15 year. During this period, the average flow of the river has dropped by one million acre feet, enough water to supply the greater Las Vegas metropolitan region. Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the nation and the main storage facility for the Colorado, is 130 feet lower than it was in 2000. Ominously, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation does not expect the level to rise significantly in 2016, despite a strong El Nino winter; the deficit is too great to overcome, given ongoing demand.
Of all the compact states, California holds senior water rights. It is thus entitled to one-third the flow of the river, meaning it can continue to draw water from the Colorado even if Lake Mead reaches dead pool. California derives more than 15 percent of its surface water supplies from the Colorado, delivered via two huge aqueducts, the California Aqueduct and the All-American Canal. The former delivers water to the Los Angeles Basin and San Diego, while the latter irrigates the vast corporate farms of the Imperial Valley.
Much of the tail water from the Imperial Valley’s fields eventually filters into the Salton Sea, the vast, saline lake that was formed in 1905 when irrigation canals that diverted water from the Colorado River proved insufficient to handle run-off from heavy snowmelt and rainfall, and the entire flow of the river poured into the dry Salton Sink for two years. While this agricultural drainage helps recharge the steadily evaporating “sea,” it is laden with nitrates and pesticides, threatening fish, wildlife and human health.
Meanwhile, California continues to rely on the Colorado River as a significant water source, a situation that is not sustainable for either the state or the river. As the past 15 years of drought in the Colorado River Basin has confirmed, the interior western United States is a desert. Indeed, during the early years of its exploration by Euro-Americans, all the territory west of the Mississippi River was known as the Great American Desert; it was only later that the nomenclature was changed to the Midwest and the West.
Ironically, the original terminology was the most accurate. The land west of the Mississippi is a functional desert, and the Colorado River Basin is a particularly sere portion of this vast, desiccated region. Further, all reliable computer models show that the interior West will become increasingly arid as climate change proceeds. In short, the Colorado River can never be relied on to produce enough water to support a booming civilization. For both economic and environmental reasons, then, California must wean itself from the turbid waters of the Colorado. Maintaining our dependence, let along increasing it, will only lead to disaster.
There is enough water in California to supply our cities, support sustainable agriculture, and maintain wild, free-flowing rivers. But there is not enough – there is never enough – to waste. Through conservation, retirement of impaired croplands, water recycling, development of local surface sources and, in limited applications, desalinization, we can both guarantee water security for Californians and maintain a free-flowing Colorado River.