14 years of drought, Lake Powell

NASA Earth Observatory image by Robert Simmon, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

The Colorado River has run low for decades. Without better intervention, this major water system, spanning seven states and supplying several of the country’s biggest cities, will run dry. Here’s how life in the near future might look, once the seemingly inevitable finally happens.

There’s a huge tank in my backyard with an Amazon logo painted across it. Every month, the Prime Delivery truck comes and fills it with fresh drinking water for me and my family to use. As long as I’m careful about rationing when things get low, and keep an eye on the kids when they’re brushing their teeth, it’s all pretty easy and convenient.

The tank is hooked up to my taps and shower and everything in all the ways you’d expect. Alexa tells me what my consumption rate is and how much I have left over, whenever I want to know, and if I’m in the black by the time a refill is due, I get credit on my Amazon account—which is cool. They even have self-driving trucks to do the refilling in other cities, though mine is delivered by a guy I’ve known since high school. In some ways, the drought has been great for job creation in this area.

I live in the near future, in the suburbs of San Diego, or Phoenix, or Vegas, or any other city in the Southern Colorado River basin. The Southwest is an historic, magical place, but there’s never been enough drinking water for one large city, let alone the combined forty million people who source their supply from the watershed, and make up 1.4 trillion dollars of the country’s yearly economic activity.

In other words, by 2020, the Colorado basin and surrounding area was home one in ten Americans, with an economic output that could hold its own against the world’s largest economies. No wonder the water ran out.

Like most major public health issues, there was no shortage of warnings about the death of the Colorado River. The best, grave-faced researchers, working for the best national organizations, told us for decades that levels were at their lowest ever, and once again, the river failed to reach the ocean. Using computer modeling at the start of the 2020s, they showed us how, if we carried on living in the same way, the river would dry thirty percent by 2050.

So, it’s not like we never saw this coming, which may be why most people seemed resigned to the whole thing. We even watched as similar droughts happened to other major populations around the world. The canary in the coal mine was in 2018, when Capetown, South Africa, became the first modern city to contemplate life without our primary resource. Water was rationed until people showered in swimming pools and only flushed the toilet every third time, in attempts to stop ‘Day Zero’—the day the government planned to turn off the taps and send people to communal water collection points.

Then, in 2020, glacial melt in the Andes Mountains left millions across Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador without one of their primary sources of freshwater. In Australia, droughts of intensities unseen since colonization forced cities to build desalination plants, turning sea into tap water at extensive cost.

But all that was happening in other countries on different continents. It wasn’t the same here, and it wouldn’t happen to us. Yes, the predictions were dyer, but in America, we thought, things always work out in the end. It’s what makes us who we are.

In the Southwest, we said, we’ll handle our water reserves better than other places. We’ll make sure water’s never something to worry over. Sure, we might have ignored people when they told us to stop watering our lawns and only shower once per day—but those things don’t really make a difference, right?

The Colorado River

The Colorado River is a little under 1,500 miles long, beginning with headwaters in the Rocky Mountains across Colorado and Wyoming, and ending over the border in Mexico. It’s basin reaches into California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah, and covers the whole of Arizona.

Today, the Colorado gives its water to several major US metropoli, including three of our ten biggest cities: Los Angeles, Phoenix, and San Diego, as well as Denver, Salt Lake City, and Albuquerque. As a result, the river only reaches the Gulf of California a couple of times every decade, reduced to a small stream in the cracked earth before disappearing, several miles from the coast.

When MIT made an assessment of the river’s condition in 2012, it concluded that “the Colorado is severely threatened by human overuse, environmental issues, and poor river management technique. As an extremely over-apportioned water resource, the water quality of the river is jeopardized by agricultural overdraw, which increases the salinity of the river…These are all issues that must be dealt with to ensure the sustainability of this critical water source.”

Aerial view of homes in the suburbs of Las Vegas Nevada USA

States haven’t been left to ransack the Colorado’s resources completely. In 1922, the Colorado River Compact was signed by all seven states to allocate water rights between the upper and lower basin. This kick-started decades of construction, including the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams and the creation of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, plus around ten smaller dams.

These huge engineering projects are feats on ingenuity and beautiful to look at. But they were based on flawed projections that overestimated both the Colorado’s flow and future demand. In the early 1900s, the river was running unusually high—around three million acre-feet more of water per year than average. Populations were also tiny. Las Vegas home to little more than two thousand people, compared to today’s two million.

Less flow, growing demand, and the amplifying effects of climate change now equal an average deficit of nearly one million acre-feet of water across the basin every year.

I’m kind of an optimistic person, so I don’t like to dwell on the negatives. But, the truth is, life looks pretty different here in the near future, where every drop of drinking water has to be accounted for.

A decade ago, I had a backyard with a lawn and a swimming pool. My bathroom had a jacuzzi-jet bathtub, and our home was shared by two golden retrievers. I enjoyed the odd round of golf, on occasion. I tried to catch a couple of Cactus League baseball games when the season rolled around, and I even treated myself with a trip to a casino or two, every once in a while.

Now, I don’t recognize any of those things. Cacti grow where my pool used to be, because we all xeriscape with plants like agave and ocotillo. Nobody has lawns in this part of the world. My bathtub is gone and in its place a eco-shower and a bucket to collect run off, for non-potable uses. As much as I love them, water rationing has meant that it’s just easier for my dogs to live with my sister on the east coast. They hate the new backyard anyway.

Sports clubs, golf courses—the whole entertainment industry—all hung on for a long time, thanks to the deep pockets of their stakeholders. But now even TPC Scottsdale is dusty soil that lifts into the air and hangs forever. A light breeze means brushing sand off your car after a quick trip to the grocery store. One in three kids has asthma.

Speaking of grocery stores, they’ve changed too, and not just here in the Southwest. Without four million irrigated acres of farmland in the Imperial Valley, there’s no off-season produce. If you want lettuce or strawberries in winter, you can pay through the nose to have them imported, but most people just make do without.

It’s all those little things that make the biggest difference to me. Sure, privatised water is kind of scary to contemplate, and the bills are definitely higher (especially if you exceed your monthly tank plan). But what I notice most is how little happens. Less people. Less wildlife. Less activity. They say the migration out of the Southwest is causing havoc with property prices and employment rates further north—I don’t know much about that. I tend to stay inside most of the time and watch shows or play video games. Going to a park isn’t a thing; neither’s hiking. You don’t go out in the middle of the day. You don’t put yourself in any situation where water might be an issue.

There’s been droughts in the Southwest for as long as I can remember. For my whole childhood, the Colorado’s two main reservoirs, Lakes Powell and Lake Mead, were rarely more than half full. (As of September 2020, Lake Powell was at 48% capacity, while Lake Mead only reached 40%). And despite millenia of precedent, the river only touched the ocean a handful of times.

It’s when several things came together in the early 2020s that I really started to get nervous. First, there was some misplaced optimism. Heavy snowfall and colder temperatures in 2019 resulted in overflowing tributaries and unexpected reservoir surges. We breathed a sigh of relief but, I can see now, it allowed us to become complacent.

Before long, average rain and snowfall returned, and demand continued to outweigh supply. A couple of years later, the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan was triggered for the first time, signalling an official state of emergency in the Colorado basin. As water levels fell, each stage of the plan brought in stricter cutbacks and rationing to curb the 300 daily gallons of water used by the average american household.

Just a season of tight restrictions dealt heavy damage to the area’s farmers. What was once a patchwork of green and purple fields containing the majority of the country’s vegetables became barren earth. Slowly, experts stopped talking about a temporary state of drought and started discussing our new normal: a permanent state of aridification—a term coined by a group of independent scientists called the Colorado River Research Group.

In the years that followed, states and municipalities in the basin looked around for alternative water sources. Some found temporary stop-gaps, underground aquifers to tide them over for the next ten years. But others rushed into deals that threatened public water safety, mirroring the 2014 Flint water crisis. With alarm quickly rising, and after a century of bilateral agreement, states threw up their hands and turned control of the Colorado River over to the federal government.

When the feds took on responsibility for our water, sweeping legal measures were quickly imposed. Subsidies were introduced for local plumbing companies to fix the leaks thought to exist in around ten percent of US houses. Incentives were launched to persuade people to buy the newest, most water efficient appliances. And public awareness campaigns sought to change people’s ingrained, wasteful water habits, such as rinsing dishes before loading them into the dishwasher, or watering the garden with fresh instead of recycled water.

It was all desperate, long overdue stuff, brought in after years of prolonged environmental abuse. At the end of the decade, most of the Colorado had disappeared underground and into the surrounding rock, or else turned into seasonal streams, too polluted to drink. The river had officially passed into the history books—and private industry, who had been patiently waiting for their turn in charge, stepped in.

To me, it’s not a big deal to buy my water from the same company who sells me my electronics and TV shows. Others, however, aren’t so happy. Every day, the news is full of protests, strikes, and acts of violence, opposing the so-called ‘water barons.’ These are the Wall Street banks and billionaires who have bought up our lakes, reservoirs, and even the right to treat and sell us our water. People argue that water isn’t for profit, that it’s their god-given human right. The companies say that they’re just meeting a need, for a competitive price.

The amplifying effect of climate change

Snow melting on mountain

Summers in Phoenix can be around five degrees hotter than historic averages, illustrating the precedent heating happening across the Southwest in 2020. Any river that depends on snow and ice packs is particularly vulnerable to rising temperatures, and the Colorado is no exception.

While melting snow helps feed the river each year, global heating has reduced the once-deep drifts in the Rocky Mountains, which normally release millions of gallons of freshwater in the basin every spring.

As snow cover decreases, darker ground is exposed, which absorbs sunlight and heat, building solar radiation across high-altitude areas. This causes more snow and water to evaporate before it feeds the Colorado.

Computer simulations of snow accumulation across the Colorado basin indicate a regional temperature increase of 1.4 degrees celsius over the last century, which has reduced the annual amount of water flowing through the river by more than eleven percent.

While it’s true that climate change may increase rain and snowfall in some areas, as we saw in 2019, researchers are pessimistic about the ability of increased precipitation to offset the effects of the global temperature rise in the Rockies.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Today, water privatization has spurred lots of innovation and new economic activity. It wasn’t hard for Silicon Valley to pivot towards water tech when they also began to feel the effects of shortages to the south. Soon, the price of smart washers and toilets was pretty much a matter of cents.

Whereas old water utilities used to mostly rely on gravity to bring water into homes, new pumping and filtering technologies make it easier for companies to transport water, serving high elevation towns, and cities who drill miles down to previously untapped aquifers.

The list goes on: light rail and public transportation systems, which have become super popular under heavy fuel taxes. Farmers still battling with the landscape have switched their crops from corn and alfalfa to things like barley, leading to a rise in Arizona bourbon, among other products. There are even some small, artificial oases funded by wealthy benefactors, created by intensive management and irrigation, reminding people how the lower basin once looked.

The last few years have also turned people on to global warming in a very real way. The whole crisis has pushed through stringent restrictions on gas, pollution, and fossil fuel production, and in some parts of the country, national parks are now flourishing. All in all, things are looking up for the global climate, though, many of us didn’t realize that the Colorado isn’t predicted to refill for several decades, even after we stop emitting greenhouse gases.

Preparing for drought

Despite a continuing 19-year drought, state governments in 2020 are moving slowly when it comes to fighting the Southwest’s water shortage. Management of the basin can be obstructed by interstate compacts and Supreme Court decrees, though the Bureau of Reclamation does a lot to push forward stricture measures and monitor federal projects like the Hoover Dam.

After years of negotiation, basin states signed a deal to govern water rights until 2026, voluntarily cutting their water usage to stop the triggering of the Drought Contingency Plan. Unfortunately, the agreement may be short-lived as new discussions begin in late 2020 on a response to further expected drought.

That said, it’s important to recognise efforts already made to change the way water is taken from the Colorado. In Southern California, the largest user of the basin, water conservation efforts have saved more than three million acre-feet of water in the last thirty years, despite an exploding population.

The Bureau of Reclamation has invested over 400 million dollars in a program called WATERsmart, which works cooperatively with states, tribes, and local entities to develop new technologies to combat the West’s water shortage. This has helped Arizona remain the country’s leading source of solar power and innovation, as well as support local efforts to restore sections of river habit using irrigation.

The Hoover damn on a sunny day

I’m no alarmist, and I’m certainly not moving from home until the last drop of moisture dries on my agave plants. I’ll say it again—I don’t mind Amazon owning my water. But do I think we could have handled the Colorado’s death differently? Sure, of course I do.

2020 was the start of a new decade, and it should have been the year that taught us to listen more. Warnings of the world’s fragility were more apparent than ever, and COVID revealed that our social infrastructure didn’t function as well as we assumed. At the same time, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists—the Nobel prize laureates who run the Doomsday Clock—cited climate change as a major reason behind their decision to move the hands to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest since its creation.

I think we should have remembered that the Colorado River is supposed to be one of the wonders of our continent. A century ago, the river created a unique ecosystem for sixteen endemic fish species. It dropped 14,000 feet from mountain to sea, leading to surging currents capable of carving out the Grand Canyon. Its riverbanks and tributaries were historical goldmines, home to several key archaeological sites.

Do we still care about all of that? We must. I know I sure do. I watch history shows about it all the time, on a TV once powered by the river’s hydroelectric dams. It makes me sad that I can only learn about it second-hand, and can’t see and experience it for myself.

When the water started to run out, public focus narrowed. The realities of drought and climate change hit home as they impacted our families and livelihoods. That was when things got serious—and maybe it’s this we should’ve paid more attention to—that, when water becomes an endangered resource, everything becomes more difficult. It’s not that we can’t live without the Colorado: I and many others do. It’s that, when you have to think about saving water every hour of every day, life is just a lot less fun.