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.