Maggart: What happens when the well that is the Colorado River runs dry? (column)
America’s western states are headed for a crisis, and how it will all end is hard to guess.
The coming crisis can be explained with simple math. According to data from the Colorado River District, Mother Nature deposits an average of about 14 million acre feet of water into the Colorado River basin each. Each year, we remove roughly 16 million to 17 million acre feet through human consumption and evaporation. That figure will only increase in future years as populations continue to grow.
Drought years, such as those in the early aughts, can significantly decrease inflows into the basin, exacerbating the problem further. From 2000 to 2004, the Colorado River basin averaged just 9.5 million acre feet of natural inflows annually.
The reservoirs that western states rely upon for reliable water supplies have helped bridge the gaps during dry years, but those resources are being depleted, as well. Each year, the water line at the massive Lake Mead reservoir drops by about 12 feet, even in non-drought years. It does not take a hydrologist to see that this dynamic is unsustainable.
Simply put, demand is outpacing supply.
Unless there is some sort of systemic change in the way we consume water as a society or some drastic, and consistent, increase in the amount of water the earth deposits in the Rockies, we will eventually reach a crisis point. The question then becomes a matter of timing. How long will our reservoirs provide us with reserves?
It should be noted that even after our reservoirs have been depleted, the western United States will still receive some 14 million acre feet of water annually through snow and rainfall. But what will become of the communities whose existence depends on steady supplies of water? What will happen to the family farmers and ranchers who rely on the Colorado River to sustain their way of life and the traditions that have defined their families for generations? What happens when the major players, the big-money entities, begin competing against one another for a static supply of water in the face of ever-increasing demand?
Under the Colorado River Compact, signed in 1922, each of the seven states in the Colorado River basin is entitled to a portion of water from the Colorado River. Colorado is entitled to the second highest allotment at around 3.8 million acre feet. California receives the largest share at around 4.4 million acre feet, and Arizona comes in third at around 2.8 million acre feet.
Now consider the golden rule. No, not the one Jesus gave to his disciples, rather the one created by cartoonist Brant Parker for his comic strip the Wizard of Id. “Whoever has the gold makes the rules.” California is the world’s fifth-largest economy with a gross domestic product totaling nearly $2.5 trillion. Its economy is larger than the economies of the other six states in the River Compact, and Mexico, combined.
The gross domestic product of Los Angeles alone, at about $1 trillion, is larger than the combined economies of the other six states: Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona, which totals around $900 billion. The population of the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area is roughly equivalent to the combined population of those six other states.
What will happen in the western states when we finally reach that crisis point? How will Los Angeles, or Phoenix, for that matter, deal with a systemic deficit of water? Will they send armies of lawyers to secure every last drop they can, regardless of impacts on other states? Will they seek to develop a new compact? Moreover, what is the fair share that should be allotted to each of the states, considering the vast changes in demographics and economics that have occurred over the last 96 years?
I have no answers to these questions. But I know that sooner, rather than later, every citizen of the Rocky Mountain west will need to ask one question: What happens when the well runs dry?
Lance Maggart is a reporter at Sky-Hi News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.