A flurry of articles has descended upon us following the description of what might happen if, as described last month, water level elevations at Lake Mead fall below 1000 ft. The usual suspects, all out of state, proclaim instant desiccation for Arizona cities and the imminent fall of Southwestern civilization. But most of the Colorado River water going to Arizona and California winds up on farms. The pundits ignore the role of agriculture to act as a buffer against shortages to municipalities. They also ignore everything that has been done over the last three decades to prepare for shortages of surface water. The Arizona Water Banking Authority has parked 3.9 million acre-feet underground to firm supplies against shortage since 1996, and cities by themselves have stored another 1.7 million acre-feet. Municipal conservation efforts have succeeded in cutting GPCD almost in half since 1980, and most people now understand that it is far better to live in harmony with the desert environment than to create a grassy bubble that looks like New York or Washington. While it seems cruel to force one sector of the Southwestern economy to take the first hit of Colorado River shortages, many of these crops are meant for export, not for American tables. And in some large states (not Arizona where farmers have instituted multiple conservation measures since 1980), agricultural conservation has barely begun. There is a lot of room for improvement in agribusiness irrigation practices.
This doesn’t mean that the declining water levels in Lake Mead and to some extent Lake Powell aren’t serious—they are. The drought that has held sway since 1997 continues unabated, and may continue for several years. The 2012 Colorado River Basin study by the Bureau of Reclamation pointed out that in 2060 the shortfall of Colorado River supplies versus demand will amount to 3.2 million acre-feet. The Colorado River cannot support agriculture, municipal, and Federal demands at current levels forever, and we all know it. The bathtub rings around both lakes demonstrate just how much the storage in the system has been drained. The current storm really centers on how the Colorado River system as a whole is operated. Water is still allocated on the basis of misleading flow records from a century ago when water was plentiful. It’s a management problem.
The seven Colorado River basin states have been quietly negotiating for over a year on the issue of shortage sharing and river management. The Secretary of the Interior wants a report this summer, and she retains the authority to act as Water Master of the Lower Basin if no workable agreement can be reached. Sometimes management problems have to be resolved by over-arching authority, and that might just happen. There is no way the Secretary will allow cities like Las Vegas, Tucson, or Phoenix to not receive any Colorado River water. Water will continue to flow down the Central Arizona Project canal.
The prophets of the coasts periodically forecast that Southwestern cities are about to dry up and blow away in the desert wind. Sitting in their sweltering cubicles, they cannot conceive of cities surviving without a major river at their center, something as pristine as the Hudson for example. They can’t see that multiple water sources conserved and managed well can carry farms, cities, and even entire regions through periods of stress. They are wrong.