Population growth on a collision course with the Colorado River
There is simply not enough water to support the growing number of people in the South West.
Recent reports on the Colorado River have been depressing.
In August, federal officials first announced reductions in river water deliveries to Arizona and Nevada, which will hit farmers hard. Similar reductions are likely to come for other states. And the two-decade-long drought in the southwest, to which climate change is a contributing factor, has reduced the river’s water flow by more than 20%.
At the same time, the region’s population growth is booming. Colorado gained 725,000 people between 2010 and 2020, Arizona 760,000 new souls and California 2.3 million. Nevada, Utah, and New Mexico also grew significantly, and the population even grew steadily in slow-growing Wyoming, the smallest US state in terms of population.
All of these states depend on the Colorado River for irrigation and drinking water, and newcomers need H2O as well.
The Colorado River originates in the Rocky Mountains and empties into the Sea of Cortez – or at least it was. In recent decades the river has been drained, the 4.5 trillion gallons of water that flow down its length each year have been diverted before reaching the sea. Ninety percent of that water goes to the US states and 10% to northern Mexico.
Local and state governments in the Southwest are aware of the crisis and are wondering how to keep the taps from going dry. Many spend money on water conservation. Los Angeles and Las Vegas have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in such projects, mostly paying homeowners to install drought-resistant landscaping (known as xeriscaping) in their backyards.
City leaders in the region are also developing other ways to get more water, usually by extracting more from the Colorado River, hauling it from remote locations, or desalinating water from the ocean.
These proposals tend to be expensive and complicated. For example, Pima County, Arizona, offers a $ 4.1 billion desalination plant in the Sea of Cortez in Mexico, from where it would bring water northeast to Tucson. Washington County in southwest Utah is proposing a multibillion-dollar pipeline that would bring water from the Colorado River to Lake Powell.
About 70% of the water drained from the Colorado River goes to farms to grow millions of acres of crops – part of the food for humans, much of the fodder for the cows. Farmers also often sell their allocated water to cities, a lucrative business that provides more reliable income than farming. In the long run, this helps cities to grow their populations while decreasing the area used to grow food.
Sadly, it’s not clear whether any of these ideas will continue to hydrate and feed the people of growing southwestern cities at an affordable price. This means that local and state governments must ask themselves more difficult and more comprehensive questions.
For example, does it make sense to promote population growth in an already parched desert? Should we be growing crops in an arid region where it would be impossible without massive diversions of a narrowing river? Will overexploitation and climate change drain our reservoirs? And, finally, how long will the Southwest reach the point where no more water can be bought, channeled or pumped – and growth will actually stop for lack of water?
This brings us back to population growth, often treated as a third rail in American politics, an issue so controversial that no one wants to talk about it, let alone solve it. But that’s not a topic we can continue to ignore in the Southwest, where we depend on the Colorado River Basin for our livelihoods and our lives.
The subject was not always so verboten. In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton’s Council for Sustainable Development released a report that recommended “stabilizing the American population” as a critical step in preserving an environment in which humans can thrive.
We need to take a page from the past and have this conversation now. If we do nothing, we will have more people, fewer farms, more expensive water and an increasingly parched landscape.
Gary Wockner is an activist for the protection of rivers in the South West.