Most of the roughly 45 million people living in the Southwest—up from a mere 3 million in 1900—have no understanding of the vast network of reservoirs and trans-basin diversions on the Colorado River that provide their water. (For the purposes of this paper, the Southwest is defined as those areas, including Wyoming, served by the Colorado River.) There are 17 diversions in the state of Colorado alone, most diverting Colorado River water, originally bound for the Pacific Ocean, under the Continental Divide, to instead flow into the Atlantic watershed to cities along Colorado’s Front Range. Other originally Pacific- bound Colorado River water is diverted to flow into Albuquerque on the Atlantic watershed. Most other diversions remain within the Colorado River Basin, but take waters originally bound for the Sea of Cortez and Pacific into Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, and hundreds of communities between.
The region’s economy centers on construction and real estate, making growth a sacred cow. The assumption is that the explosive growth of the last century that turned dusty cow towns into mega- cities can continue. (For example, Las Vegas, a mere 2,000 people living around a desert spring in 1920, is 2 million people today; Los Angeles, 102,000 in 1900, is now 18 million.) Such thinking is shockingly similar to bankers’ assumptions, pre-2008, that real estate could only grow in value.
ONLY ONE SIDE OF THE COIN
Water in the Southwest is only viewed from the perspective of “supply side,” or finding more water for growth. What this writer views as “demand side,” or how many people demand the resource or matching growth to provable water supplies, is simply never acknowledged or considered.
The only possible “solution” seems to be to somehow find “more” water by diverting existing supplies from old uses to fuel more growth (robbing Peter to pay Paul) via:
- More diversions from an already over-taxed Colorado River.
- “Techno-fixes” such as briny-aquifer or sea water desalting. Ignored are looming “peak energy,” rising energy-costs, and that as reservoirs shrink, hydroelectric production— such as the 10,000 gigawatts generated at Lake Mead and Lake Powell—is threatened.
- Water reuse, or “toilet to tap,” through which citizens drink their own processed sewage.
- Taking agriculture out of production (as we increasing compete against developing nations for food), not to reduce water shortages, but to “grow” larger cities.
- Conservation, again, not to solve anything, but to require each household to use less so that the freed-up water can fuel more growth.
- Or, grandiose schemes, such as one to possibly divert 650,000 acre-feet of the Mississippi River, 775 miles under the Continental Divide into the upper Colorado River drainage area in northwestern New Mexico.7
“Demand side,” for the purposes of this paper, population growth and the rapidly increasing numbers of people demanding the resource, is ignored, a point increasingly criticized by highly credible voices—the Scripps Institute of Oceanography8, the National Academy of Sciences9, the University of Colorado’s Western Water Assessment10, the Pacific Institute11, and no few weather-wise cowboys and farmers.
WATER FLOWS UPHILL
The Colorado River and its tributaries are no longer rivers but an elaborate plumbing system to provide water for cities and power generation, the basis for the regional adage that “water flows uphill towards money.”
Critical is that in average precipitation years more water is used from reservoirs—the equivalent of water banking accounts—than flows into them. The system has worked, until now, because wet years were adequate to replenish reservoirs against dry years. But post-1995, wet years grew infrequent, and with higher demand (a factor of population, not just per-person consumption), the quicker reservoirs draw down and the slower they recharge, especially in drought.