22nd March 2023
The parching of U.S. southwest is becoming real. It could affect Canada, too.
By Alexander Panetta
Mar. 12, 2023
These are desperate days for the Colorado River.
The pulsing lifeblood of the U.S. southwest is increasingly parched. To avert catastrophe, the U.S. government will, within weeks, propose historic cuts in water access. It’s a frantic move to protect a river that provides so much: drinking water for tens of millions of people, electricity and food. Lots of food.
This indispensable waterway supplies farms that feed hundreds of millions of people, throughout the continent — including Canadians.
Ever wonder how those fresh green vegetables get to your grocery store in the dead of a Canadian winter? Here’s your answer.
The vast majority of lettuce Canada imports in winter, and much of its broccoli, cauliflower and spinach, comes from Arizona and California farms irrigated with water from the Colorado River. In fact, at least 70 per cent of this river’s water is used for agriculture, according to a 2020 study.
And the water level is shrinking.
Under historic agreements, including the Colorado River Compact of 1922, the river gets split three ways: 7.5 million acre-feet of water goes to four upstream states each year, 7.5 million goes to three downstream states, and Mexico gets 1.5 million. That’s 16.5 million acre-feet per year. (An acre-foot — the equivalent to a soccer field, covered in one foot of water — is about enough to supply one or two households per year.)
But there’s a problem. A classic imbalance of supply and demand: Too little water supply, too much demand.
The river, in other words, is running a deficit. It’s been happening since around 2000 and it’s getting worse.
There’s a trifecta of factors causing the trouble: A long-ago math miscalculation; then a population boom; and finally a hotter, drier climate.
A century ago, policymakers overestimated the Colorado River flow; that flow has, since 1906, averaged 10 per cent lower than expected.
It’s been exacerbated by factor No. 2: a once-in-a-millennium drought now entering its third decade. Since 2000, the river has produced 25 per cent less than its historic allocation, according to recent congressional research.
Then there’s higher-than-expected demand. New residents have flocked to the U.S. southwest in recent decades in a population boom that saw cities like Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and Las Vegas sprout into metropolises.
So this river system that was built to irrigate farms wound up supplying some 40 million people. It’s being over-used — by about one-third.
There’s now a race to avert a catastrophe, one with an appropriately ominous-sounding name: it’s called dead pool.
Dead pool is what happens when the water drops so low that it just sits there, stuck, stagnant behind a dam. These dams are the pumping heart of the southwestern U.S. water system, feeding irrigation canals, homes and power lines. With these dams paralyzed, the system collapses.
The most famous? The Hoover Dam, near Las Vegas. Behind that dam, a reservoir, Lake Mead, has seen its water level plunge.
If the downward spiral of the last three years persists, the dam would, in just a few years, stop generating electricity (known as inactive pool), imperilling a power supply equivalent to what’s used by over one million homes.
Then a few more years after that, should the trend continue, the Lake Mead reservoir could fall to 270 metres, where the flow of water halts: Dead pool.
Enter the federal government. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was founded in 1902 to build and manage water systems in the fast-developing western states. It’s now sounding the alarm over what it calls the most severe challenge in its history.
It has announced cutbacks are urgently required to avert an unprecedented crisis, and this is in addition to previously planned cuts.
It wants a reduction by millions of acre-feet which, combined with existing reductions, amounts to a clawback of 20 to 40 per cent in water use.
“That’s huge. Unthinkable, frankly,” said Paul Brierly, a farmer and researcher at the University of Arizona in Yuma.
The hard part? Deciding who gets what. States have tried for months to negotiate a voluntary agreement amongst themselves, as they historically have.
So far they’ve failed. Since last year, they’ve missed two deadlines.
Now the federal government is expected to take the unprecedented step of releasing its own proposal within weeks; that draft proposal would be finalized this summer and take effect later this year.
Cue the arguments. There’s an old saying in these parts, attributed, perhaps incorrectly, to the author Mark Twain: Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over.
In this period of scarcity, difficult decisions are being made. And it’s pitting state versus state: upstream states versus downstream ones — and the heaviest-using state, California, against everyone else. It’s pitting farmers against city-dwellers. Older population centres against newer ones. All of them vying for water rights.
California has a powerful legal argument: it has established rights, predating the growth of neighbouring states.
The neighbouring states counter with a moral argument: You can’t just cut off water to millions of their homes so California can carry on with business as usual.
When it comes to California, Arizona farmer Terry Button says: “They need to step it up.… And the cities, too.”
One thing is almost certain. Any federal plan will provoke lawsuits, with potentially lengthy legal fights.
The biggest losers in two recent rounds of cuts were central Arizona farmers, which is exactly as planned.
In the event of shortages, this state, and especially the centre of this state, is first on the chopping block.
That’s partly due to a carefully negotiated agreement in the 1960s: it gave central Arizona a new canal, but gave California priority access in the event of a shortage. The result? Arizona has already lost 21 per cent of its river access entering this year. And that’s excluding the upcoming federal cuts.
California, so far, has lost zero per cent.
Some of Nancy Caywood’s land is now dusty and fallow. She’s a farmer south of Phoenix whose family has been working this land for five generations. Her parents went on their first date at a nearby highway bar where country legend Waylon Jennings got his start.
Farms in her area face new threats, and not just from California. Cities are exploding in growth. Expanding suburbs and industrial parks have created competition for precious water and, she says, the city-dwellers want the farmers gone.
“People who move into this area — they call us things ... ‘podunk farmers’ and ‘inbreds,’” Caywood says.
She recalled being at a store recently and hearing two ladies talking. One just moved here from California, and Caywood recalled her saying: “I hate farmers. … They trash our air. They pollute our soil. They use our water.”
She said she believes urban areas, and California, need to take more cuts in the next round.
It’s not just farmers struggling. A feud has erupted in a prosperous Phoenix suburb. One community was cut off its water supply. Rio Verde Foothills has grown quickly in the desert. Ranch country is turning into subdivisions. There is, for now, no municipal government.
The unincorporated community was buying water from the city of Scottsdale, getting it hauled to homes in trucks. Until Jan. 1, when Scottsdale stopped the sales.
Now water trucks are travelling from further away to supply this community, more than doubling prices overnight. People are showering at gyms, eating on paper plates, collecting rain water to flush the toilet, even using toilets less frequently.
It all goes back to the Colorado River.
That’s where Scottsdale gets most of its drinking water and it has a limited annual entitlement: 81,000 acre-feet per year. It’s been forced to cut five per cent since 2021, and is bracing for far more severe cuts. To preserve its own water, it dumped the customer next door.
The communities are now trying to work out a stopgap plan as Rio Verde Foothills finds a longer-term solution.
Easier said than done, however. Residents have feuded over who should lead the project.
Karen Nabity proposed creating a public water utility and said she received threats from residents who don’t want government in their unincorporated community and who prefer to hire a private company, a subsidiary of Edmonton-based Epcor. She filed a police report while friends kept watch over her front porch.
Another resident, horse-breeder Mike Miola, laments: “It’s getting mean. People are angry.”
Here’s one way to solve the problem: Stop growing alfalfa. Animal feed uses a staggering share of the river’s water, about half.
But if only it were that simple. This is cowboy country, and cows love alfalfa. Proximity to the feed supports the regional cattle and dairy industries. Farmers also love alfalfa. It’s great for the soil, providing nutrients. It’s easy to harvest and requires fewer workers than, say, lettuce. That makes it especially popular with small-scale farmers.
In the Indigenous Gila River community, alfalfa farmer Brian Davis says he couldn’t grow lettuce here. It’s too far from border communities where Mexican migrants enter the U.S. under federal guest-worker programs.
“Here it’d be too costly for me,” Davis said. “Where am I gonna get my labour from?”
Davis holds some influence: he’s a local councillor and his community is a powerful player in water management. It’s been an adjustment.
This Indigenous community suffered historic atrocities. In the late 19th century, settlers in neighbouring towns diverted the nearby Gila River. That destroyed ancient agricultural practices and triggered a years-long famine.
“Everybody recognized that what had happened here was a travesty,” said David DeJong, who is the local water manager.
He recalls one indignity he witnessed while teaching in a local high school after he moved here in 1992. A girl ran into the classroom shouting that there had been a fire outside. The community had no fire department. So students — his students — ran out to fight the blaze.
One of the first things the community did after opening a casino, he said, was use the revenue to build a fire department. It also paid for lawyers. After generations of court fights, the Gila River community finally won water access. It gained 653,000 acre-feet per year from various sources in a 2004 settlement, including Colorado River water.
The community now controls twice as much water as the state of Nevada, selling it and storing it for other jurisdictions.
...continued in PART 2