In the American West, water has always been a challenge. Prior to the arrival of European explorers and settlers, there’s broad evidence that droughts and water cycles heavily affected Native Americans. For example, the people who built the Gila Cliff Dwellings may have left the area when water supplies dwindled. Later settlements by the descendants of Europeans also followed water, with settlements placed near rivers so there would be something to drink and grow food with.
As transportation technology improved, air conditioning became a thing, and massive infrastructure projects became possible, we started loading the West with more and more people. Large metro areas, like Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City, grew to rival and often even surpass the cities in the much wetter eastern United States. Dams, canals, and other big projects made all of this growth possible.
Eventually, we fooled ourselves into biting off more than we could chew, though.
One recurrent problem is the Colorado River. The river starts out in Colorado, and winds its way through southern Utah (where it picks up water from rivers that come out of New Mexico and Wyoming), and then crosses northern Arizona. Next it serves as part of the border between Arizona and Nevada, and then serves as the border between California and Arizona, before crossing a narrow strip of Mexican land and emptying into the Sea of Cortez (where it divides the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California).
This widespread geography means that 7 US states and 2 Mexican states all have jurisdiction over some part of the river system, as well as two federal governments that have treaties governing the Colorado river and its water. Then, consider that some of the water gets diverted to the Rio Grande to give Albuquerque some water, and when water is used in a state, it affects water negotiations with other states over other rivers, so that means at least two other states (Texas and Oklahoma) are affected. All of this makes for a very complex legal environment, even if the river was always at optimum flow and nobody had any reason to fight over the water.
When there are disputes over the river’s water, the flow is usually at the heart of the issue. When the original Colorado River Compact was negotiated in 1922, there had been record snowpack and river flow for several years, so negotiations allocated more water than actually comes down the river most years. These poor estimates leave a lot of room for conflict and lawsuits, and also means massive water projects like the Central Arizona Project just couldn’t be built to original plans.
On top of that, there have been massive errors made in managing the river. One of the biggest examples was the accidental refilling of an ancient lake that has been dry since the 1700s. In an attempt to feed farms in Riverside and Imperial counties, river managers accidentally diverted most of the river’s flow into the area, creating the Salton Sea.
How Complex Water Management Really Is
This video on the San Juan-Chama Project (where Colorado River water gets diverted into the Rio Grande) shows us just how complex managing water really is.
While the project has largely been successful, it has not been without challenges and problems. After some large fires, water that had run through fields of ash ended up flowing into New Mexico, making for water that was too dirty to be worth filtering for drinking water. Avoiding future megablazes requires millions of dollars of funding a carefully planned projects to thin forests back to their natural states. Invasive species, especially insects that can harm trees, are also a threat to water supplies in river basins. The management of grazing can also heavily affect grass, which affects the insects, fires, and ultimately river water.
All of this, from the grass to the trees to the river, is affected by climate change. Without adequate snowpack thawing and flowing through healthy forests, there won’t be any water to fight over, and the large cities will die of thirst.
Some projects have been successful at managing these issues, though:
With clean water in a river, the next step is to get the water to where it’s needed. Over the years, much effort has gone into providing water for growing western cities. One big example is the Los Angeles Aqueduct, a project that has taken water from the Owens and Mono valleys, at times creating environmental and human devastation (which I’ll get into more later), not to mention violence and conmen who got involved in them.
Later, southern California needed even more water, so they built another aqueduct system to bring water from Lake Havasu (a reservoir on the Colorado River) to bring water all the way to the coast. Here’s some more detail:
Arizona has also had success moving water over great distances to keep the taps flowing and the farms watered. The Central Arizona Project (CAP) takes Colorado River water and distributes it to Phoenix and Tucson. Without the water from CAP, it would have been impossible for the Phoenix Metro Area to become the 5th largest city in the U.S.
People Want More Water, So Bigger Projects Are On the Menu
While these big projects I’ve discussed so far (and many others like them) have done a lot of good for cities (at environmental and human cost at times), they’re not enough to cover the needs that come with future growth. Fast growing cities, especially Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles, don’t have enough water to keep the growth up.
Conservation measures are already underway, but they’re unpopular with people who want a lawn and trees in their yards, and even the most strict conservation measures wouldn’t be enough in the long run unless growth is curtailed. On top of this, climate change still continues to dry up snowpacks and reduce the flow of key rivers even lower. Even if strict measures against lawns and trees were put in, voters would likely overturn such measures or replace those who put them in with people who would change the law.
This leaves western leaders with a Catch-22.
One idea that has come up repeatedly is to build a huge canal or pipe to bring water from the Mississippi River to the Colorado. The Arizona state legislature has even gone as far as to formally ask the US Congress to build such a pipe.
“A pipeline that follows the interstate across the United States and would be pumped up into the Green River which would flow into the Colorado River system, ultimately into Lake Mead,” state representative Tim Dunn, from Yuma, Arizona, said. “And that would be distributed by the seven basin states.”
In part two of this article, I’m going to explore some of the different ways such a project could be done, as well as some even bigger projects. Finally, I’m going to cover some of the reasons these megaprojects could be a bad idea.
Featured image: Hoover Dam/Lake Mead historical levels. Image by US Bureau of Reclamation (public domain).
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