The Colorado River basin is running out of water. This is because the demand for water is going up while the supply is going down. This is obviously bad, because the Colorado River is the main source of water for the western United States, including population centers like Las Vegas, the Phoenix Metro Area, and much of southern California, and it is being used up faster than it can be replenished. The problem is only going to get worse as the population in the west continues to grow and climate change affects the snowpack and evaporation.
The results of this speak for themselves. For example Lake Mead has seen significant drops in water level this year. The lake, which is on the Colorado River and supplies water to Las Vegas, is currently at just 26% of capacity. That means that it has lost the vast majority of its water since 2000. The problem is so bad that the US Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the river, has said that there is a 50/50 chance that the lake will dry up completely by 2036.
People are finding all sorts of things in the parts of the lake that have dried up. For example, in 2014 a man found a 10-million-year-old fossilized tree. The water level has also exposed an abandoned town that was once under the lake. The town, called St. Thomas, was submerged when the Hoover Dam was built in the 1930s. Bodies, boats, and even a World War II military vessel have also been spotted in the mud.
The low water levels are also causing problems for clean energy. The Hoover Dam not only holds back water, but is a hydroelectric dam that generates electricity for Arizona, Nevada, and California. The dam relies on the water in Lake Mead to generate power. Sadly, if the lake gets too low, the dam will be forced to shut down and stop providing clean energy to the region.
This is not just a problem for the present, but for the future as well. The Colorado River is a major source of water for agriculture in the western United States. If the river continues to decline, it will become increasingly difficult to grow crops in the region. This could lead to higher food prices and even food shortages.
The good news is that there are things that can be done to mitigate the problem. For example, water conservation efforts can help to reduce the demand on the river. And, better management of the river basin’s resources can help to increase the supply of water. But, it is going to take a lot of work to get the river back to a healthy state.
But, deciding who should use less water can be politically and practically difficult. In the past, there have been water wars between the states in the Colorado River basin. California, Arizona, and Nevada have all fought over who gets to use the river’s water. And, even within states, there can be conflict over water rights. Farmers often want to use as much water as possible to irrigate their crops, but cities need water for their residents.
Compounding the problem is the fact that the Colorado River is shared by seven different states, as well as Mexico. All of these states need to agree on any plans to change how the river is managed. And, given the current political climate, that could be difficult even if everyone agreed to do something.
Hay Is A Big Part Of The Problem
A recent article at High Country News sheds a lot of light on the agricultural part of the situation. The usual things we like to blame water shortages on, like lawns and golf courses, turn out to be only a tiny fraction of the water use in the Colorado River basin.
Federal officials have said that the Colorado River Basin states need to reduce water consumption by 2-to-4 million acre-feet — which is up to 30% of their total use — in order to save the system from collapsing. It’s a huge amount, unprecedented in scope, and probably the first time a Reclamation official’s words went viral on social media.
But, when the author added up all of the usual suspects for water consumption, it didn’t come anywhere close to the lower 2 million figure. Tearing up all lawns, draining all private swimming pools, recycling water, and much more came up terribly short of the reductions needed. Even cutting off all of the municipal water systems wasn’t enough, because there isn’t 2 million acre-feet of water being used by cities, including all of the wasteful uses we normally think of.
But, talking about agricultural use is a taboo topic. Talking about water use in the Upper Colorado, where people are legally first in line, is “fightin’ words” says the author of the piece. But, as he poked around the data, that’s where most of the water usage comes from.
And, what crop uses the most water? It turns out to be alfalfa, a type of hay. Just one irrigation district in California’s alfalfa farmers use far more water than the entire State of Nevada’s Colorado River allotment, and they collectively use almost enough water to cover the river’s shortfall.
But, if you’re tempted to say that we should get rid of the hay farms to solve the problem, it isn’t that simple. The hay farms are a significant part of many farms’ output, and is among the most profitable. The hay is used to feed cattle, which leads to a lot of US food production, as well as food production elsewhere in the world. To cut off the hay would indirectly cut off human food supplies, causing prices to rise further than they already have in 2022. So, it’s a tough problem to solve.
The solution is probably going to be that both cities and farmers have to cut back so that nobody gets completely hosed by the solution. Cities will need to cut back on wasteful practices, and hay farmers will probably need to relocate at least some of their production out of the basin (which is actually possible).
Ultimately, instead of piping Mississippi River water into the basin, it might be best to just move some of the farming out to the Mississippi River, along with other cuts.
Featured image by the US Department of Agriculture (Public Domain).
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