ATTENTION: Account Past Due

Important Information About Your Account, Please Open Immediately

We’ve built a wonderful existence for ourselves in the desert Southwest. We’ve built Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix in a place that scattered the Ancestral Puebloans and left the ruins of the Hohokam in plain sight of the aqueducts of Central Arizona. We’ve built this on, essentially, a line of credit called the Colorado River and its associated infrastructure. This line of credit waters crops and lawns from Mexicali to Fort Collins, but like every loan, it must be repaid. We repay this loan by allowing our reservoirs to refill, or rather, by withdrawing and consuming less than flows into them from winter snowmelt.

Half of our twin bank account: Lake Powell delivers allocated waters to California, Arizona and Nevada.

Half of our twin bank account: Lake Powell delivers allocated waters to California, Arizona and Nevada.

Here’s the problem: we haven’t been doing that. We take out a lot more from Lake Mead than flows in, each and every year. About enough for two and a half million households. This isn’t a drought situation, either, though that doesn’t help. Even in a normal year Lake Mead declines by 1.2 million acre-feet. We are repaying our loan only with the surprise bonus from abnormally wet winters.

This means that Lake Mead is dangerously approaching a water level of 1000 feet above sea level- wherein Las Vegas can no longer draw water from it and Hoover Dam’s hydropower capabilities are compromised. We’ve known about this problem for some time, of course, but like many debtors we’ve ignored it until we simply can’t do so any more. We have… a few years. Something like five to eight years before the reservoirs don’t actually store any water and we can use only what nature annually provides- in other words, in a few years we might as well have not built Lakes Mead and Powell at all.

Structural deficit on the Lower Colorado River

Hoo boy… Image courtesy Central Arizona Project.

This is not some snarky blogger talking. This is coming from the number crunchers at [the Central Arizona Project].. –John Fleck

No one likes when the collection agency comes calling, but the situation is made worse when you have two co-signers. Thus findeth themselves California, Arizona and Nevada, the brothers-in-arms of the Lower Basin. Since we can’t magically generate more water to refill Lakes Mead and Powell, our three intrepid water users will have to cut back or they will find themselves drinking from an empty straw.

Michael Hiltzik, in the above link, suggests that Lower Basin cities will buy water from their agricultural neighbors, which due to history and legal peculiarities, have the best rights to Colorado River water in times of shortage. I think he’s exactly right. And we need to be very careful not to leave agricultural communities holding the bag. Places that depend on irrigation don’t have other economic alternatives, and once their water is gone, so is their raison d’etre. Pure economics dictates that in the absence of planning, in the absence of reductions in demand to allow our account to refill, cities will be wiling to pay more for water than farmers are. Maybe we’re not ready to plan our way out of this yet – after all, we’ve only just officially acknowledged our structural overuse of the Colorado River after doing it for decades – but if we don’t, the bill collectors will clean our agricultural communities out of house and home.

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