The next U.S. President is going to face the Colorado River problem
November 1, 2016 3:55 AM   Subscribe

Seven southwestern states as well as Mexico are dependent on water from the Colorado River. That water is shared based on rules set out in the Colorado River Compact of 1922. Due to a 16 year-old drought in the Southwest and an expiring agreement between the U.S. and Mexico, the next president is going to have to deal immediately with the possibility of major cuts to the Colorado River water supply. People have been arguing for years about reforming the system, but the question is: how?

Here's the actual Colorado River Compact, if you want to read it. It's sort of infamous for the scientists basing all of their calculations on what turned out to be the 10 wettest years on record.
posted by colfax (32 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
I mean hindsight is 20/20 and all but yeah it seems to me that the idea of splitting up a river based on a fixed volume instead of a percentage of what's flowing is uh pretty short-sighted.

Man, a lot of major natural-resource mistakes really stem from thinking that finite resources are inexhaustible, and not really realizing that they are finite until they're indispensable.
posted by entropone at 5:25 AM on November 1, 2016 [8 favorites]

If only Congress had trusted John Wesley Powell and followed his recommendations in his Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States (1878). But, nooooooooooooo, not when there is fast money to be made! Should it be reassuring to us now to realize that Congress has always had the attitude "science is stooopid" when it interferes with them getting rich? .... Grrrr. Arrgghhh.
posted by pjsky at 6:19 AM on November 1, 2016 [14 favorites]

If you haven't read Cadillac Desert yet, grab a copy and start reading. The way we deal with water for the entire western US is based on some of the worst, most foolhardy and almost deliberately wrong headed sort of thinking you can imagine.

Phoenix is going to be a ghost town soon. The great irrigated fields of the western plains will be the founding of the next dust bowl. Amarillo, the entire Texas Panhandle really, will be mostly abandoned.

The whole thing was based on naive and outright foolish belief that the water would always be there It won't, we're using it up, and soon it will be gone.

Cadillac Desert was written in 1986 and Marc Reisner ought to get the Cassandra Award for accurate prediction that was totally and completely ignored.

The time to ban lawns and private swimming pools was decades ago. The fact that they're still legal in the western US is a monument to the human tendency to pretend that you can ignore a problem and it'll go away. And yes, I know that swimming pools and lawns are small change compared to the big water users, but they're a good place to start.

We **ALSO** need to be making massive changes to agribusiness, especially in terms of banning farming, or some types of farming, in some places. The Texas Panhandle, for example, should not have a single ear of corn growing, the water cost is far too high. Yet corn is a major crop there and Frito Lay has explicitly said that they will continue growing corn in the Panhandle until the water is gone.

The Colorado River Compact is either going to need to be broken and completely renegotiated from the ground up, or it's going to wind up killing lots of people. And I suspect that given the number of very rich vested interests in the CRC it won't be renegotiated. What do the rich care for the poor dying of thirst?

The TL;DR is that climate change is very real, the "drought" in California isn't a drought, it's the new normal and anyone expecting it to go back to the way it was is deluding themselves, and as a result a lot of lives are going to be disrupted, there will be mass migrations away from the American desert, and it's going to be very, very bad even if people take legal action right this second, which they won't.
posted by sotonohito at 6:26 AM on November 1, 2016 [40 favorites]

Officials and environmentalists say dust from exposed lakebed will foul air that already fails to meet federal standards in the region east of Palm Springs and threaten the survival of fish and bird species that rely on the lake.

“Nobody wants the feds to step in and run the process,” said Craig Mackey, co-director of the Denver-based organization Protect the Flows and one of those surveyed for the report.

Nobody wants to run it because you're effectively trying to tell people what to do with no money to help them do what needs to be done, no political capital to execute it, and effectively no teeth to enforce it.

Rescuing the south west from an extreme water shortage is a multi-pronged effort. You need to cultivate new supplies (desal, pipelines), you need to reduce consumption through public education and appropriate legislation after discussions with industrial stakeholders, you need to establish water recycling programs which are both straight reverse osmosis of sewage or filter/disinfect groundwater recharge (where appropriate), you need stormwater capture on both a residential and utility scale, you need to cultivate solutions to increased greywater usage where applicable.

All of these on their own is a massive undertaking and requires the co-operation and consensus of thousands of water districts, millions of people, diverse industries, and farming pressure.

I can see why nobody wants to touch that with the almost predetermined outcome of looking like a feckless failure.
posted by Talez at 6:31 AM on November 1, 2016 [4 favorites]

ProPublica did a terrific series of stories, called Killing the Colorado, on this topic last year. There's a lot there; I particularly liked this one, on how water rights laws give farmers incentives to maximize their water usage even when they don't need to, and this one, on the enormous environmental and financial costs of a generating station that draws from the Colorado. No time/appetite for all those words? There are a couple of great photo essays and data viz projects; I liked this one on the hubris of creating Lake Powell.

minor disclosure - a couple of good friends (though not the author) work at ProPublica.
posted by martin q blank at 6:35 AM on November 1, 2016 [6 favorites]

Don't worry, I'm sure President Trump will approach this situation, as all the complex, multifaceted challenges facing the United States, with wisdom, caution, and insight, crafting a solution that creates a lasting framework for wise, sustainable water management throughout the southwest. Because that's just what he does.
posted by Naberius at 6:46 AM on November 1, 2016 [10 favorites]

As someone who just a few months ago moved into her brand new house in Mesa, AZ, this is my biggest worry. I've lived in the Valley of the Sun my whole life, and I am perfectly aware of how the rain patterns have changed, how much hotter it has become over the last couple of decades.

I'd love to be able to move to someplace know...rain falls from the sky on a regular basis, but by this point in my life, all my family...all my friends, our jobs, are here. We all understand staying is a bad idea, but leaving is even more scary.

If it comes down to it, since AZ is a non-recourse state, if our home becomes worthless, we can always load up all our stuff and drive out to my father-in-law's farm in southern Virginia. Trying to start our lives over again all the way across the country would suck, but there are millions of people here who aren't even that lucky. And I think the mass exodus of people along with the huge amount of defaulted mortgage and commercial loans as Phoenix, Tucson, Vegas, most of southern CA become ghost-towns, would make 2008 look like a cake-walk.
posted by sharp pointy objects at 7:06 AM on November 1, 2016 [5 favorites]

Just think: this is the situation with something directly essential to both human life and the economy, involving (broadly) similar states in the same country, with strong cultural and economic ties.

I have no idea how anyone can be optimistic about effective, proactive international climate change policy.
posted by jedicus at 7:11 AM on November 1, 2016 [5 favorites]

I have every confidence that the next US administration; blue, red or orange; will prioritise the environment over short-term electoral advantage, or medium-term nationalist economic advantage.

Ha! I’m here all week! Try the rad-reduced krill-wafers!
posted by pompomtom at 7:16 AM on November 1, 2016 [4 favorites]

As someone who just a few months ago moved into her brand new house in Mesa, AZ, this is my biggest worry. I've lived in the Valley of the Sun my whole life, and I am perfectly aware of how the rain patterns have changed, how much hotter it has become over the last couple of decades.

The stupid thing is that without agriculture the entire thing becomes easily manageable. Agriculture sucks up 80% of the water. Four fifths of the water is used to grow a fucking commodity. There are far better places to grow crops than the middle of a god damned desert but yet we do it anyway because, well, land is cheap.
posted by Talez at 7:24 AM on November 1, 2016 [7 favorites]

Let's see...growing crops in the wrong places is expensive & irresponsible.

Food portions and food waste are high.

Hmm. How could we possibly solve both those problems?
posted by yoga at 7:38 AM on November 1, 2016 [4 favorites]

Agriculture is indeed the big one out here. It's a double edged sword, because it sucks up a lot of water and yet we need to grow food. We have great growing seasons out here (although it can take a minor miracle to make the soil workable.) But we need to grow less stuff here. The problem is that agricultural interests have a lot of money and influence, so their seat is closer to the front of the table.

I can't speak for Phoenix because I don't know where they're at on their water use reduction efforts (I do understand they're starting to get really serious about it, though) but Tucson has had a long history of people conserving water. You learn here to do things like not leave the water running while brushing your teeth, dump the rest of your glass of water on plants instead of down the drain, etc. The population water use isn't the big issue. (Side note: to a point, that is. Some rich folks have drilled their own wells because they were getting sky high water bills... because they wanted to keep their trees and gardens and big lawns on their acre properties. Ugh.) But it's the population that will have to deal with the consequences of the water shortages. The general public doesn't really have a seat at the table in water use matters.

Glen Canyon Dam is another wildcard in this. Despite many people clamoring for it to be decommissioned, that ain't happening. I just drove past it yesterday and that water level is way, way down. I doubt Lake Powell will ever reach "dead pool" level - although it's not an impossibility - but if it does, that's going to be a "come to Jesus" moment for the region. (The dam came close to being lost in 1983 and was saved by plywood from an area lumber store and some lucky timing. I wonder what the history of this area would be if the dam was overtopped and the cavitation continued under high flow.)
posted by azpenguin at 7:54 AM on November 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm reminded of Laozi:
The sage solves the difficult while it's still easy, and the great while it's still small—after all, the easy naturally develops into the difficult, and the small into the great! So by dealing with the small and easy, the sage can accomplish the great and difficult.
It seems obvious that this problem (as with just about all environmental problems), by being ignored for so long, has become far too big to have a simple solution. Even if we elected the greatest President ever, we'd still have a tragedy on our hands.

I'm really sorry to say so, but if I lived in the area, I'd try to get out while it's merely heartbreaking. It may well become impossible.
posted by ragtag at 7:56 AM on November 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

we need to grow food.

Has anyone done a study/writeup on what the American food supply would look like if irrigation-dependent agriculture (assuming a reasonable definition of irrigation-dependent) was ceased in places faces water shortages (assuming a reasonable definition of "shortage")?

And not just: skip planting corn this year, wait for the rains. But: I'm sorry, almonds aren't a sustainable crop here, we are going to let your orchard die.

Would the US actually run out of any vital-to-the-current-american-diet food crops? Would it be feasible to shift the American diet away from now "scarce" products? How would prices react? What would the effect on pollinators be? As a bonus, how much would it cost to buy out farmers who have made major capital investments in now-unsupported crops (orchards, irrigation, etc. etc.)?

Because, maybe if the "worst case" situation was known, maybe it could be easier to develop the political will to do something short of it, earlier (or, at least force the worst case on agri-business, in the hopes sustaining everyday life in the affected areas).
posted by sparklemotion at 8:09 AM on November 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

Given the sheer amount of raw hate many in the west have for the federal government, I am having a hard time seeing how they'll be able to "set the tone for agreements at the local level" without it coming across as unwelcome interference in state affairs and sparking a bunch of Bundyesque "protests" aka armed stand offs should that tone setting even hint at direct federal involvement. But without that involvement I can't really see the locals fixing this on their own either, given the disparities in power between the agribusiness folk and those who will be most likely to be the first ones to suffer shortages or be most harmed by them.
posted by gusottertrout at 8:46 AM on November 1, 2016 [5 favorites]

You can grow lettuce and tomatoes in lots of places, but usually only for a few months in the summer. The reason Yuma is a giant farm is that you can grow year around. The water is so nasty tasting in Phoenix I'm surprised it doesn't kill plants on contact though.
posted by Bee'sWing at 8:47 AM on November 1, 2016

I don't know any studies off the top of my head, but here are some interesting facts:

We're currently using water from the Colorado River to grow alfalfa hay in Wyoming, where the typical yield is 2.6 tons per acre (see p. 15) while the Coastal Plain region of Georgia has a typical alfalfa hay yield of 4-6 tons per acre, although the yield can be as high as 8 tons per acre.

We're also using water from the Colorado River to raise 1,300 head of cattle in Wyoming (p. 17), where you need approximately 40 acres of forage land per cow. In Tennessee, they're raising 1.73 million cattle and you need 1-2 acres of forage land per cow there.

California agriculture is of course on a very different scale.
posted by colfax at 8:57 AM on November 1, 2016 [5 favorites]

When people hear about Easter Island, they recoil. How could those people have been so stupid as to continue cutting down all of the wine palm trees, even when there were so few left that you could count them on one hand? Well, it turns out we're no smarter than they were. Hell, we're a good deal more stupid, since we understand the true extent of the problem, have the space and resources to fix it, and yet we flatly refuse to lift even a finger to solve it.
posted by 1adam12 at 9:04 AM on November 1, 2016 [8 favorites]

The only good thing about Arizona's water management (as opposed to California) is that farmers in Maricopa, Pinal, and Pima counties have lower water rights than the cities. Basically all agriculture in AZ (except for Yuma county) would shut down before the cities lost our water rights.

I'm not sure how much water the Phoenix Metro area uses compared to all those farmers growing feed corn, cotton, citrus, and other thirsty crops all around the edge of the Valley. Hopefully less than they use, it's a lot easier to make households conserve on water than farmers here.
posted by sharp pointy objects at 9:10 AM on November 1, 2016

We grow plenty of food, azpenguin. Any solution starts with moving agricultural users way down in priority, so roughly firstly a reasonable baseline for human consumption and use based on population, meaning no lawn watering but enough for showers, toilets, etc., including reasonable water rights for indigenous peoples, secondly enough for environmental concerns, and only third an open bidding process for agricultural uses. It's obviously much more complex than that, like you do not sell off all the remaining, and municipalities get some disposable for lawns, etc., but agriculture starts towards the bottom.

I'll okay with the idea that, if a particular area were particularly productive, then rerouting some water there makes sense. And I'd do not trust a bidding market to deliver this result. We should explicitly slant the allocation, bidding, etc. against inefficient agricultural uses, meaning cattle ranchers should pay dramatically more than farmers.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:41 AM on November 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

If only Congress had trusted John Wesley Powell and followed his recommendations in his Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States (1878). But, nooooooooooooo, not when there is fast money to be made! Should it be reassuring to us now to realize that Congress has always had the attitude "science is stooopid" when it interferes with them getting rich? .... Grrrr. Arrgghhh.

Powell's report is free for download in PDF format from the USGS. It's around 200 pages long.

Wife and I have been thinking of a move to Tucson. Even though I'm an old and currently would likely outlive a real crisis, it still seems like quite the crapshoot to make a move with such water uncertainty. When I've raised the point with some folks who live in Arizona the response is that water will always be available... it's a matter of how much people are willing to pay for it.
posted by SteveInMaine at 10:00 AM on November 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

I suppose technically that's true. But when water starts costing in the range of $5/liter it isn't really what you'd call available to much of anybody except the very wealthy.
posted by sotonohito at 10:05 AM on November 1, 2016

If you're interested in well-written dystopian fiction on this issue, pick up a copy of The Water Knife. The Monkey Wrench Gang is also required reading for anyone wanting to take down the Glen Canyon Dam.
posted by craven_morhead at 11:18 AM on November 1, 2016 [6 favorites]

Right, there is a real concern that water might be expensive for ordinary people, reasonably priced for businesses who waste more, and super cheap for agricultural users who waste tons. We need it to become expensive for agriculture while being cheap for ordinary people.
posted by jeffburdges at 12:31 PM on November 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

obviously the solution is just to privatize it
sell it to nestle for a large, but massively undervalued one-time payment!
posted by entropicamericana at 1:14 PM on November 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

MetaFilter: some of the worst, most foolhardy and almost deliberately wrong headed sort of thinking you can imagine

(knew I'd get a chance to do one of these one day)
posted by 43rdAnd9th at 2:54 PM on November 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

I like On the Public Record, a California civil engineer's very off-the-record analysis of on-the-record choices.

OtPR thinks a lot of California land is going to be retired from agriculture, early or late, easy or hard, efficiently or not. Well, to be precise, OtPR thinks it's going to happen late and badly but would like to point out the options.
posted by clew at 3:00 PM on November 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

> We're also using water from the Colorado River to raise 1,300 head of cattle in Wyoming (p. 17), where you need approximately 40 acres of forage land per cow.

Just a few updates here:

- The actual number of cattle in Wyoming (per your source--actually p. 18 not p. 17) is 1.3 million, not 1300. This is a slight difference.

- The Colorado River basin takes in something less than 1/4 of Wyoming (Note: It's labelled "Green" in the linked diagram; the Green River is a major tributary of the Colorado). In fact, about 3/4 of Wyoming is east of the continental divide--those waters drain into the Atlantic Ocean, no the Pacific.

Any way you look at it, cattle grazing on Wyoming's relatively open range, the vast majority of which is not even in the Colorado River basin, has about 0% to do with the Colorado River water crisis.

- The fact that it takes 40 acres/head of cattle in Wyoming is fairly irrelevant. In fact, it would be better not worse, if we would use 80 or even 120 acres/head in places like Wyoming.

Without going into a lot of detail or picking any specific fights, I'm sorry to say that a lot of the proposed solutions mentioned upthread are off by about the same factor as 1.3 million vs 1300. It's going to take a little more careful thinking here, folks . . .
posted by flug at 4:52 PM on November 1, 2016 [4 favorites]

However, in the interest of similarly simplistic, snarky, and ill-thought-out (non-)solutions, I'll just offer this:

If the up-stream states were allowed free use of any and all water that fell on them, and the downstream states the same, then it would problem solved finally and in perpetuity.

The major point of contention here is that highly populated states to the south want to grab a huge proportion of water that falls on the far more lightly populated states to the north.

For example, California, which has maybe 2-3% of the Colorado River watershed, wants to grab nearly 30% of the water produced upstream in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. Most of that water is piped overland to Southern California communities that aren't even in the Colorado River watershed at all.

CA, AZ, and NV (total population: 48 million) want to grab 50% of the water that is produced in WY, CO, and UT (total population: 8.8 million).

In fact, the population disparity is even worse than that. The Colorado River Basin areas of WY, CO, and UT are very lightly populated--I'd be surprised if the total CO River Basin population in those three states is even 2 million.

Yet CA, AZ, and NV want to grab 50% of the water that falls there for the benefit of four of the largest metro areas in the country: LA (2nd largest), Phoenix (12th), Riverside/San Bernadino (13th), and San Diego (17th). Total population, 51.4 million.

In short, the 51 million want to grab the water from the 2 million. Guess who wins?

Basically, fuck that. You want a few giant cities of 51 mill? Great. Grow your own water. But you don't get to grab mine.
posted by flug at 5:12 PM on November 1, 2016 [4 favorites]

Has anyone read "The Water Knife" It is a very grim but vaguely plausible science fiction book based on this dilemma.
posted by boilermonster at 11:42 PM on November 1, 2016

Whoops, I certainly screwed that number up.

But I don't think it's irrelevant that you need at least 40 acres (and often a lot more) to raise one cow in the Wyoming while you only need 1 or 2 acres to raise a cow in the American South. It means that we are raising cattle in Wyoming not because it's efficient or because it's a great environment for raising cattle. We have agriculture and stock-raising in places like Wyoming because, in the larger picture, we as a society have decided that it's important to try and make the arid mountain West into a green and pleasant land no matter how impossible that actually is. That's why we have the Bureau of Reclamation.

It is true though that the acres needed per head of cattle is a slightly different issue than water use. But in Wyoming and in other places in the West, irrigation is tied to raising cattle, because you need irrigation in order to grow hay in order to feed the cattle, especially during the winter and at the end of the season. And, for instance, the Bureau of Reclamation has something called The Eden Project in Southwest Wyoming within the Green River drainage system. It's a series of dams, reservoirs, canals, and drainage systems. According the Bureau of Reclamation: "Livestock production is the principal enterprise. Crops are alfalfa and grass hay, wheat, barley, oats, and pasture."

There's also the Lyman Project from the Bureau of Reclamation which is a set of 3 dams in the Green River drainage basin, and the Bureau says: "The additional late-season irrigation water provided by the project increases the yields of forage and grain crops to bolster the local livestock industry. The water supply to the area served by Meeks Cabin Reservoir has made possible a regrowth of pasture after haying, and the production of feed grains on the same land that previously yielded only native grass. Hay, alfalfa, barley, and oats are the principal crops."

It's also a little naive to think that water in the West always stays in its drainage basin. Even in the upper basin states, we dam rivers and send the water to other places. For instance, the High Savery Dam collects water from the Green River drainage in Wyoming but it sends all of the water to the North Platte drainage.

Anyway, I agree that California diverting water from watershed that it doesn't belong to is a problem, but you see those sorts of conflicts all over the West. I lived in Colorado for a long time, and there were constant arguments there about water: between towns and agriculture, between the Front Range and the Western slope (because all of the snow falls on the Western Slope, i.e. the mountains, but all of the Front Range cities are in the Plains), between little towns and big cities. Letting water stay in the drainage where it falls would be such a radical change from how the entire West has been built that it's not exactly a simple solution.
posted by colfax at 3:10 AM on November 2, 2016 [5 favorites]

The Water Knife is, for me, a difficult book to read. I'm at the second interaction between Maria and the Vet and I had to take a break for a while. I'm a wimp when it comes to some things.
posted by sotonohito at 5:50 AM on November 2, 2016

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