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Water in the West


Although urban planners and environmentalists worry about these issues constantly, the blind faith by which most people involved with western development have assumed that water supplies would be found is amazing and disturbing.

“There is no planning for a continuation of the drought we’ve had,” said one expert on the Colorado’s woes, who asked not to be identified to preserve his relationship with state officials. “There’s always been within the current planning an embedded hope that somehow, things would return to something more like normal.”

Unfortunately, the Colorado during most of Lake Mead’s 78-year history was not normal at all.

Studies now show that the 20th century was one of the three wettest of the last 13 centuries in the Colorado basin. On average, the Colorado’s flow over that period was actually 15 percent lower than in the 1900s. And most experts agree that the basin will get even drier: A brace of global-warming studies concludes that rising temperatures will reduce the Colorado’s average flow after 2050 by five to 35 percent, even if rainfall remains the same — and most of those studies predict that rains will diminish.

Already, the drought is upending many of the assumptions on which water barons relied when they tamed the Colorado in the 1900s.

The growth of Las Vegas, Phoenix, Denver, and southern California all happened with the promise that technology could made paradise bloom. Agriculture wouldn’t have to suffer either–dairy and pecans in southern New Mexico and vegetables in the Imperial Valley could be satisfied by controlling water too. The implications for the long-term drought combined with continued demands upon the water supplies are immense. Not only will aquifer supplies likely be used up in a last-ditch effort to continue the lifestyle for another few years, but the Vegas lifestyle and the Phoenix golf courses are in real peril over the next few decades. Far more important than any of this is the tens of millions of people who have moved to the region. Drought is likely to be far more damaging to the regional economy of Phoenix and Vegas than the housing market collapse.

And even if you don’t live in the Southwest, you probably do eat lettuce in January. The relationship between out of season vegetables in the American diet and water technology in the Southwest is very deep.

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