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Beginning of the End for Large-Scale Agriculture in the Southwest

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Most of the attention on water supplies in the Southwest as to do with the region’s exploding population. Fair enough, and I’m not sure the fountains at the Bellagio are exactly a necessary use of scarce water in a desert. But the real water hog is agriculture and with climate change affecting the region evermore, it’s agriculture that is going to lose out. It’s already starting.

With climate change and long-term drought continuing to take a toll on the Colorado River, the federal government on Monday for the first time declared a water shortage at Lake Mead, one of the river’s main reservoirs.

The declaration triggers cuts in water supply that, for now, mostly will affect Arizona farmers. Beginning next year they will be cut off from much of the water they have relied on for decades. Much smaller reductions are mandated for Nevada and for Mexico across the southern border.

But larger cuts, affecting far more of the 40 million people in the West who rely on the river for at least part of their water supply, are likely in coming years as a warming climate continues to reduce how much water flows into the Colorado from rain and melting snow.

“As this inexorable-seeming decline in the supply continues, the shortages that we’re beginning to see implemented are only going to increase,” said Jennifer Pitt, who directs the Colorado River program at the National Audubon Society. “Once we’re on that train, it’s not clear where it stops.”

This is the logical move. But it also comes at a cost, as the nation has grown to rely on cheap veggies from this region through the winter months. It’s also an almost unthinkable sea change from the way we have set up our society in the last century.

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