The US May Be About to Declare Its First-Ever Water Shortage

Nevada, California, and especially Arizona could be affected by a shortfall of water beginning this coming August.
Marcia Wendorf

This coming August, for the first time in its history, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is likely to issue a Level 1 Water Shortage Declaration which would trigger mandatory cuts in water consumption primarily in two states — Arizona and Nevada.

This past week, the bureau released its 24-month projection for water contained in the 1,450-mile-long (2,333 km) Colorado River. The river originates on the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains in northern Colorado and is fed by the Green, Gunnison, and San Juan rivers.

The Colorado River flows all the way to the Gulf of California in Mexico, and it supplies water to over 40 million people living in seven southwestern states, 29 tribal nations, and two Mexican states.

The river's watershed is divided into the Upper Basin, which consists of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico, and the Lower Basin, which is comprised of Arizona, Nevada, and California. The river provides 40 percent of Arizona's water supply.

Water from Colorado fills the U.S.'s two largest reservoirs — Lake Mead and Lake Powell. Lake Mead, which is the largest U.S. reservoir, lies 24 miles (39 km) east of Las Vegas. It was formed by the building of the Hoover Dam, which was completed on September 30, 1935. A photo of the dam appears at the top of this article.

Glen Canyon Dam
Glen Canyon Dam Source: Spondylolithesis/iStock

The second-largest reservoir, Lake Powell, lies partly in Utah and partly in Arizona. The lake was created by the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam between 1956 and 1966. At the time of this writing, Lake Powell is at 35.53 percent of its full capacity, while Lake Mead is at 42.97 percent of its full capacity.

Models created by the Bureau of Reclamation show that by June 2021, the water level at Lake Mead will fall below 1,075 feet (328 meters) for the first time in its history, and this will trigger a Level 1 Water Shortage Declaration which will affect the three states of the lower basin.

The Colorado River Compact

Water from the Colorado River irrigates around 5.5 million acres of agricultural land, growing everything from alfalfa to melons. Water from the river hasn't made it to its endpoint at the Gulf of California since 1998, which marked the beginning of drought across the western U.S.

The Colorado River
The Colorado River Source: FilippoBacci/iStock

In 1922, the Colorado River Compact divvied up the river's annual flow among the seven US states and the two Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California. However, since 1922, conditions along the river have changed dramatically, with scientists determining that the Colorado River Basin is now around 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit (1.39 deg. C) warmer than its average during the twentieth century.

The winters of 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 have had record low snowfalls across the West, and this has resulted in an extraordinarily low snowpack. According to a New York Times article, the Colorado river's flows are down 20 percent over the last 20 years.

The hotter temperatures caused by global warming are causing river water to evaporate more quickly, and these hot temperatures are also parching the soils around the river, which are then soaking up more river water before it can flow downstream.

To address this issue, in May 2019 at Hoover Dam, representatives from the seven states plus the federal government came together and signed a deal that specified potential cuts in water deliveries through the year 2026. The deal specified that Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico would give up some of their water should a water shortage declaration be made, with Arizona standing to lose approximately one-third of its water allocation.

A lack of electricity

It's not just a shortage of water that residents of the Southwest could be facing, they could also be facing a shortage of electricity as well. That's because much of the electricity used by Arizona, Nevada, and California is generated at the Hoover Dam.

Hoover Dam turbines
Hoover Dam turbines Source: tankbmb/iStock

The Bureau of Reclamation has determined that the water level at Lake Mead will drop low enough to affect electricity generation at Hoover Dam. Anticipating this possibility over a decade ago, the bureau began replacing part of the turbines at Hoover Dam with newer, wide-head turbines that are capable of generating electricity even at lower water levels.

The electricity generated at the Hoover Dam costs considerably less than electricity that is bought and sold on the open market. In fact, Lincoln County Nevada Power District General Manager Dave Luttrell told the Associated Press that supplemental power created from sources other than the dam, such as electricity created from natural gas, has already raised electricity costs in his rural district.

Water wars

Recently, private investors have descended on agricultural communities throughout the Southwest, seeking to buy their water rights. The New York Times reported that Greenstone, a subsidiary of financial-services conglomerate MassMutual, has been quietly buying up rights to the water going to the isolated, agricultural community of Cibola, Arizona, and then selling that water to the fast-growing Phoenix suburb of Queen Creek.

Such water grabs are far from new. As we previously reported, both Los Angeles and Las Vegas were created by moving water. In 1913, L.A. diverted water from the Owens Valley via an aqueduct constructed by engineer William Mulholland. Rights to the water were acquired through subterfuge, lies, and political pressure, and in 1924, the farmers and ranchers of the Owens Valley unsuccessfully tried to destroy the aqueduct.

Screenwriter Robert Towne used this "water war" as the subject of the 1974 movie, Chinatown, directed by Roman Polanski, and starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. In 1935, Arizona's governor Benjamin Moeur dispatched 100 National Guard troops to the Colorado River to stop California from building the Parker Dam. Moeur feared California would "steal" Arizona's water.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with him, stating that California was illegally exporting water. However, Congress passed a law overturning the Supreme Court's decision and allowed California to go on with its water plans.

Possible solutions

For those who think that additional water could be accessed from the Mississippi River or the Great Lakes, think again. Fear of just such a thing is what drove the Great Lakes Compact, signed into law 2008 by President George W. Bush. That compact bans long-range water diversions from the Great Lakes.

Other possible solutions include the creation of subsurface drip irrigation on agricultural land, and water-reuse technologies such as capturing stormwater, and the treatment and reuse of graywater and blackwater.

Graywater is water that has been used in showers, bathroom sinks, baths, and washing machines. Blackwater is water from toilets, kitchen sinks, and dishwashers. Blackwater requires additional treatment because it can be contaminated by pathogens and grease. California already has 11 desalination plants, and another 10 are being planned. 

Cities that could be impacted by water shortage include Denver, San Diego, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. Currently, state governments are divided over how to approach the water shortage problem, with both government intervention and free market-based solutions on the table.

A free market solution would allow private investors to purchase water rights and redistribute water. If states, cities, utilities and large farming operations could buy water on the open market and across state lines, the Colorado River Compact would no longer be enforceable. This is similar to what happened to energy markets during the late 1990s when companies such as Enron exploited electricity shortages, many of which they created themselves.

Irrigation in California's Central Valley
Irrigation in California's Central Valley Source: billnoll/iStock

Water shortages, especially in California's Central Valley, could have enormous impacts on food prices. California grows most of the U.S.'s processing tomatoes, 88 percent of its strawberries, 57 percent of its peaches, and most of the country's melons and almonds.

Besides produce, water shortages could affect the size of livestock herds, further driving up prices of beef, pork, and poultry.

Water shortages may finally bring an end to the explosive growth that the southwestern U.S. has been experiencing for decades now, and the coming decades may see the Southwest looking and operating very differently than it does now.

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