The Water Wranglers of the West Are Struggling to Save the Colorado River

In mid-December, I drove to Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, to see its infamous bathtub ring. The bathtub, in this metaphor, is Lake Mead, on the border between Nevada and Arizona; the ring is a chalk-white coating of minerals that its receding waters have left behind. The Southwest, which includes the Colorado River Basin

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In mid-December, I drove to Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, to see its infamous bathtub ring. The bathtub, in this metaphor, is Lake Mead, on the border between Nevada and Arizona; the ring is a chalk-white coating of minerals that its receding waters have left behind. The Southwest, which includes the Colorado River Basin, has been in a protracted drought since 2srcsrcsrc; climate change has made it worse. “You go to Los Angeles or Denver or Las Vegas, and it doesn’t seem like an emergency, compared to when a hurricane slams into Florida,” John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, told me recently. “Our emergency is more akin to sea-level rise, something that takes decades to manifest, so it almost normalizes itself.” The bathtub ring may be the emergency’s most visible manifestation—the drought equivalent of Don Lemon in a rain slicker, weathering gale-force winds in a megastorm. It serves as a daily reminder of the hundred and fifty-eight feet of water that is no longer there. According to Bob Gripentog, one of the owners of the Lake Mead Marina, where swarms of ducks like to overwinter, the docks keep needing to be moved farther out as the lake’s level drops.

The day after my trip to the reservoir, the people responsible for addressing this emergency gathered at Caesars Palace, in Las Vegas, for the annual conference of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Colorado River Water Users Association. According to CRWUA, the Colorado River, which supplies water to seven states, thirty sovereign tribes, and Mexico, is known as “one of the most regulated rivers in the world”; the conference is where some of those regulations get hashed out. Passersby would have seen men in sports coats clustered around tables, discussing desalination; jargony meetings between bureaucrats, water engineers, and utilities managers; and an expo hall where salesmen pitched pipe systems to municipal officials. One group of engineers told me that they needed a spreadsheet to decode all the acronyms. But beneath the trade-conference technicalities flowed an undercurrent of panic. Panelists used words like “desperate” and “brutal” and “day of reckoning.” In the conference’s opening remarks, Brenda Burman, the former commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, noted that the current drought is the worst the world has seen in twelve hundred years. There was a worse one twenty-five hundred years ago, she added, but that didn’t seem to cheer anyone up.

This year marks the centennial of the Colorado River Compact, a 1922 agreement that divvied up the river’s water between the seven basin states: California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Nevada. (The original compact mentioned Native Americans and Mexico only in passing.) The compact’s authors hoped to create water policies that would foster development in the Southwest, and they were wildly successful. Populations in the region have boomed; Phoenix, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Los Angeles all use Colorado River water. The river generates hydroelectric power for millions of households and irrigates farms in Southern California’s Imperial Valley, where two-thirds of the country’s winter vegetables are grown.

The 1922 compact gave states the collective right to withdraw fifteen million acre-feet of water from the Colorado each year. (One acre-foot can cover an acre of land with one foot of water, and is enough to supply two or three American families for a year.) But the volume of water in the river, most of which comes from Rocky Mountain snowmelt, has historically been more like twelve million acre-feet; in 2srcsrc2, it was, terrifyingly, only 3.8 million. And, because states are legally entitled to draw down a dwindling resource, Lake Mead and its sister reservoir, Lake Powell, are approaching critical levels. According to the Bureau of Reclamation’s most recent five-year hydrology projection, there is a ten-per-cent chance that Lake Powell will sink to what’s called minimum-power pool, the level at which it will no longer generate hydroelectric power, in 2src23. After minimum-power pool comes dead pool, a water level so low that no water can flow out of the dams, effectively cutting off the supply to Nevada, California, Arizona, and Mexico. According to some recent predictions, this could happen by 2src25.

During the past two decades of fierce negotiation, various interests agreed to use less water, but their cumulative impact was only 1.3 million acre-feet per year. In that time, the projections have only grown more dire. “Things are happening faster and faster,” Burman, who will become the general manager of the Central Arizona Project in January, said. “We think we’ve got things under control. We look up six months later, and it turns out we don’t.” And so, over the summer, the Bureau of Reclamation gave Colorado River basin states a matter of months to come up with a plan to reduce their use by an additional two to four million acre-feet. (Some models call for cuts of up to six million.) After weeks of tense meetings, the negotiations fell apart without a deal. At this year’s CRWUA, many of the same players hoped to pick up the pieces. “I’ve been to a lot of these conferences,” an attendee told me between panels. “There’s usually a lot of talk about collaboration and coming together. They’re not really talking that way anymore.”

Each water-user I met in Las Vegas seemed eager to identify some other culprit for the current crisis. Cities point out that agriculture consumes eighty per cent of the Colorado’s water, while farmers note that cities keep growing—and, incidentally, generating demand for their winter lettuce. States that were sorted into the Upper Basin by the 1922 compact (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming) argue that around three-quarters of the water is used by the more-populous Lower Basin states (Arizona, Nevada, California), which in turn like to remind everyone that, so far, they’ve cut their water use the most. One speaker, from Arizona, mentioned that California had, as part of a deal with the federal government, recently committed to conserving up to four hundred thousand acre-feet per year over four years. “That’s a lot for California,” he said, which sounded to me like a neg. The farmers and the ag lawyers were easy to spot by their cowboy hats, dress boots, and general aura of defensiveness. “Well, I wouldn’t want to be like China, where we can’t grow enough food for half our population,” one said testily when I asked him about the pervasive anti-ag sentiment. (He then began complaining about the water-guzzling gardens of San Diego.) Andy Mueller, who represents a heavily agricultural district in western Colorado, said on a panel that the agricultural community resented being branded as “evil.” “You cannot deprive people of their future by saying their way of life is not viable,” he said.

Theoretically, water rights are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. The All-American Canal, which feeds the Imperial Valley, was built decades before the Central Arizona Project, a gigantic aqueduct system that began construction in the seventies, so Southern California has senior rights. Arizona, with its junior rights, could have its water allotment cut to zero before Imperial Valley farms face any cuts at all. The basin’s thirty sovereign tribes have their own right to a certain portion of the Colorado, although some have yet to negotiate settlements that spell out just how much water they’re entitled to. With the river already over-allocated, tribal water settlements are often politically contentious: any water granted to them has to be taken away from someone else.

Negotiations can start to seem like a game of water-rights chicken: Why shouldn’t booming Salt Lake City use the water that it’s legally entitled to, given that Phoenix and Los Angeles once developed with little regard to water scarcity? Isn’t it absurd—oppressive, even—to ask tribal nations to accept strict limits so that water keeps flowing to lands that were stolen from them? Why should Arizona conserve water that will end up flooding an alfalfa field, which in turn will be shipped overseas? (Alfalfa is lucrative but water-intensive: in 2src21, American farmers sent a record-breaking 2.86 million metric tons abroad, mostly to China and Japan; in Utah, alfalfa and hay fields swallow two-thirds of the state’s allocation of Colorado River water, but produce a fraction of one per cent of its gross domestic product.) The fear looming over CRWUA was the spectre of a “run on the river”—the liquid equivalent of a bank run. “We’re going to continue to see this tragedy of the commons manifest itself as we all continue to act in our own best interest, and the greater good suffers,” Entsminger told me.

Every state in the region has a lead water negotiator. In Nevada’s case, it’s Entsminger, who has a firm handshake, an upright bearing, and hair that’s grown progressively whiter as the water wars have escalated. Entsminger sometimes plays the role of truth-teller, though negotiators across the table from him might brand him as a bad cop; when last summer’s negotiations fell apart, Entsminger wrote an open letter venting his frustration, criticizing “drought profiteering proposals” and “unreasonable expectations” from water-users. “As much as I’m a fan of negotiating in small rooms and keeping things confidential, I just thought it was time for the public at large to realize that the people who are supposed to be in charge of finding solutions for this river—we’re not getting it done,” he told me.

Nevada has emerged as a leader in water conservation, in part because of its vulnerability: the Colorado River supplies ninety per cent of Las Vegas’s water, but Nevada has junior rights. Nevada’s population has grown by around seven hundred and fifty thousand people since the drought began, but it has curbed its use of Colorado River water by twenty-six per cent. The state passed legislation to eliminate many grass lawns, making Las Vegas—contrary to its reputation for excess—a surprisingly conservative city, water-wise. Vegas residents can report the illegal watering of a lawn (for instance, if the water is flowing onto the sidewalk) via an app, and the offender will receive a visit from an actual water cop. (Entsminger admitted that Nevada also has fewer competing stakeholders than some of its neighbors: in a state with little agriculture to speak of, and only one tribe that is entitled to water rights, “our politics starts to look really simple.”)

I caught up with Entsminger right after a panel of the top water negotiators from all the basin states. Other panels featured officials from the Bureau of Reclamation, whose presence was a reminder that the federal government can still step in and impose its own cuts, a move that would almost certainly inspire immediate and protracted lawsuits. Given the dire circumstances, Entsminger seemed unsure of how hopeful to be. “I still heard a lot of people explaining how hard things are, and how they might not be able to do very much,” he said. On the other hand, he found some of the backroom conversations encouraging. “We probably had our best meeting of 2src22 within the last week. But I would say that the next forty days are going to tell the tale of whether that was just a flash of optimism.”

That evening, at the Percolation and Runoff Reception, a wastewater engineer gushed to me about Arizona’s innovative use of recycled effluent to brew beer—the CRWUA version of small talk. As a singer in a sequinned dress began to croon on stage, I told a water lawyer that lawns might start to seem unappealing—a gross display of greed, even. “No, no, no,” he said, with a passion that surprised me. “Then it will just become a red-state, blue-state issue, which is not where we want it to go.” One of the upsides of water politics, at least so far, is that it tends to cut across party lines. But, if it becomes part of the culture war, say goodbye to turf-removal projects and hello to spite lawns.

The most positive thing to come out of CRWUA seemed to be that everyone was calling the crisis a crisis. That much was considered common ground. What to do about it, of course, is still an open question; bureaucracy moves slowly, and the water is dropping fast. On my final morning at CRWUA, the coffee line was long and the urns were nearly empty. The woman in front of me in line tilted the container so I could half-fill my cup. “Around here, we’re good at getting the last drop,” she said darkly.

I thought about a boat captain I met at the Lake Mead Marina. He’d spent decades on the lake, and had personally witnessed the water levels dropping. Last year, six of the seven boat launches on the lake shut down—they were too far from the water to operate—yet the captain told me he wasn’t worried about it. His neighbor, he said, was a retired intelligence operative who’d told him that water shortages were created by the government “to promote the climate change.” If the region ran out of water, he assured me, they would step in and fix it. He didn’t say who “they” were, or what the fix would look like, but he seemed certain of one thing: they had everything under control. ♦

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