Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
Water Politics in the U.S. West – No Dry Spell Ahead

The New York Times Magazine recently published a long article on the drought in the Southwest by Jon Gertner.  His main thesis is that water shortages resulting from climate change may take a greater toll on humanity than a slow rise in the sea level.  I believe it also gives a prescient snapshot of the types of water politics we will see characterize the U.S. West in the years ahead, politics involving individuals, livelihoods, industries, cities, states and, given the flow of the Colorado to Mexico, even countries.

More than 30 million people depend upon the Colorado River – a greatly reduced river would wreak chaos in seven states: Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California. As Gertner notes:

“…an almost unfathomable legal morass might well result, with farmers suing the federal government; cities suing cities; states suing states; Indian nations suing state officials; and foreign nations (by treaty, Mexico has a small claim on the river) bringing international law to bear on the United States government. In addition, a lesser Colorado River would almost certainly lead to a considerable amount of economic havoc, as the future water supplies for the West’s industries, agriculture and growing municipalities are threatened.”

In fact, as one prominent Western water official described the possible future to Gertner:

 “…if some of the Southwest’s largest reservoirs empty out, the region would experience an apocalypse, “an Armageddon.”

The issue behind the water politics in this reason, as the article explains is not just a matter of limited capacity, bigger populations and environmental regulations. It’s also a distributional one.  As Gertner notes:

“…Seventy-five years ago, cities like Denver made claims on — and from the state of Colorado received rights to — water in the mountains; those cities in turn built reservoirs for their water. As a result, older cities have access to more surface water (that is, water that comes from rivers and streams) than newer cities like Aurora, which have been forced to purchase existing water rights from farmers and mining companies. Towns that rely on groundwater (water pumped from deep underground) face an even bigger disadvantage. Water tables all over the United States have been dropping, sometimes drastically, from overuse. In the Denver area, some cities that use only groundwater will almost certainly exhaust their accessible supplies by 2050.

Furthermore, part of the legacy of misjudgment is that the seven states that divided the water in the 1920s entered into a legal partnership that created unrealistic expectations about the river’s capacity. But there is another, lesser-known legacy too. As the 20th century progressed, many water managers came to believe that the 1950s, which included the most severe drought years since measurement of the river began, were the marker for a worst-case situation.”

This entry was posted on Saturday, October 27th, 2007 at 1:21 pm and is filed under Colorado River, Ogallala Aquifer, United States.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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