The allure of the West may be its downfall

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Over 40 million people rely on the Colorado River as their main source of water. That source is shrinking rapidly, with a steady decline as a result of overuse and climate change, coupled with the region’s 20-year drought. Patterns of the river’s flow are shifting and becoming harder to predict. With urban development continually on the rise, the river is pushed closer to its limits, its fate now hanging in the balance.

A century ago, seven states in the Colorado River basin came to an agreement on how much water each was to be allocated per year. That compact made allotments based on predictions of river flow that were never truly accurate. Actual water measurements flowing through the system have been routinely below projections since the original agreement. In the past two decades, predictions have been woefully inaccurate, owing to a combination of severe drought and inconsistent climate patterns.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, “The actual end of water year 2023 system storage may vary from (projections), primarily due to uncertainty regarding this season’s runoff and reservoir inflow.”

Climate change is shaking up weather processes in the region, including precipitation patterns and air temperature, making the river’s flow much trickier to predict. Models for estimating how much water will flow through the Hoover Dam have all but disappeared, leading to complete uncertainty about when the river may reach its extraction limit, and when the flow may stop altogether. There simply isn’t enough water to satisfy past agreements, and new ones have not been made.

It can’t be forgotten that all this is taking place across an expansive desert, in an environment not meant to support the current demands of human development. The river was never guaranteed to provide the needed water to keep pace with population and urban expansion, nor were experts ever certain that it would. The river flow numbers of the original compact were, at best, estimates.

Despite these declining flow numbers, development continues at a steady rate, urban populations in desert cities rising with it. In urban planning for Phoenix, Tucson, and Las Vegas (among others), estimates of how much water would be available were flawed at best. The pressure being placed on the shrinking supply continues to build.

The issue of water use is set to become increasingly divisive as the federal government prepares to roll out significant allotment cuts. Earlier this year, the seven basin states were asked again to create a plan for resolving the crisis and making cuts to water use. A pushed-back deadline of January 31 came and went and nothing came of it. Where the states have refused, the federal government is now stepping in, tasked with creating their own plan by this summer for how much reduction to impose on the states. Those cuts will hurt if they are actually implemented, but it is a necessary pain for the continued existence of the river itself and the millions that rely on it.

It shouldn’t be taken as a given, however, that any cuts handed down from the federal level will be enforced. Whatever restrictions are attempted will undoubtedly be mired in legal disputes. States may use whatever legal arms they can to defend against reductions to their water access. The concern is that those legal fights may win, with essential cuts not made. Some form of plan for water-use reduction is the basic first step to heal the river, but even plan-making efforts are strained, politicized, and legally entangled. The Western states, which couldn’t or wouldn’t impose cuts on themselves, are now poised to fight for water that may not even exist. They may find themselves claiming ownership to an allocation that isn't even available.

People have been magnetically drawn to the American southwest throughout U.S. history, but large-scale housing communities in such arid climes are not natural. Development in that area at current levels is unsustainable and impractical. That was known from the beginning. When will we learn our limits?

If this predicament reveals anything about the human race, it is our ceaseless will to achieve our desires — in this case, the habitation of a place not meant for this many people. The Colorado River has long been the lifeblood of the region, but at this rate, it won’t be around forever. We’re past the point of no return, with NASA saying human-caused climate change won’t be reversed in the time of humans currently alive. And when the river goes dry — not if — we probably still won’t admit defeat. We’ll find another way to pump fresh water into the middle of the desert. If the river can’t support that goal anymore, alternatives will be found.

The troubling factor here is the lack of a conservation-first mindset. Precious time is likely to be wasted in legal battles while the river continues to shrink, as long as economic motivations sit closer to heart than altruistic ones. It’s improbable that the drastic cuts to water usage requested by the Fed will be agreed to by the states. Ideally, those that rely upon the water would self-administer major reductions in their water usage (even at harm to their citizens and economy) in a serious effort to conserve the water supply. Risks must be taken to sustain the region’s lifeline. However, it seems sadly far-fetched that all the states will make those necessary cuts to the water that drives their ever-expanding economies.

This self-interest is regrettable yet understandable. Considering long-term risks is never really in the political playbook, especially when voters’ contentment is on the line. A rational actor would not be that altruistic when economic gain is the alternative, and the consequences will be real harm to people.

The outstanding question is whether Americans are able to see the bigger picture here. Can people overcome their own materialistic desires, feelings of possession and entitlement over something that is truly a shared resource, long enough to consider the greater need for that resource’s protection?

This leads one to wonder whether altruism will ever be considered. America may someday reach a point where the effects of climate change are pressing enough to outweigh the constant push for more expansion, more economic growth. At that time, common interests will have to be considered. But what will it take to get us there?