Water Wars: When the Taps Run Dry

In the desert plains beyond the Rocky Mountains, mega-drought is no longer a theory

Water Wars: When the Taps Run Dry

RIO VERDE, Arizona – Shore dwellers in New Jersey, the Carolinas, and Florida barred from commercial flood insurance; homeowners in the forests of the Rockies and Sierra Nevada denied fire insurance by firms whose loss calculations now see them as bad risks; a deadly heat wave across the southern United States caused by the hottest July in recorded global history.

Alarming stories like these, driven by climate change, have been priced into the way we think about the realities of climate change. Yet this year, something more visceral happened in Arizona—something that can’t be addressed by switching on an air conditioner or searching for an uncle in the insurance game: an entire town ran out of water.

The plight of Rio Verde, a fast-developing suburb of Scottsdale with about 2,500 residents, gained national attention when in January residents learned they would lose their sole source of water. Years of drought and the Rio Verde’s desert location had always meant relying on water shipped by in from neighboring sources, mostly from Scottsdale, and then stored in underground cisterns installed by each home. But with the region suffering through a decades-long mega-drought that this year’s record rains did little to change and a new federal water sharing deal imposing a 12 percent cut on the state’s allotment of Colorado River water, Scottsdale decided it had to prioritize its own 242,000 residents and businesses.

“The city cannot be responsible for the water needs of a separate community especially given its unlimited and unregulated growth,” said a statement from the city announcing the decision to stop sharing its water. “Given the unprecedented drought on the Colorado River, the city ceased allowing any of this water to be transported outside of the city.”

‘No silver bullet’

Rio Verde is perched as a canary in coalmine for thousands of sub-divisions built across the Southwest, which is experiencing a major population boom. Four of the top 10 fastest growing American states are in the increasingly parched Colorado River basin: Utah (1), Nevada (5), Colorado (6) and Arizona (10). They are home to boomtowns like Las Vegas, Denver, Colorado Springs, and Phoenix, but also to sprawling suburban development and some smaller metros growing even faster and with less planning than larger towns.

The region also contains other powerful, water hungry interests: The largest native American tribal areas in the United States, the nation’s largest and most productive agricultural land, sprawling mining operations (copper, coal, oil, and gas), expanding silicon chip fabs (Intel, Taiwan Semiconductor), and a booming manufacturing base (Tesla, Lucid Motors). In fact, the Southwest added more manufacturing jobs than any other region between 2017 and 2020 and that expansion continues, as does the effort to house all these new workers.

Amid this surging demand for water, the states of the so-called “lower basin” of the area fed by the Colorado River—Arizona, California and Nevada—agreed to voluntary cuts of about 14 percent of their allotted river flow to forestall much deeper cuts threatened by the federal government’s Bureau of Reclamation. With politics in mind, the region’s three governors carefully avoided impacting households, instead structuring the Lower Basin Agreement so that much of the reduction will come by paying agribusinesses to leave land fallow for a few years, tapping $1.2 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act to do so.

If this seems like sidestepping the real issue, that’s because it is. The Lower Basin Agreement, as well as the strong rainfall some of the region experienced this past winter and spring, merely kicks the can down the road to 2026. It includes few provisions about future residential development, mining, or manufacturing. And the region’s vital, Colorado River-fed reservoirs—Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which hold the drinking water for over 40 million people – remain dangerously low. As of August 15, Lake Powell, created by the Glen Canyon Dam, is only 40 percent full even after the runoff from this wet spring. Lake Mead, a product of the Hoover Dam, is just 32 percent full.

“People are wrongfully talking about Lake Mead filling right up and heralding this (lower basin) deal,” says Michael Kerwin, Director of the Environmental Sciences Program at the University of Denver. “In fact, this absolutely record setting snow melt has Lake Mead going up but it’s not changing much. And this lower basin is potentially going to let people do what they like to do during blips of precipitation: Just forget about it. There is no silver bullet.”

The chief water officials of the Colorado River Basin’s seven states acknowledged as much in a letter to the federal Interior Department (PDF), saying they “recognize that having one good winter does not solve the systemic challenges facing the Colorado River.” The letter, whose spirit of cross-state consensus mask some real tensions over how to split the river’s assets, asks the U.S. government to begin talks on the post–2026 long-term environment so that state officials can focus on near-term shortages like the one in Rio Verde.

Going to ground

In fact, Rio Verde was not the first community in the region to run dry. Dotted all over the landscape of the Southwest area, settlements ranging from small cities to encampments that rely entirely on water brought in by tanker trucks at great expense from distant sources. The taps in three towns in Utah’s Carbon County, one of the country’s premier golf meccas, ran dry in the summer of 2021. “If any developers want to add another country club to this golfing mecca, “I don’t know where they would get the water from,” said Zach Renstrom, general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District. “And I’m telling you, I know where every drop of water is.”

The town of Magdalena, New Mexico has been living on a knife’s edge—with less than 20 days of surplus water—for a decade now. For these and other towns, trucks spewing diesel and tapping whatever might be left beneath them were the stop-gap solution.

Trucking in water and depleting underground wells was also how Rio Verde developers hid the fact that the district did not meet Arizona’s “100-year supply” water rule in order to obtain building permits. The rule is widely flouted and ridiculed as worse than useless by water advocates. When the rule was instituted in the 1970s, 100-year supply meant surface water— mostly the Colorado River, its reservoirs and the canals and pipes that deliver its water to homes. In 1993, however, as the state began to understand the implications of running out, the law was changed to include water from aquifers, which are not regularly replenished by seasonal rains. As a result, Arizona is not just running short on allocated river water; it has also drastically depleted its groundwater supply. Water levels are dropping between one and seven feet a year in these aquifers due to aggressive pumping to make up for the shortfall in Colorado River supply. State officials believe that groundwater represents about 40 percent of state supply, and it is even more finite than the river.

“The thing you have to remember is … we're pumping water that's 7- to 8,000 years old in many cases,” noted an prescient 2019 article in Tuscon.com. “As soon as the water's gone, we don't have another Ice Age to reestablish it."

California, Utah, New Mexico, and Nevada—all Colorado Basin states—face similar problems with their groundwater supplies. Indeed, on the other side of the Rocky Mountain’s drainage area, in states like Texas, Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas, and Iowa, the problem is even more intense as these states received none of the watery largesse of the 2022–23 winter’s heavy snowfall and subsequent runoff that temporarily provided relief to Nevada and California.


Mirage or solution

American democratic institutions tend to excel at the short-term fixes and fall short when it comes to longer term planning. Water in the Southwest is a case in point. Around the region, plans ranging from recycling wastewater to desalination plants to literal pipe dreams proliferate, get attention in local media, and then stall in the face of lobbying, NIMBY-ism, or exorbitant costs.

A private consortium led by Goldman Sachs and the Israeli engineering firm IDE has proposed construction of the world’s largest desalinization plant in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, the thin body of water created by the Baja Peninsula, which would then pump 1 million acre-feet of water 200 miles north to Arizona. That’s about as much as Arizona’s allotment from the Colorado River, so this is no drop in the bucket.

Neither is the initial estimate of land acquisition and plant construction: $5 billion. Pipeline not included. And there are other challenges. The pipeline route would take it through the protected ecosystem of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Critics say the deal, which still requires the approval of state lawmakers and U.S. and Mexican officials, was rushed through Arizona’s Water Infrastructure and Finance Authority. It also commits the state to purchase the plant’s output for 100 years, even though the price of its water would be out of the state’s control and start at 3- to 4-times the price of Arizona’s current supply. Whether it is ever built will turn on all of these issues.

Desalinization already supplies some water in the region. California has 12 such plants, ranging from small to the enormous Carlsbad plant that began operations in 2016 and produces about 10 percent of San Diego County’s supply. But a second large plant proposed for Huntington Beach, just north of Los Angeles, was voted down after lobbying by a coalition of beach-coming residents, surfers and environmentalists concerned about possible impacts on the coastal ecology.

Not all of the Colorado River Basin is blessed with a coastline—or a 200-mile corridor to a coastline, like the Sonoran Desert region that Arizona’s proposed pipeline to the sea would traverse. In Washington County, Utah, another wealthy golf mecca, St. George’s, has proposed a 140-mile pipeline from already stressed Lake Powell in order to avoid a moratorium on construction of housing and—you guessed it—more golf courses.

Over a decade ago, federal authorities began studying an even more ambitious, perhaps even outlandish, proposal: A pipeline to move water from the Missouri River into the Colorado basin. To date, nothing has come of the proposal.

More recently, a “kill two birds with one stone” proposal emerged from the mind of a retired California engineer, Don Siefkes: Tap the Mississippi River in one of its most troublesome flood zones and pipe that water west to Lake Powell. What began as a letter to the Editor of The Desert Sun in Arizona got national attention and has been deemed technically feasible by some experts. The idea sounds simple: About 30 miles north of Baton Rouge and 280 miles from New Orleans sits the Old River Control Structure (ORCS), built by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1963 to prevent flooding along the lower Mississippi. Siefkes, new retired in San Leandro, pointed out that while ORCS certainly is old, it has not managed to “control” flooding in the region. “New Orleans has a problem with that much water anyway, so let’s divert 250,000 gallons/second to Lake Powell, which currently has a shortage of 5.5 trillion gallons. This would take 254 days to fill.”

Implementation would be expensive and difficult. The resulting pipeline would be 1,489 miles long, certainly not an impossible engineering feat. Politics, however, is another matter. Obtaining right-of-way, managing environmental approvals, and dealing with the political backlash from folks unhappy about a man-made river running through their community or tribal lands would be complex. With a minimum of eight states to traverse, not all of which see eye-to-eye on environmental or climate change issues, the obstacles make other dismissed suggestions—seeding clouds, towing icebergs from the Arctic—look a bit less fantastical.

All of this leaves geologists and water experts ill at ease, as U.S. Census figures show the population of the region expanding from about 90 million today to over 115 million by 2050.

“When you read about Arizona thinking about desalinization as an alternative solution, this is not really all that viable,” says Denver University’s Kerwin. He points to Tucson, where there is a groundwater replenishment experiment under way, and where water rates are much higher than elsewhere in the state. If it costs a lot of money, after all, it’s more likely to be conserved.

But Kerwin and other experts insist that conservation alone is not going to solve the region’s water woes. “In the end, we may just need to understand that the Southwest is not really able to grow 54 percent over the next 30 years,” he says. “That would imply a serious trade-off between development, taxes and the environment. And that’s what has to happen.”

If you missed it, check out: Water wars, Part 1: The Southwest’s Procrastination Comes Home to Roost

Coming soon: Water wars, Part III: Is Californication Leading to Desertification?