The American Southwest: Twice the people, half the water?

southwest drought and population concerns

Colorado River

Showing reservoirs, including iconic Lake Mead at Hoover Dam, shrunk to a fraction of their intended size, national news media is reporting that the American Southwest is in the worst 20-year drought in 1,200 years.

Yet, no one asked why President Biden is hellbent on increasing immigration – which has exploded the U.S. population by an average approaching 30 million a decade over the last three decades – when he can’t ensure adequate water for those here now. The Southwest is the fastest growing region of ours, the third most populated nation and one of the world’s fastest growing developed nations – something else never reported.

There are roughly 200 reservoirs along the length of the Colorado River – the primary water source for at least 45 million people in the Colorado River Basin and beyond – that were thought to ensure a 50-year water supply in drought. Yet, by the early 2000s, that 50-year supply was sucked dry!

At Lake Mead, the water level recently fell below the trigger point for the first-ever federal water emergency. That will mean mandatory water cutoffs, delivering a body blow to the Southwest’s economy and drying up farmland needed to feed the nation’s exploding population. But even that might not stop a collapse of the Colorado River system, a vast network of diversion projects and reservoirs stretching from Wyoming to the Mexican border. Meaning, reservoirs might run dry and diversions might no longer take water into cities of millions!

Today’s Phoenix, Arizona, was so named when settlers in the 19th century realized that they were building on the ruins of some long-ago civilization – that of the Hohokam – and named their new settlement after the mythical bird that arises from the ashes of another.

The Four Corner states – Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah – today are dotted with the ruins of the mysterious cliff dwellings and towns of the ancestral Puebloans – the Hohokam, the Anasazi and the Mimbres – who were forced into what we call the Great Abandonment, during the prolonged drought of the late 1200s though the mid-1300s. Hundreds of thousands of people fled what had been relative paradises in Colorado’s Montezuma Valley and on the once-verdant Mesa Verde, in the Gila Mountains of New Mexico and on the high uplands of Arizona, relocating to areas, mostly along the Rio Grande, with somewhat dependable water.

Lake Mead, the second largest reservoir in North America, is now 35 percent “full,” but since the bottom 20 percent is useless sludge, that means nearly empty, just as the Scripps Institute of Oceanography warned would happen in the 2020s. In California, some reservoirs can no longer generate hydropower, and Lake Powell, just upstream from Lake Mead and the largest reservoir in North America, also flirts with being empty. Yet, Big Media never ask if Biden grasps:

  1. That this might not be drought, but merely a return to far-drier norms than 1960 to 1995, the wettest time in the Southwest in 2000 years.
  2. That there is not “always ‘new’ water” to be found or some miraculous technofix to save us – although, admittedly, more people mean more sewage effluent to process for drinking. Yum!
  3. That the current drought might pale in comparison with what climate change might bring.

In 1922, the Colorado River Basin states of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California met near Santa Fe to legally divide, or allocate, the Colorado River. But the resulting Colorado River Compact began with an “Oops!” of staggering proportions, as 16-million acre feet were divvied up, even though the river usually carries only 13 m.a.f. (An acre foot is the amount of water it takes to cover an acre of ground with a foot of water.)

That didn’t matter in a Southwest that at the time supported under 5 million people. But, if immigration continues at the astronomical rates of recent decades, or even increases, the Southwest could see its population double, even as flows on the Colorado will likely average a paltry 7 m.a.f. a year, maybe even as low as 5 m.a.f.

So, twice the people, half the water.

Will that bring our own Great Abandonment, an exodus of 45 million people trying to flee anywhere other than a drought-and-climate-change seared Southwest?

Are you even aware, Mr. Biden, of that possibility?