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Drought-by-Drought West: changing climate, uncertain future for arid Phoenix (I)

A non-revelation: much of the American West ranges on a spectrum from merely arid to wholly-desiccated; as of this writing, Arizona is in (roughly) year 14 (and counting) of persistent drought. Further west, California is, at the moment, drier still.

As early as the 1880’s, John Wesley Powell, in his role as director of the United States Geological Survey, speculated that Eastern-style farming would not find purchase in the drier Western states. Powell suggested – correctly, as it turns out – that all lands west of the 100th meridian of longitude (e.g. the Eastern boundary of the Texan panhandle) were unsuitable for “dry” (read: non-irrigated) farming. Powell, at an 1883 irrigation conference: “Gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage for conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply the land.”

J.W. Powell was prescient. As recently reported by Ian James in The Desert Sun,*water levels hit all-time lows (1,081.7 feet above sea level) in Lake Mead on or about July 9, 2014 – with continued decline anticipated over the next few months. Under U.S. Department of Interior guidelines established in 2007, an official “shortage” declaration will be issued once levels sink to 1,075 feet above sea level.

(*Serving Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley, CA)

In the event of a shortage declaration – in essence a situation where an insufficient volume of Colorado River water is available, through Lake Mead, to supply the lower-Colorado basin states of California, Nevada, and Arizona* - allocations to Arizona’s Central Arizona Project (CAP) would be cut first. The brunt of reduced CAP allocations would initially be borne by agricultural consumers – who can theoretically offset reduced allocations by additional groundwater pumping.** For the time being, it would be status quo ante for Arizona's urbanites and suburban home-builders.

(*The U.S. also has treaty obligations with Mexico to ensure a volume of at least 1.5 million acre feet of water flows across the border from the U.S. into Mexico annually.)

(**Of course, heavy groundwater pumping has the potential to quickly deplete a less-sustainable, uneasily-replenished resource.)

The culprit, it would seem, is unbridled Yankee optimism. In J.W. Powell’s time, optimism found expression in the belief that agricultural development of the West would change the climate, bringing increased precipitation – as embodied in the (flagrantly erroneous) notion that “rain follows the plow.”

Consider also the 1922 Colorado River Compact – alotting water supply for the seven Western states within the Colorado River basin, based on observed river flows from the period from 1905-1922. As chance would have it, this period, 1905-1922, happened to be an abnormally wet spell in the Colorado’s geologic history. As a consequence, water was apportioned based on the expectation of an average flow of 16.4 million acre feet per year – where tree ring records establish that actual flows average somewhere closer to 13.2 million – 14.3 million acre feet. And that’s not all: current flows are at a nadir - for the 100 years with recorded observations. Need it be said that the Colorado is a major source of surface water for basically the populated extent of the Southwest U.S. (i.e. Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, San Diego) – some 35-40 million Americans?

As might be expected, once a scarce resource is fought over by competing governmental entities and usage interests (e.g. agricultural vs. urban), a quintessential “tragedy of the commons” ensues. In its classical manifestation, the tragedy of the commons predicts that a scarce resource faces rapid depletion through the cumulation of individual-level decisions to (rationally) maximize use – lest the individual be left with no resource to use later. The sum of these self-interested consumptive decisions is to reduce overall societal well-being by more rapidly exhausting the resource. In the words of Garrett Hardin: “freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

Western water law has long reacted to scarcity by favoring use and exploitation of aquatic resources; those who have established an historical pattern of use have, historically, been privileged to maintain this use down through the years - regardless of drought or shortage. There is no saving it for later – if a user/state fails to exploit its rightful share, it risks losing the future ability to exercise that right, since other users will presumably consume their full share. Where – as is the case with the Colorado River – supply has been over-allocated in the first instance, there is a powerful incentive favoring present use over conservation.

Thus, Ian James’ Desert Sun article captured a telling quote from one John Powell, Jr.,* President of the Coachella (CA) Valley Water District board. Speaking broadly about the ability of Coachella Valley to implement more efficient water conservation measures – thereby using less Colorado River water, Powell allowed that:

“We’re working to get the water to more people in the Coachella Valley because we have it, we have it available. So we’re trying to use more of it…Any reduction in our use of Colorado River water is going to end up going to somebody else. To the extent we need it here, we’re not going to give it to someone else.”

(*Upon information and belief, John Powell, Jr. is no relation to J.W. Powell. In fact, John Powell, Jr. is a lifelong irrigation farmer in the Coachella Valley – pretty much as far-removed, in ethical terms, as one can get from the ideals of the older Powell.)

This ethos of present resource use, in ignorance of the wider consequences stemming from present use, has profound implications for the quality of future (human) life in Phoenix. For life here cannot be said to be sustainable if over-allocated quantities of Colorado River water are used, in full extent, by all signatories to that Original Sin.* At some point, life-sustaining flows will be extinguished through overuse – as indeed historical mega-droughts have impacted earlier Southwest civilizations, such as Arizona’s Hohokam.

(*Perhaps the term “original sin”, used here, is overly harsh and emotionally-loaded. Then again, how else to describe a system of resource use predicated upon unrealistic – if not outright temporally-mythical – quantities of the apportioned resource?)


Again, this is not a terribly original story. Of note, the reader is implored to ponder Eric Holthaus’ excellent series on Slate from earlier this summer; a travelogue of the arid West in a time of drought and uncertainty. Alternatively and/or additionally, one might consider the (somewhat) recently released National Climate Assessment’s projections for the American SW. Conclusion: it is not altogether positive. More on this to come…..

Author's note: Special thanks to the late Steve Pawlowski, whose April 2014 presentation The Future of Water in Arizona has inspired this series - and, it also should be noted, which presentation's facts, contents, and figures have informed the same in this article and any to follow. Indeed, the counsel Mr. Pawlowski provided therein merits wider dissemination - being basically essential knowledge, prerequisite to living in Arizona. Though the author did not personally know Mr. Pawlowski, this article is, nonetheless, dedicated to his memory.