Rrelief has spread in the American West. Snowfall is at its highest in more than half a century. Reservoir levels are going up. After a harsh winter, characterized by climatic events with frightening names (such as “atmospheric river” and “bomb cyclone”) and caused by climate change, locals take advantage of a spring phenomenon that had disappeared for years: desert bloom.
However, specialists keep reiterating their warnings. This respite from the megadrought that has plagued the Colorado River basin since 2000 is likely to be short-lived. The 2,340-kilometer river, which rises in the Rocky Mountains and flows into the Sea of Cortez in Mexico, has lost 20% of its flow in a century. The region’s population has exploded. There’s not enough water for everyone. Who will pay for it? Will it be Arizona or California? The two states alone use more than half the water. Will farmers – consuming 70% of the water – pay? Or perhaps it will be golf enthusiasts and lawn junkies?
No river is more regulated than the Colorado. Since the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the treaty that divided the river’s waters among the seven states it crosses (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California), everything has been set in stone. The agreement states the volume to which each watershed is entitled (7.5 million acre-feet or about 9.3 billion cubic meters), the place where to gauge the river flow (Lee’s Ferry, between Arizona and Utah) and the threshold at which the rationing process begins (when Lake Mead’s level drops below 1,075 feet, or 328 meters, above sea level). Lake Mead is now at 1,049 feet, meaning that 72% of it is empty. But the federal government owns the largest dams, which gives it leverage. If the downstream states do not limit consumption, it will ration their water supply to save the level of the lake – as well as the huge hydroelectric plant at Hoover Dam, which powers Las Vegas and its 42 million visitors per year, among other things.
For the 40 million residents of the Colorado Basin, painful decisions cannot wait any longer. At least that’s the view of the Joe Biden administration, which, for the third time, has given a deadline to the seven states to agree on a plan to reduce consumption by about 25%. Beyond the numbers, what is at stake is the revision of the Law of the River, of which the Colorado River Compact is a part. The law consists of a series of bills adopted since the rush to the West to try to maintain a semblance of order in the water wars – which are resuming today. This body of law enshrines the principle of anteriority: The strongest party in water matters is the first to arrive. The only exception is the Native American tribes, who are now claiming their due in the sharing of water. “In the Wild West of Water, this argument – We stole it first! We stole it fair and square! – is a strong legal position,” writes columnist Joe Mathews.
You have 48.52% of this article left to read. The rest is for subscribers only.