Colorado River runoff is in climate change induced decline, Lake Powell is at 38% of capacity. Here is what is at risk. “Spanning parts of the seven states of Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming (Basin States), the Colorado River Basin (Basin) is one of the most critical sources of water in the West. The Colorado River and its tributaries provide water to nearly 40 million people for municipal use, supply water to irrigate nearly 5.5 million acres of land, and is the lifeblood for at least 22 federally recognized tribes (tribes), 7 National Wildlife Refuges, 4 National Recreation Areas, and 11 National Parks.” All of the water allocations are regulated by the Law of the River.
Up in the Klamath River Basin there is a different drought dynamic. Both the Klamath and Colorado rivers because of the megadrought have allocation agreements that are impossible to meet. There has long been tension on the Klamath, this latest drought is just the most recent trouble. Because of the much more complex water law on the Colorado it is difficult for a disgruntled water user to put a face on their water crisis.
In Klamath Falls there are several convenient faces pointed out for blame. Top of the list are the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Oregon Water Resources Board. Then predictably there are the indigenous people that have long lived in this basin, the tribes consist of the Modoc and the Yahooskin-Paiute people, known as the mukluks and numu. Non-indigenous citizens frustrations boil over, local sovereignty movements emerge, states rights advocates get their dander up, and talk of secession is floated in community meetups.
The problems on both river systems are identical, but on the Colorado River friction is spread out among 40 million. On the Klamath River basin the official population is 114,000, this is one quarter of one percent compared to the Colorado basin.The colossal Colorado’s economic impact on the region is enormous but it is this smaller river system the Klamath where matters other than economic may go off the rails with a bullhorn.
Here is the Law of the River on the Colorado. “The treaties, compacts, decrees, statutes, regulations, contracts and other legal documents and agreements applicable to the The Law of the River consists of allocation, appropriation, development, exportation and management of the waters of the Colorado River Basin are often collectively referred to as the Law of the River. There is no single, universally agreed upon definition of the Law of the River, but it is useful as a shorthand reference to describe this longstanding and complex body of legal agreements governing the Colorado River.”
Water activists on the Klamath who have had all of this years water cut to zero, with roots in ranching and farming need to put a face on their problems. Governors are picked on, Secretary of the Interior is hit, scientists from various agencies, to gain any traction the farmers and ranchers need a target for their frustrations.
The insurrection of January 6th has only cemented the impression something has gone haywire in our country. A few years ago the survival of our democracy wasn’t even on anyone’s radar screen.
What we know with some degree of certainty is that there is enough water out here in the American West for residential use. It is the commercial use of the water, it is the farmers and ranchers that will struggle to thrive and expand as water allocations are reduced year by year, some years by drought, other years by the swelling population.
Demographic projections in decades ahead warn the Colorado River basin population will grow to 79 million by 2070. If you are from Denver, Phoenix, Salt Lake City or Las Vegas firsthand experience with explosive growth tells you this trains coming, no cow- all bull full steam ahead.
What can we done? Laws will need to rewritten. We’re going to need to get with the Department of Agriculture and rejigger crop subsidies, and that’s going to trigger a wave of tantrums. The titans of agriculture will resist but there are no easy outs, this David and Goliath story is an epidemic in our country and time has come to slay the beast. Our century old water laws are outdated, drought and the climate emergency have rendered these rules unworkable. You want a tip? Get a degree in water law.
Where water has been over promised we’ll want to pull acreage out of production. We’ll want federal dollars used to buy back land. We’ll want to rationalize what crops we plant and decrease the total number of acres planted. Regenerative farming methods will become common. Water intensive crops like almonds, alfalfa, and dairy will be relocated to water abundant regions of the United States. Grazing cattle will become impractical as summer temperatures soar. Last weeks heatwave was recording setting. In the Mojave I was driving between Las Vegas and Barstow in 118*F.
Funding for programs can be solved by use of a carbon tax. Where a rural community has been hit by the decline in fossil fuels we’ll want to develop programs that diversify the economies of these communities.
Differences have grown between urban and rural regions of the American West. Since the pandemic spawned the work from home movement we need to incentivize our digital workers to be sprinkled out across the countryside. Corporations should support their workers spreading out. Pressure on housing would decrease in our urban zones and perhaps prices in our rural communities would benefit from a more robust growing population.
Many pieces of what I am proposing are in the hands of Biden’s Build Back Better infrastructure bill now working its way through Congress.
Factions that move populations by emotion, by fiery rhetoric, by putting an innocent face on this gigantic existential problem only slow down our ability to set our course for survival.
I’ve been touring this region of the country since 1974. I’ve lived in the Verde Valley and farmed land in the Willamette Valley. I have hayed my own fields and loaded my own horse into my own trailer. I don’t take no backseat to anyone claiming they’ve earned some special rights or claim to be free to do whatever the hell they want to do. Frontier times are over and we will make do by cooperation and following rules.
My eyes have seen sunrises and sunsets that my camera can’t capture and my novels seldom do justice to, but I’m out here, constantly talking to folk, the janitors, teachers and horse whisperers. I get a fresh faced yo-yo champion to laugh at a trick dog’s stunt. I make camp in the loneliest corners of the Great Basin. I know hay farmers, barrel racers and organic strawberry growers. Much is unsettled and more turbulence is likely than less. Join with constructive groups, urge your political representatives to speak up about these matters, we can do this but not by tempest and tantrum. We’ll get by hard work and compassion. Saddle up partners we have a country to save.