In 1922 expert hydrologists estimated the Colorado River to produce 16.5 million acre feet of water per year, and it was then that when the Compact of the River was created it assigned half of the water to the upper basin and the other half to the lower basin.
In 2022 hydrologists armed with real world data peg the river’s output to be half that much. The upper and lower basins are now trying to figure out how in the hell they’re going to manage with so little water and so much demand.
To give you some idea of how colossal this task is there are a small number of farms in the very southeastern tip of California. Together these few farms by law have legal access to 4 million of the total 8 million acre acre feet of the Colorado’s water. That legally binding allotment is pretty much a great big fat emergency right there.
The agricultural water grabbing has meant Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Tucson have been left to hold the short end of the water scarcity stick— subordinated water rights is the term of art.
What negotiators have been unable to do is convince any stakeholder with these oldest senior most water rights to voluntarily give their allocations back. The legal framework, the so called Law of the River required decades to sort out and it appears this hot mess is headed back into an legal quagmire that remains anyone’s guess how things might be sorted out.
What makes this such a disaster is that there is not enough time to go to court and then plod clumsily over years to decades of time to come to new potentially irrelevant terms. One tipping point should the water flow continue to decline is a river that never makes it beyond Hoover Dam.
A century ago Hoover Dam engineers never contemplated needing to build tunnels beneath the dam. Water in both Lake Powell and Lake Mead suffer from the same design flaw, without sufficient supply there is no feasible way to move water further down river. Engineers never planned for too little or too much, the dams were scaled to account for what was then estimated as modest variations.
Climate change has all to do with the reduction in the Colorado River’s output, and there is no choice, we have to live with the finite precipitation we get. Experts think the Federal government must declare a state of emergency and mandate steep reductions up and down the river basin. That is a theory of course, stakeholders don’t know if the courts would go along and if they don’t there’s going to be a horrible collision of law, water and special interests. Then there still is the problem that the water could end up stuck behind Hoover Dam where it would be impossible to release regardless of what the court’s decide.
That’s why they always talk about nature having the last word, or that Mother Nature bats last, it simply doesn’t matter what some water rights holder wants or by what authority a court has to enforce their decisions.
If and when the Colorado River does end up stuck behind Lake Mead, if litigation spirals out of control, the whole hot stinking mess turns the Southwest into an environmental crisis of a kind never seen by a modern advanced world’s largest economy.
Some predict engineers should immediately start digging tunnels that send water around Hoover and Glen Canyon to forestall such a disaster. Do that starting now. Emergency pipelines would be constructed at the same time. Water would be sent on an emergency basis to quench the thirst of urban population centers while leaving rural agricultural water users high and dry. The first people to inhabit this region faced a similar fate 1000 years ago. Our first people simply had to pickup and leave, the omnipotent modern capitalists suffer from a misguided hubris, they have suspended disbelief, it simply defies imagination, our titans of commerce believe we cannot and will not run out of water.
The opposite scenario is equally as terrifying, equally as dangerous— the potential irony of the thing would simply go lost in the tragic consequences of such an event. Here we go— Alarmed researchers have found that in 1884 the Colorado River Basin received 2 years of rainfall in just 4 months. Instead of an average of 16.5 million acre feet of water measured on a per year basis, in 1884 it is estimated that a total of 32 million acre feet of water swept down the river in a period of just four months. This is decades before the dams were constructed.
Drenching rainfall totals of this magnitude could bring such monumental amounts of runoff that water could overtop and then completely demolish the dams at Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams.
This kind of epic precipitation is calculated to be a one in every 500 year event, with the last super soaker occurring about 140 years ago.
The potential destruction of the two big dams has spurred scientists to propose removing Glen Canyon Dam now and then enlarging the spillways at Hoover Dam, and many experts believe we must do this now before it is too late.
As of the end of January California has been drying after a month of pummeling by powerful atmospheric river fed storms. If by the once in five-hundred year odds California were hit with four months of atmospheric river fed storms the calamity would clobber the American West— this is the epic atmospheric knock-out blow of all natural disasters.
In the 1800’s a storm fed Los Angeles River swollen by relentless rains jumped its banks and sent its water south on a path 20 miles off its normal course— the devastation was immeasurable. North of LA so much rain and snow fell that the Central Valley from Bakersfield north to Redding inundated the region making this whole region one big temporary lake that was for some months navigated by large paddle boats.
Were the Los Angeles River to jump its banks and once again head 20 miles off course it would wipe out the the most productive economic zone in the United States, instantly zeroing out at least $3 trillion in economic activity. That’s an enormous loss, nearly one fifth of the nations entire economic output. Lives and livelihoods would be lost, homes would be destroyed, commercial enterprise zones would be devastated and Southern California’s ports in Long Beach and Los Angeles would require decades to repair and reopen.
That is what worries California’s Department of Water Resources, not just the drier and then wetter storms that are hitting our state but the all too real risk that we could be pummeled by equally powerful droughts and floods of a magnitude that makes the region unmanageable. A natural disaster of either kind could itself be the natural disaster’s knockout blow to maintaining our grip on being a civilized country.
The Bureau of Reclamation in Washington is about to mandate new cuts in water up and down the entire length of the Colorado River. Legal scholars are unsure if these cuts would hold up if challenged in court. The Bureau’s decision could drop at any moment now.
Either way, engineers are urgently advocating for reinforcing spillways on the dams and that this work needs to get underway immediately. An uncontrolled topping of the dams by flood risks everything.
If the drought persists they are also urging that new underground tunnels be built. Deep underground tunnels like this have never been attempted.
This is the pickle we find ourselves in. It is a damned if we do, damned if we don’t corner we find ourselves backed into. If you have ever stood at the rim of the Grand Canyon then you have experienced the aching beauty and the unfathomable immensity, you have stood there in awe feeling the sweep of time, you can see a river that has carved a 50 million year deep canyon one mile deep into the rock of a continent.
The Colorado River and her water is as big a problem as problems get. The scale of our troubles dwarfs our imagination, we are not designed to comprehend such stupendous events, the common man is not built to react to catastrophic occurrences of such size, scale that may or by chance may not occur over such a lengthy event horizon. So far we’ve stalled, we’ve waited, we’ve hoped and we’ve delayed. That is a fool’s game, a gamblers losing bet, the smart money urges us to face up to the facts.