Tag Archives: Tragedy of the Commons

Colorado River Basin Blues

Federal officials from the Bureau of Reclamation gave Colorado River basin stakeholders until noon hour on August 16th to hash out a new water allocation deal. For the last 62 days water resource managers haggled, horse traded and gridlocked one another into sharing the pain losing access to water can bring. 

John Entsminger, general manager of the water authority and Nevada’s top Colorado River negotiator, tried cutting a deal but was unable to get anyone to negotiate. I think his way of explaining the mess was that none of the various stakeholders were making a good faith effort to negotiate, nobody was taking the crisis for what it is, a natural disaster of the first order— I think you’d describe the megadrought as historic.

California’s Imperial Valley and Palo Verde Valley are the systems championship water grabbers in this tragedy of the commons. Nearby Yuma on the Arizona side of the river has got its share of woes too. Parkers and Bullhead City are about to go through a few things and that’s the way it will just have to be.  

Back in June Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton told the seven western states to either come up with their own voluntary plan or otherwise Washington would go full draconian on their sorry little stubborn water using souls. That day arrived today.

Commissioner Touton keeps her head down and mouth closed, her job has been to set the terms of the negotiations and then let the states, tribes, and Mexico figure things out. These are the best of the best water management professionals all squeezed cheek to jowl into a Denver hotel meeting room with orders from high on up back in the states to do something, do anything, but for God’s sake the one thing not to do surrender even one drop of their current allocation, get some other stakeholder to take one for their team. 

Most of the problem is caused by the deal the seven states cut back in 1922. One hundred years ago during a wetter and cooler weather cycle they divided up the river water like there was and always would be plenty to go around. There have been a few rough patches in the last ten decades but the last two and a half decades, as we’ve entered into the teeth of the climate crisis, nearly one quarter of this past century has seen an ever decreasing less abundant river. 

I wouldn’t venture to even begin to explain how complicated the 1922 compact turned out to be, but most experts I follow can barely make even the slightest explanation of the tangled mess without speaking uninterrupted for at the least one hour’s time. With today’s announcement there will be immediate reductions in water deliveries with warnings that in the next 24 months further deeper cuts will need to be taken on top of the current cutbacks.

What we are all about to go through will be different and dependent on whether you live in a city or outside of town in the countryside. Urban and suburban water users use only fraction of all the water that comes down the Colorado River. It is the rural farm and ranch operators that are going to have to change how they do things, in some cases farms and ranches be shutting down altogether selling off their equipment, liquidating livestock and fallowing the land. 

Recreation along the river will be impacted and so too will wildlife habitat. Everyone will be paying higher prices for food and water bill’s will be going up. Cheery news indeed. Everyone knows about the hydroelectric power station at Hoover Dam, it is famous and produces a lot of electricity. Most expert forecasts see the power station becoming much less productive as the reduction in water will reduce the power the station can produce. 

Fortunate for us the renewable energy systems will be deployed to make up for whatever the 300 hydroelectric stations all up and down the Colorado River basin can no longer reliably produce. What we can’t do is make up for the missing water. 

Sure, why not, you’ll read about plans to make desalination plants along the coast of California, maybe pipe water up from the Sea of Cortez, build a desalination plant on the Salton Sea, the processed water would be expensive, too expensive to make sense to use for agriculture. High rollers in Las Vegas might enjoy buying access to this kind of fancy water but the ordinary working stiff is going to use less to keep their water bill down.

Lawyers from the region are preparing to draw up a new compact to replace the framework agreed to in 1922. There is no time and agreements as complex as this will require years, decades— if the basin stakeholders can ever come to terms is uncertain. Nobody wants this to be litigated, but there’s really no way around it, this is an intractable stalemate that will vaporize political careers and trigger untold emotional frustration. If water remains as tight as it is now the negotiations will likely be absurd, incredibly consequential, and result in some of the hardest choices any negotiator has ever attempted to settle. It remains a zero-sum game, if the Imperial Valley gets water some other valley doesn’t get water. The severity of this crisis is of such scale and scope to be unimaginable.

I’ll leave you to chew on this. Alfalfa is grown across the Colorado River basin. Alfalfa is the third largest crop across the United States with corn and soybeans holding the first and second positions. Alfalfa grows best in a hot climate and thrives when you can pour water on a alfalfa field like there is no tomorrow. By comparison corn and soybeans are insignificant in size in the Southwest. Wintertime in Yuma there is a sizable salad growing industry, it is important and where most all of the leafy greens we find in stores is sourced from. 

Alfalfa is used by the dairy industry. A milk cow thrives on alfalfa. Then there are foreign markets that buy our alfalfa and growers in the Imperial Valley have discovered they can haul alfalfa out of Long Beach on the cheap by shipping containers back to China and Vietnam. Let’s just not go down the rabbit hole of whether drinking cow’s milk is good for you or not, let’s leave that out of this tangled web for a moment. 

An ordinary household with a relatively normal American family, maybe they have a dog, cat even might have a swimming pool will use about 1 acre foot of water to run their house for a year. Now how much water does that farmer need to produce one acre of alfalfa? One acre of alfalfa requires about seven-acre feet of water. You with me still, come on don’t give up so easily. There are millions of acres of alfalfa grown in the Colorado River basin, from the Front Range to the Western Slope, from near Many Farms where the Navajo grow plenty, farms have been growing alfalfa in Central Arizona, it is an important crop, each cut on each acre, on average weights about 6 tons is worth $1500 and in the desert Southwest you can cut that acre up to 10 times per year so long as between each cut you can pour another seven-acre feet of water on that crop while it grows and gets ready to be harvested.

Some alfalfa is grown off underground aquifer water, most of that water is ancient and has accumulated over millions of years, hydrologists are sure this water is going to give out soon enough, can’t pump water out of the ground faster than it accumulates, eventually you are going to be pumping sand, and sooner than an alfalfa grower is willing to believe.

Even if you can imagine growing alfalfa for the local dairymen in the region, and some of our milk does end up being exported too, but even if you can wrap your head around growing alfalfa to make food that ends up on our kitchen table it is hard to imagine that so much of this crop ends up being exported overseas. Estimates are all over the place but right now we appear to be selling about one fifth of all the alfalfa we produce in the Southwest to foreign buyers. And that’s why I want you to forget about alfalfa and start to imagine swimming pools. Imagine millions of swimming pools full of water, I’m talking about a lot of water, enough to fill a reservoir the size of say maybe Lake Powell, you know something like the second largest water reservoir in the United States, one of the largest in the world, imagine all that water being used for swimming pools that end up over in some faraway place. In exchange for all that water a handful of growers are paid somewhere in the vicinity of a grand total of $3 billion dollars. Got that picture in your head now. That’s one hell of a lot of all our water that goes to the benefit of a mere handful of self-appointed over-entitled people.

We’ve got well over 40 million water users in the Colorado River basin that have agreed to let a few thousand alfalfa farmers siphon off most of Colorado River basin water, the water all of us depend on, this is water rightfully belong to all the citizens in these states, this is the people’s water that they are using to make a buck while assuming that this is somehow even remotely some kind of sensible deal.

And now you know what kind of mess all those fancy stakeholders have on their hands back in that hotel in Denver where for the last 62 days not one or another of them could figure out how in the world to untangle this tragedy that has fallen upon our region. Water grabbers are a painful lot, willing to inflict all manner of hell and cruel capitalism upon our natural resources. You can hardly believe our shipping all this water overseas at the expense of the many and to the benefit of a few is a fact, you have to take a moment, you have to stop what you are doing and think this madness through, see the fool crisis plain and naked as the day you were born. Time for change has arrived. We keep going the way we are we won’t call it the Mojave or the Sonoran— we’ll name it in honor of TS Elliott, it’ll be known as the Wasteland.