The most urgent need is to stop using so much water. The seven US states in the river basin keep failing to agree on a plan to slash annual consumption by up to a quarter. So now we’re waiting for the federal government to step in and impose a solution, after which we will wait for the courts to settle the inevitable lawsuits over that solution. The futures of 40 million people, millions of acres of farms, the Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon and more hang in the balance.
Absent this resolution, there is still plenty that can be done to curb water use. No one thing will fix the Colorado, and many approaches have serious drawbacks. But this crisis will soon enter the “let’s try anything” phase, so we might as well consider them all.
Here are 10 ideas, ranked roughly in order of their political and technical difficulty:
Fix leaky pipes. Public waterworks lose roughly 16% of their product to leaks. Fixing pipes, upgrading systems and speeding repair times aren’t what you would call politically charged issues. They do take time, effort and money. Arizona, for example, has been painstakingly rolling out a water-loss-control program for several years. But this is relatively low-tech stuff that could also provide a lot of jobs and lucrative contracts.
Modernize agriculture. Farming consumes more than 70% of the Colorado River’s supply, and much of that is wasted. Upgrading irrigation systems, reusing runoff and switching to less-thirsty substitute crops could save water while also keeping family farms in business. Again, this will be expensive and time-consuming. But it could not only create jobs but preserve local economies that depend on farming.
Use better toilets. Only three states in the Colorado River basin have up-to-date standards for efficient plumbing fixtures, the Alliance for Water Efficiency, a Chicago nonprofit, noted recently. One state not on the list is fast-developing Arizona. Though it risks launching a thousand Donald Trump rants about low-flow toilets, modern plumbing is another low-tech, economy-boosting measure to save water.
Pay people not to use water. “Cash for grass” programs, already in use in some states, could encourage people to give up their thirsty lawns. More importantly, governments could pay farmers to simply not plant crops. The “free market environmentalists” at the Property and Environment Research Center argue most of the $4 billion earmarked for Western drought relief in the Inflation Reduction Act should go straight to farmers in a reverse auction. PERC analysts suggest this alone would be enough to make up to seven years’ worth of water-use cuts.
Such fixes are also temporary. Make them permanent, and you risk disrupting those local economies that depend on farming, while also potentially raising food prices. Completely surrendering the Colorado River to the free market, as PERC and others suggest, could make water appropriately expensive to use. But it could also reward investors that have snapped up basin farms recently without solving the water crisis, as has been seen in Australia. In the worst-case scenario, you end up with Enron, but for water.
Desalination, cloud seeding and importation. If we can’t conserve water, then why not just make it magically appear from elsewhere? All these approaches are technically feasible, but they are also expensive, both in dollars and in externalities. Desalination, for example, takes energy and produces icky brine. You need to build pipes to move water around. And there are a couple of big drawbacks common to all three ideas: First, none of them will produce nearly enough water to refill the Colorado. Second, other parts of the country are thirsty, too. Who has surplus water to spare? Even cloud seeding doesn’t actually produce new rain or snow; it just makes precipitation fall in a different place. Seeding over the Colorado could be stealing water from, say, the Missouri.
Make water allocations make sense. As states and tribes divvied up water rights along the Colorado over the past century, they based the size of the pie on a river that would always be full to bursting. This was shortsighted, to say the least. Even without accounting for climate change, Western states are subject to regular droughts. Global warming has only intensified them. So now too many users have perfectly legitimate rights to water that doesn’t exist. Figuring out who will give them up is at the knotty heart of the ongoing fight over conservation.
Devote more money to the problem. The IRA’s $4 billion is a pittance compared to the scale of the problem, and money from the bipartisan infrastructure bill doesn’t go much further. The Federal Emergency Management Agency spent more than that to clean up after Hurricane Ian alone, Michael Cohen and Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute, an Oakland nonprofit, noted in a recent column. The Colorado drying up would be more disastrous than many Ians combined. But at a time when even disaster relief can be politically sensitive, squeezing much more money for water management out of a Republican-controlled, suddenly deficit-focused House is likely impossible.
Curb the sprawl. Housing developments spreading like wildfire through the Southwest add to the strain on the Colorado’s resources. As my colleague Adam Minter wrote recently, there is a physical limit to all this growth: If there is no water, then there can’t be people. The choices for Arizona and other fast-growing states will be increasingly bleak: Divert water from farms, with all the problems that creates, or limit housing to dense, expensive areas with water. While you’re at it, you’re going to have to convince people to give up lawns, golf courses and swimming pools.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Mark Gongloff is a Bloomberg Opinion editor and columnist covering climate change. A former managing editor of Fortune.com, he ran the HuffPost’s business and technology coverage and was a reporter and editor for the Wall Street Journal.
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