Colorado River crisis must be met with federal action

Art by Z Zabarsky

The concept of a drought is not new to the Southwest U.S.

For decades, this region has experienced its worst mega-drought since 800 C.E., according to the Columbia Climate School. Water levels have continuously teetered on the edge of environmental catastrophe, steadily declining as climate change, overallocation and virtually unrestricted water usage took their pernicious toll behind the scenes.

The term “drought” seems to have lost all gravity for the inhabitants of the Southwest. We understand what it means and know how serious of an issue it is, and yet for decades, we have been more than content to continue our lives as normal, briefly shaking our heads at the occasional drought statistic in the news before we pushed it out of mind.

Recently, however, the decades-long drought’s shocking and terrifying impact on the Colorado River system seems to have finally jolted many awake from their slumber of ignorance.

The Colorado River is the economic vessel of the U.S. Southwest. It provides drinking water to 40 million people across seven U.S. states and Mexico, powers hydroelectric dams that generate electricity for millions and irrigates over five million acres of farmland, according to Time Magazine. In the past two months, water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the two largest reservoirs along the Colorado River, have dropped to historic lows, with the river as a whole holding only 34% of its capacity as of Aug. 22, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.

In June, the federal government gave the seven states until Aug. 16 to come up with a plan to cut water usage from the river by 2-4 million acre feet in 2023, an unprecedented reduction.

The seven states blew past that deadline without creating any tangible course of action, and the government subsequently reduced the amount of water that Arizona and Nevada can withdraw from the river. However, this has still left five states without mandated reductions, including California, who consumes the most water from the river.

Federal intervention is necessary at this moment to mandate the reduction of water usage among all seven states that rely on the Colorado River and to set a precedent of strong leadership and decisive action in the fight against environmental crises.

It should not come as a surprise that individual states are trying to avoid cutting their own water usage.

In 1922, delegates from the seven Colorado River basin states met to sign a compact that apportioned the water among their states; a long and complicated history of bitter conflict surrounding state water rights has since plagued the Southwest. The seven states have repeatedly pointed fingers at each other throughout history when issues regarding water usage arose, choosing to ferociously defend their own water rights instead of trying to come up with a long-term deal that would benefit them all. These conflicts have resulted in extensive legal battles like the 1952 Supreme Court case Arizona v. California, which took 11 years to conclude.

The current Colorado River crisis is the direct result of this decades-long squabble between the seven river basin states. With water levels in the river’s reservoirs at historic lows, it is unquestionably clear that federal action is needed to directly force all states who rely on the river, not just a select few, to cut their water usage.

A likely reason for federal hesitancy to cut some Southwestern states’ water usage is, unfortunately, politics. With the Nov. 2022 midterm elections around the corner, many lawmakers may be wary of taking any action that could anger Southwest voters and jeopardize their campaigns. As long as those with the power to address the Colorado River calamity prioritize their own selfish interests over engendering real and effective action, this issue will only become more intense and perilous.

Addressing the Colorado River drought will not be easy. It will require difficult decisions and sacrifices on behalf of all those who are contributing to it. The federal government cannot hesitate any longer to mandate water use reductions in every single state that relies on the river, especially those that draw the most from it, like California. Individual states must be willing to oblige with these mandates and take responsibility for their own actions. Finally, every resident in the U.S. Southwest needs to change the way they view and consume water; no longer is it a resource that can be used mindlessly.

If the necessary sacrifices and decisions are not made immediately, a future where millions are left without water, crops are left withered and the Colorado River is reduced to nothing more than a dry basin may become a reality much sooner than we think.

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