What happens if we break the Colorado River?

Author Paolo Bacigalupi imagined a horrible future in which water management goes wrong in the West nearly 10 years ago in “The Water Knife.”

Editor’s note • The following is an excerpt from the Salt Lake Tribune’s new Open Lands newsletter, a twice-a-month newsletter about Utah’s land, water and air from the environment team. For a sneak peek at what we’re working on and news we’re following, sign up to have Open Lands delivered to your inbox.

Seven states — Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming — rely on water from the Colorado River. The water sustains crops in California’s Imperial Valley and grew Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Pheonix into giant cities.

But the river is overused and, as the world warms, its flows are shrinking. They are down 20% since the turn of the century. Lake Powell and Lake Mead, two giant, interconnected reservoirs, are closer to empty than full.

These are huge problems, and sometimes, journalism loses the big story in incremental news. What’s the big picture? What happens if the Colorado River continues to dry up as demands for its water increase? What is the worst-case scenario?

Bacigalupi is an award-winning science fiction writer and former journalist who spends a lot of time imagining how bad it could get. In 2015, he published “The Water Knife,” a near-future novel where the Colorado River’s water is starting to run out.

Then, as now, the states try to grab what water they can from the West’s lifeline in the desert. But in Bacigalupi’s future, the federal government is weaker and the states are using every tool — courts, money, hit men and even explosives — to take the river’s water.

Inundated with refugees from climate change, Phoenix is teetering on collapse. Whole neighborhoods have lost their water and the rich are retreating into self-contained indoor cities. A religious fundamentalist group is praying for rain. Dust, wildfire smoke, crime and violence are ever-present even as the book’s main character, a hitman who works for a water agency, zips around in a shiny Tesla.

It’s a grim future, and the book is not for the faint-hearted. (Unfortunately, last week’s story in The Atlantic on Arizona didn’t make “The Water Knife” seem implausible.)

As the book turns nine, Bacigalupi talks about how his vision is holding up. He has a new book out, “Navola,” a fantasy novel that he said he wrote because he got depressed writing about climate change.

The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

“The Water Knife” is nine years old now. While the West was suffering from drought nine years ago, there have recently been even more alarming conditions in the Colorado River Basin. The book feels more pertinent in the last two years than it would have a decade ago.

Yeah, things continue to feel more pressing.

What can fiction do for big problems like the Colorado River?

There’s something that you can do in science fiction, where you extrapolate forward and as you build on the idea of like, if this goes on, if global warming continues, if statistical outcomes that we expect from climate change continue, [this is] what might the world look like.

And I think that’s what you’re thinking about when you’re trying to create something like “The Water Knife.”

Ten years ago, this didn’t feel as relevant as it does today. But we had all sorts of small indicators telling us that the world was absolutely already in change and yet you couldn’t perceive it, because all those changes are so small and so quiet.

When you write a story like this, what you can do is you can contextualize all those small changes. And so when you look at something like Lake Mead with its white bathtub ring or its blue sky and its beautiful blue water, you suddenly realize that you’re looking at an actual disaster.

What’s changed since you wrote that book? Is there anything you would do differently in the book now that you know more about the state of things on the Colorado River? Do you feel like we’re on a different trajectory now than we were nine years ago?

I mean, water levels are lower in both the major reservoirs, right? Here are the facts: We have not changed our fundamental behavior. We have not solved our fundamental problem.

We are using more water than is available and I think every single water manager knows it. I think every single person who’s actually involved in the nitty-gritty of the Colorado River Compact knows it. The population as a whole doesn’t understand it.

Maybe this is just the failing of a democratic society, [but] policymakers tend to follow public opinion, and so it’s hard to make, real change without the support of the public. And if the public is clueless, you end up in stasis.

You are pretty explicit about bringing what I assume was one of your sources into the plot, and that’s “Cadillac Desert,” which is a book published in 1986. It’s foundational for Colorado River junkies. Can you talk a little bit about how you used that book to plot your future here?

There are so many different things about that book that are interesting to me. Everything from the Owens Valley and talking about real winners and losers. [Editor’s note: Owens Valley dried out after L.A. acquired the valley’s water rights and land against the wishes of the valley’s residents.]

That was actually something that was really stark with this idea — Los Angeles was going to take its water and it got its water — and there was going to be an entire valley [that] was going to be utterly devastated...

There’s a model out there for some really bad behavior with water. And I think it tells us something. It’s something to pay attention to when either profit or scarcity get in the picture.

But then it’s just this other idea [in “Cadillac Desert”] that we had to engineer our way to this prosperity in this desert and that the kind of prosperity that we created was a pretty fragile thing, and it went against all logic that there are absolute limits out there.

As far back as when [John Wesley] Powell exploring the area, he understood that there were boundaries and limits to what you could do in an environment that’s already kind of on the edge. And then we pretended like that wasn’t true because we were clever engineering monkeys, and yet, still, those boundaries exist.

Is it fair to call this book an act of pessimism? Do you personally have any room for optimism when it comes to issues like drought in the West or global warming or sharing the Colorado River’s water?

I don’t think it’s an act of pessimism. A friend of mine actually commented that I am clearly an optimist because otherwise I wouldn’t be so disappointed every time people do and say stupid things. So, no, it’s fundamentally an act of optimism.

Here I’m writing something of warning, not of prediction. And the hope is that people will pay attention and say, “Oh, that looks like an incredibly vile and stupid future. Let’s not do that.”

That’s what “The Water Knife” is meant to say, is, “look, these things matter. They’re going to impact lots of people. The disruptions will be vast — or potentially can be vast. Let’s think ahead. Let’s plan.”

It is a pessimistic future, but it’s not an act of pessimism. It’s the worst future. It’s the dumbest future. A lot of times I think about my writing as being either accidental futures or broken futures. They’re the ones where we make the wrong decisions, and the hope is that, like, you know, you pay attention to that, and you say, like, let’s try to make a smarter decision here.