Gary Wockner: Population growth on a collision course with the Colorado River

There just isn’t enough water to support the growing number of people in the Southwest.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Hite Marina boat ramp, center, sits idle hundreds of yards from the river’s edge where the Colorado River flows into Lake Powell on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021.

Recent news reports about the Colorado River have been depressing.

In August, federal officials announced first-time cuts in water deliveries from the river to Arizona and Nevada, which will hit farmers hard. Similar reductions are likely coming for more states. And the ongoing two-decade drought in the Southwest, to which climate change is a contributing factor, has diminished the flow of water in the river by more than 20%.

At the same time, population growth in the region is booming. Colorado gained 725,000 people between 2010 and 2020, Arizona 760,000 new souls and California 2.3 million. Nevada, Utah and New Mexico also grew considerably, and the population even inched up in slow-growing Wyoming, the smallest U.S. state by population.

All of these states rely on the Colorado River for irrigation and drinking water, and the new arrivals need H2O, too.

The Colorado River originates in the Rocky Mountains and empties into the Sea of Cortez — or at least, it used to. For the last few decades, the river has been drained dry, with all 4.5 trillion gallons of water that flow down its length each year diverted before reaching the sea. Ninety percent of that water goes to U.S. states, and 10% to northern Mexico.

Local and state governments in the Southwest are aware of the crisis and are asking themselves how to keep the taps from running dry. Many are spending money on water conservation. Both Los Angeles and Las Vegas have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in such projects, mostly by paying homeowners to install drought-tolerant landscaping (known as xeriscaping) in their yards.

City leaders across the region are also strategizing other ways to get more water, generally either by extracting more from the Colorado River, transporting it in from faraway places or desalinating ocean water.

These proposals tend to be expensive and complicated. For example, Pima County, Arizona, is proposing a $4.1 billion desalination plant at the Sea of Cortez in Mexico, from where it would pipe water northeast to Tucson. Washington County in southwestern Utah is proposing a multi-billion-dollar pipeline that would bring in water from the Colorado River at Lake Powell.

About 70% of water drained from the Colorado River goes to farms to grow millions of acres of crops — some of it food for people, much of it fodder for cows. Farmers also often sell their allotted water to cities, a lucrative business that provides a more dependable income than farming. In the long run, this helps cities grow their populations while diminishing the acreage used to grow food.

Unfortunately, it’s not clear that any of these ideas will make it possible to keep hydrating and feeding the residents of growing Southwest cities at a price they can afford. This means that local and state governments need to ask themselves harder, bigger-picture questions.

For instance, does it make sense to promote population growth in an already parched desert? Should we grow crops in an arid region where doing so would be impossible without massive diversions from a shrinking river? Are overuse and climate change going to empty our reservoirs? And, finally, how soon will the Southwest reach the point at which no more water can be bought, piped or pumped — and growth will actually stop for lack of water?

This brings us back to population growth, often treated as a third rail in American politics, an issue so controversial that no one wants to talk about it, let alone solve it. But it’s not a topic we can continue to ignore in the Southwest, where we depend on the Colorado River basin for our livelihoods and very lives.

The topic wasn’t always so verboten. In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development issued a report that recommended “stabilizing the U.S. population” as an essential step to preserving an environment in which humans can thrive.

We need to take a page from the past and have this conversation now. If we do nothing, we will get more people, fewer farms, more expensive water, and an increasingly parched landscape.

Gary Wockner

Gary Wockner is a river-protection activist in the Southwest.