The Great Political Debate Over the Future of the Colorado River

Cody Good
empty Colorado River
Courtesy of National Geographic

There’s no love between the Southwestern states as of late. California’s own 2Pac may have encouraged love and “pouring one out” for your homies, but state officials aren’t willing to part with a drop.

What happened: This week, the seven US states dependent on water from the Colorado River—Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming—failed to reach an agreement on how to meet the federal government’s ask to cut 2-to-4 million acre-feet of water use from the river.

Background: The Colorado River is kind of a big deal. It plays a crucial role in the social, economic, and environmental well-being of more than 40 million people in the Southwestern US. Not to mention sculpting the Grand Canyon like it’s Michelangelo.

A stalemate has formed between California, which receives 80 percent of the allotted water between the states along the river, and the other six states pushing for California to take the bulk of reductions Despite what Californians might say after the recent flooding, the lack of rain and snow in the southwest US has put the very worst dry spells of lore to shame. 

  • The region is experiencing the driest 20-year period since Vikings were invading Europe 1200 years ago.

Why the need for cutbacks: Beyond the obvious lack of water from the sky, the governing 1922 treaty for the Colorado River has a few glaring holes in the light of the modern day.

  • The treaty primarily concerned itself with the needs of farmers and land owners at the time which were generally granted unlimited water usage.
  • The treaty assumes almost twice as much waterflow in the river to be shared amongst the seven states than is currently available. 
  • Lawmakers also shockingly failed to predict the water consumption impact of turning the sprawling desert into a massive industrial agriculture complex to feed our almond milk latte and avocado toast obsession.

Zoom out: The rising scarcity of water in the world pushes it to become increasingly treated as a commodity to be bought and sold. Pricing water forms a delicate situation that could both incentivize innovation in conservation yet also open avenues for conflict and withholding of a key resource that all humans should have the right to access.