Despite water conservation regulations prohibiting daytime watering, irrigation sprinklers spray water over a front yard of degraded soil, July 12, 2022, during California’s historic drought.
Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images
The Colorado River is drying up. This day has arrived since the agreement to distribute the water was precisely made 100 years agomost prominently indicated by the elongation of white rings of mineral deposits left behind in wetter years along the shores around Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir, now a slowly draining emerald pool in the desert. The worst drought in the American Southwest in history has strained every inch of the river’s 2,450-mile watershed, depleting a system so severely that officials scientists who have been sounding the alarm for decades: There is no more water, and there will be no more water. (At current usage rates, the most generous estimates say there are four to six years left.) Downward-looking predictions that predict yet another winter of exceptionally low snowpack levelsa consortium of 32 agencies that provide water to 40 million Americans living in both the driest and fastest growing areas of the US has finally historical agreement to reduce water use – especially by setting a goal to reduce lawns in their service areas from Denver to Santa Monica by 30 percent.
The move is aimed at ‘non-functional grass grass’, which means that the grass in road verges, for example, will be ripped away, while parks, sports fields and golf courses can (unfortunately) remain. Those odd mounds of grass will ideally be replaced with “drought- and climate-resilient landscaping,” including planting more trees, according to the agreement. The language of the non-binding memorandum of understanding is vague enough that private lawns can escape the kill list (for now). Also unaffected by the agreement: 5.5 million hectares of agriculture, something like that alfalfa and cotton, which accounts for 80 percent of the Colorado River’s water allocation and has only grown thirstier in recent decades, fueled by federal grants and foreign investment. All in all, this announcement is good news, yet the most historic agreement ever made in the history of water management in the US will not be enough to prevent the inevitable shortages that will soon permeate every aspect of everyday life. “Every acre of conservation helps,” said Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University, “but even if all of the conservation proposed in the MOU happens, it won’t be enough to change the system.”
For the 40 million people in seven states and 30 tribal nations who get their water from the Colorado River, the prospects are bleak. Scientists say use should be reduced to 9 million acre-feet per year, about 40 percent less than today. Within a decade, households would face strict restrictions on daily water use, accompanied by overall increases in the cost of living, including dramatic increases in energy costs. The indigenous peoples that have inherent rights to the river would be even more deprived of the right to access their water allocations. The impact would go far beyond just the service area when considering the corresponding drop in food supply – the Colorado River irrigates 90 percent of the vegetables consumed in the US during the winter.
Local municipalities have already taken some steps to avert such a crisis, dramatically reducing their water use over the past two decades “by more than a million acre-feet, while also adding more than 5 million people to our communities.” “, as the language of the MOU notes. Cities are bombing ornamental grasses on government-owned or managed land and setting new restrictions on commercial property owners, such as Las Vegas did last year. There has also been one marked increase in municipal water recycling, with successful demonstration projects in parched California communities that could help alleviate demand upstream. And while backyards aren’t yet the target of mass xeriscaping, agencies have been pushing incentives for homeowners in hopes that they’ll do the right thing themselves; for example, LA’s Department of Water and Power, which serves and saw 681,000 customers lowest water consumption ever recorded this summer just increased the sod replacement discount from $3 to $5 per square foot.
But when you compare a sprinkler that traverses the grass-strewn entrance of a suburban neighborhood twice a week to half an acre of heavily irrigated cotton fields, the agreement’s aspirations sound like a literal drop in the ocean. But it’s not nothing, and the fact that the 30 percent figure was negotiated and agreed upon by nearly three dozen powerful agencies is an important step in itself, says Sharon Megdal, director of the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center. “Now we can look at this song and say: How did we perform?Megdal says, though as she points out, no target date has yet been set for that assessment. While this MOU alone won’t be enough, she says perhaps most crucially, the agreement signals the severity of the crisis, helps to indicate that further cuts may come sooner rather than later, and that anyone who depends on need the Colorado River to revise their expectations of how to integrate green spaces and lawns (which are still important) into their communities. “Things like this are essential to make people aware of the seriousness of the situation,” says Megdal. “We all need to adapt to using less water.”