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U.S. Southwest Is Facing a Devastating Water Crisis

I thoroughly enjoy writing, especially about environmental issues and how to make the environment we live in better for everyone.

Lake Mead in severe drought with high water line showing.

Lake Mead in severe drought with high water line showing.

Water Crisis

The southwestern part of the United States is facing diminishing water supplies and a potentially devastating water crisis due to a severe drought that began around the year 2000. While many local governments have successfully implemented stringent water conservation measures, they haven’t done anything to limit population growth, which is a primary driver of increased water usage.

Diminishing water supplies combined with growing demand for water is putting much of the region into a squeeze that could lead to residents’ water running out in the not too distant future. Before water runs out, the region would lose electricity produced by massive hydroelectric power plants that supply electricity to millions of people in the region.

Losing electric power and running out of water would cause major chaos in affected areas, as it presents a life-threatening condition that would cause millions of people to quickly move out of the southwestern region, as they seek out places to live that have reliable electricity and adequate water supplies.

Lake Powell's hydroelectric generating outlet shows the power of using dammed water to generate electricity.

Lake Powell's hydroelectric generating outlet shows the power of using dammed water to generate electricity.

Massive Reservoirs Are at Record Lows

The American Southwest has been growing its population at a torrid pace for many decades as people seek warmer and sunnier places to live. In anticipation of this growth, the U.S. government dammed the Colorado River in two locations decades ago to form reservoirs known as Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which provide water and electricity to large parts of Arizona, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, and California.

While the two massive reservoirs have served their purpose well for many years, the population in the areas they serve has grown so much that the water in the reservoirs is being drawn down more quickly than ever.

This is especially concerning since the southwestern U.S. has been experiencing a devastating drought as wintertime storms are being directed north of the U.S. into Canada and aren’t dropping enough snow in the southern U.S. Rocky Mountains to provide an adequate amount of water to the reservoirs.

Further exacerbating the concerns about whether water will be available to residents in the southwest is the fact that underwater aquifers that have been relied upon as secondary sources of water have begun to dry up due to overuse. In many areas, there are no alternative water sources to the water supplied by the two massive reservoirs.

Tucson, Arizona is one of the cities that will lose water supply when Lake Mead is now longer capable of providing water.

Tucson, Arizona is one of the cities that will lose water supply when Lake Mead is now longer capable of providing water.

Government Response Inadequate

While some cities and towns in the southwestern U.S. have done an impressive job implementing water conservation measures, government policies from the local to federal level have been inadequate to prevent vital water resources from running out.

On the local and state level, no serious efforts have been made to curtail future demand for water by severely reducing or stopping the building of new homes and businesses until the water crisis can be averted.

While the federal government has done what it can do to juggle its water resources to provide short-term relief, there are no long-term plans to supply large and plentiful new water supplies to the southwestern United States.

For example, a pipeline from the Great Lakes region could provide fresh water to the southwest. Other permanent relief proposals include large desalinization plants along the west coast that would utilize pipelines to transfer the desalinized water to reservoirs in the southwest.

Of course, large-scale desalinization and water pipeline schemes would be costly and energy-intensive. However, the cost of millions of people having to abandon their homes and businesses to evacuate the region once its life-sustaining water runs dry would be far higher.

It’s the type of investment in the future that only an entity as large as the federal government could make. The energy for massive desalination and pipeline schemes could be provided by plentiful renewable wind and solar energy resources to minimize the carbon footprint of such massive energy-intensive projects.

What If Nothing Is Done?

If nothing is done to head off the water crisis and beneficial wintertime snow and rainstorms do not occur, then many parts of the southwestern U.S. face a catastrophic loss of electricity produced by hydroelectric dams and of life-sustaining water supplies provided by reservoirs.

This would obviously cause considerable chaos and dislocation, as modern life relies on both reliable electricity and water supplies. Chaos and stresses would extend out across the country to the regions to which the water refugees flea, as cities and towns struggle to assimilate a sudden influx of new residents.

Property values would plummet to nearly worthless throughout affected areas of the southwest, as people abandon their homes and migrate to areas with adequate electricity and water supplies.

People’s savings that are tied up in the value of their homes would evaporate overnight. Populations would plummet in affected areas and many governments would likely cease to exist, as their employees would be among those quickly moving out to find a life-sustaining area to live in.

While electricity restoration could technically be achieved relatively quickly using technologies such as solar power with utility-scale battery backup, there likely wouldn’t be any interest in doing so since areas without access to water would be unlivable and investors would be reluctant to invest their money into new power supply schemes until water could be restored and people started moving back to the region.

Restoring water services would be a much more difficult task. Water supply projects take years or decades to go from proposal to completed project. There are plenty of possibilities, including pipelines of fresh water from the Great Lakes and building desalinization plants on the West Coast, and then piping the potable water they produce to the affected areas.

At best, it would probably take at least five years to complete these types of massive water supply projects, even if government red tape and other obstacles are removed.

If rain and snow returned, some people would likely return, but not many given the likelihood of future droughts and water disruptions. The installation of reliable alternative water supply sources would be necessary to entice a lot of people to return to the area.

How Far Off Is “Day Zero”?

There are three variables that dictate when “Day Zero” will impact the southwestern United States—the day at which water will no longer be available to people living there.

  1. The rate of water consumption (affected by both the current and the future number of residents and businesses).
  2. The rate of reservoir recharge (determined by how much rain and snow falls within the reservoirs’ supply areas).
  3. Mitigative emergency actions implemented by government officials to slow the rate of water consumption (such as water rationing).

While both Lake Powell reservoir and Lake Mead reservoir are reaching all-time lows as of the summer of 2022, neither will reach levels during 2022 that would prevent them from providing electricity or water to the areas of the southwest they serve.

If near-term winters prove to be below-normal snow and rain producers for the southern Rocky Mountains and water consumption continues at its current rate, then “Day Zero” could be reached by 2025.

This would be the day Lake Powell and Lake Mead can no longer provide water to the areas that depend on their vital water supplies. Electricity supplies from hydroelectric dams could be cut off even sooner, as the hydroelectric generators need higher water levels in the reservoirs than are needed for water supply purposes.

The approaching water crisis in the southwestern U.S. is not a far-away concern. It is fast approaching and must be dealt with by public and private concerns as the potentially catastrophic crisis that it is to head off the worst aspects of reaching “Day Zero,” when water is no longer available to millions of people living in the desert southwest.

© 2022 John Coviello