September 21, 2023

More Heat, Less Water

By Stephen Tuttle | June 3, 2023

Every agreement ever reached attempting to allocate Colorado River water has had the same problem—more water has been promised than actually exists.

In 1922, the seven states with a direct interest in the Colorado and its watershed came to an agreement called the Colorado River Compact. The seven states divided into the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico, and the lower basin states of California, Nevada, and Arizona. Additionally, 30 tribal nations and Mexico also claimed a share of the river.

The lower basin states, with their rapid population increases and water demands, used the most Colorado River water, usually beyond their allotment. Fortunately, the upper basin states used less than their allotment.

Fast-forward and the imbalance of usage had become untenable as upper basin states now have increased water needs, too. And 22 of the 30 tribal nations have settled with the Department of the Interior for their rights and are entitled to 25 percent of the Colorado’s average flow, leaving others to divide the remaining 75 percent.

While we still take our abundance of water for granted here in northern Michigan, the West, particularly the Southwest, has little water to take for granted and must rely on overdrawn aquifers and an over-allocated Colorado River.

Some 40 million people rely on the Colorado River for residential, industrial, and agricultural uses. For example, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, California is responsible for 42 percent of the nation’s fruit and nut production and nearly half the nation’s vegetable production, all of which require a lot of water.

Recently, California, Nevada, and Arizona—the high water usage lower basin states—came to a new arrangement with the Department of the Interior after a year of discussions. The choice came down to making some voluntary concessions or having the government impose likely harsher restrictions. Those states agreed to reduce their water usage by three million acre feet by 2026, about 13 percent of their total usage. Of that, 1.5 million acre feet will be reduced in the next year with California reducing the most. The carrot part of the governments carrot-and-stick negotiations was that they will pay $1.2 billion to the three states for the first 2.4 million acre feet of reduced usage.

(An acre foot of water, as the name suggests, is the amount of water required to cover a flat acre of land a foot deep, or just under 326,000 gallons.)

Critics of the new deal claim the cuts are less than half what is actually needed to protect the Colorado, a position the Interior Department took early in the discussions but ultimately abandoned. Additionally, the new agreement and the Colorado River Compact itself expire in 2026.

In some areas, there are underground aquifers supplying some water for mostly residential use. But choices could come down to irrigation for food versus residential use versus industrial use, and food is going to win. Several major cities, including Phoenix, are already planning for water usage needs and reduced availability 50 to 100 years from now. Every city in the Colorado River basin should be doing the same, planning for more people but less water.

Speaking of Phoenix, researchers at the School of City and Regional Planning at Georgia Tech recently released a study on what might happen in the country’s hottest major city in the event of a blackout in the midst of a heatwave. Their conclusions were more than just a little alarming.

They projected such a scenario could result in 800,000 needing emergency room trips and 13,000 deaths. Phoenix’s population is 1.65 million residents, so Georgia Tech thinks nearly half the city will require emergency medical treatment, a problem given there are only 3,000 emergency room beds in the city.

While the scenario of a blackout during a heatwave is not far-fetched—that would be the period of highest demand and temperatures in the already blistering city continue to increase—the huge numbers of people in medical distress are likely exaggerated.

As someone who lived in Phoenix for more than three decades and experienced a handful of summertime power outages, I can testify it becomes very unpleasant very fast but not typically fatal if water is still available. Phoenix didn't have any air conditioning before 1929, and though it was not as hot then, especially at night, people figured out how to deal with extreme heat during the long summer.

It’s ironic that air-conditioning, created to keep us cool indoors, actually creates more heat outdoors. Researchers from Arizona State University’s School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences determined exhaust from air conditioners in Phoenix increased nighttime temperatures by two degrees Fahrenheit. The hotter it gets, the longer air conditioners run…the hotter it gets.


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