By: Lexi Carroll

On August 16, 2021, the United States Bureau of Reclamation declared a shortage on the Colorado River for the first time. Although such national recognition is unprecedented, the water crisis is not. 

The Colorado River has been a precious commodity for Western states for over a century. In 1922, competing state interests in the region resulted in the Colorado River Compact—dividing the river into two basins and providing an allotment of water for each basin. The hope was that the allotments would always suffice. However, the Compact was signed after several wet years, which lead both the states and federal government to overestimate the river’s flows. In addition, our rapid population growth placed a huge burden on the river: it currently needs to provide water for about 40 million people, as compared to roughly 5.8 million people in 1922.

In addition to increased population (and thereby demand), the 22 year drought plaguing the southwest and the rapidly increasing climate change effects have only exacerbated the water scarcity issue. Regarding climate change, the Rocky Mountain snow melt that nourishes the Colorado River is decreasing, and any existing moisture is evaporating more quickly (as is the river). In sum, the Colorado River is desperately struggling to meet its water demand for drinking, agriculture, and more. Thus, we have our first declared river shortage. 

What does this mean for the Southwest? Major water cuts. Based on water rights, Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico will experience some amount of water reduction, but Arizona farmers will be hit the hardest. Next year, Arizona will lose 18 percent of its Colorado River water allotment. Unsurprisingly, this will have a devastating impact on small farmers. A third generation farmer in Pinal County, for example, “says he’ll have to fallow hundreds of acres of farmland.” And this water restriction for small farmers only adds to what some have already deemed a “raging crisis” for farmers in parts of Arizona, with farmland being paved over to make room for houses. 

Unfortunately, this is likely only the beginning of water cuts. Projected reservoir levels suggest that even larger cuts may occur in 2023 and 2024. But it does not require complex mathematical projections to see the beginnings of what could be a humanitarian crisis. A look at Lake Mead or Lake Powell will clearly show the “bathtub rings” that signify the extreme water decline. Since the year 2000, Lake Mead’s water levels have dropped 130 vertical feet

This initial shortage declaration is a formalized call to action for a very visible emergency. For most Arizonans, access to water probably seems like an unlimited resource; the shortage is a reminder that it is not. For continued access to clean water, local foods, and water recreation, individuals, farmers, and companies will need to pivot and adapt. Of the many suggested conservation tactics, water recycling, improved methods of agriculture, and reduced reliance on water intensive crops seem the most widely advised. Perhaps our future Arizona will be full of aeroponic farming and water recycling facilities, and absent grassy front yards and desert golf courses. But one thing is certain: the Colorado River shortage indicates that some form of sustainable change is nonnegotiable.

Lexi graduated from the University of Maryland with a B.A. in English and a minor in Spanish. She is a 2L at Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and hopes to eventually work in a position combining environmental law and civil rights. Her personal interests include traveling, hiking, finding new ways to live sustainably, and trying local Phoenix restaurants.