After six years of unrelenting drought, an uncomfortable question is being asked more frequently in the Southwest: Will we have enough water to sustain human habitation here?
The tap hasn't run dry yet and there's no reason to panic. No reason to pack up and head for cooler, wetter climes.
But the drought is spotlighting an uncomfortable reality about water law surrounding the Southwest's primary lifeline — the Colorado River. And that is that politics, for much of the second half of the 20th century, encouraged an exaggeration of the amount of water the river would dependably yield year in and year out.
As Daniel McCool, a professor of political science at the University of Utah and director of the American West Center, says, ‘‘The law of the (Colorado) River is hopelessly, irretrievably obsolete, designed on a hydrological fallacy, around an agrarian West that no longer exists. After six years of drought, somebody will have to say the emperor has no clothes.’’
McCool was quoted in an article in Sunday's Tribune by the New York Times' Kirk Johnson and Dean E. Murphy that focused on what may well have been a colossal miscalculation of the river's prospective yield before Glen Canyon Dam was built in the 1960s. With the dam's enormous reservoir, Lake Powell, now 60 percent depleted, this is a good time to recalculate.
The claim that the Colorado River's projected yield was exaggerated is not new. Some scientists and political observers have warned for decades that the river was overcommitted to appease powerful agricultural and development interests in the Southwest. The evidence then and now would seem to indicate the charge is probably accurate.
Better questions now are what the river will actually yield over the long haul, what type and magnitude of development that can sustain, and how can we best manage the inevitable peaks and valleys of water flow.
The good news is that scientists are working to come up with reliable answers to these questions. The bad news is they don't have any answers yet — even as development continues.
But there's a double silver lining to this issue. First, agriculture still consumes a
tremendous amount of the Colorado River's water, and urban development is supplanting the farms. We see that happening in our own Valley, as farmland sprouts rooftops. And urban development consumes roughly the same amount of water as agriculture, acre for acre. Second, the water supply can be stretched to a great extent through conservation. And in the Valley, we really haven't begun to conserve.
While there is no cause to clamp a moratorium on urban development in the Southwest, to ban lawns or drain our artificial lakes, the hard questions must be asked, and solid research based on sound science must continue. It would be foolish to press ahead with unfettered urban development until, someday, we face a real water crisis.
One more thing to keep in mind: As Lake Powell shrinks, it is serving exactly the purpose it was intended to serve. That is, this massive water bank is being tapped to make up for what nature has shorted the Southwest in terms of precipitation.
The drought will end. Scientists are certain of it.
But they are just as certain that another drought will hit.
Meanwhile, we who live and love the Southwestern desert lifestyle must make sure there will always be enough life-giving water to sustain us. The key is sound science and wise water management, not panic.