America’s Water Crisis

posted: 08/01/16

Over the last century, declining water resources in the western United States have become more prominent as tensions between old laws and modern needs grow. Western residents rely on several water systems, but the Colorado River is paramount, supplying 40 million people in seven states. With unprecedented levels of demand for water as the arid West has blossomed with agriculture and undergone a population explosion, water is often transported across state boundaries to satisfy the thirst of desert denizens and irrigate the farms that provide the majority of America's food supply.

The depletion of water resources is a daunting reality: even if the drought in the West were to end today it would take years to restore exhausted reservoirs and groundwater. And the increase in demand isn't going away, as cities from San Diego to Denver continue to expand and we remain dependent on California produce to feed the nation. As a result, everyone from policymakers to Wall Street traders will be forced to innovate, creating new systems to protect and preserve this precious resource, creating sustainable models that can be broadly replicated as water becomes scarcer across the globe.

Discovery Impact's KILLING THE COLORADO explores three intersecting issues that together explain how the serious water crisis in the West came to be and what needs to change to prevent a future catastrophe:

  • Conflicts between agricultural and urban demand for water have escalated as the water supply has dried up. Farms in the Imperial Valley of California are working together with San Diego to solve this problem, but solutions that work for all are hard to come by.

  • Western infrastructure, like dams and canals, has made desert agriculture and urban oases like Las Vegas possible. But such projects are also hugely inefficient, losing millions of gallons of water to seepage and evaporation. Battles over new projects are simmering. Will we get it right?

  • Traders have bought and sold water rights for decades, with mixed results for the people who rely on that water. But now Wall Street is getting involved in the process with innovative methods and promising results, presenting a possible solution to localized water shortages and helping move water where it's needed most. Can the profit motive benefit the common good?

FARMING THE DESERT - Directed by Barbara Kopple

Almost 80% of Colorado River water is used by agriculture to supply America with food, which means that even removing all the golf courses and lawns in Southern California would have only a small impact on regional water shortages. The situation in California's Imperial Valley puts that fact into sharp resonance. The existence of this vast farming area, just outside of San Diego, is predicated on century-old canals that carry water there from the Colorado River--and the competing demands for the Colorado's water have put a huge strain on the region.

Robert Glennon, a water expert at the University of Arizona, explains that "...the Imperial Valley has very old water rights, because they began diverting water from the Colorado River in the very early years of the 20th century." However, Glennon goes on to say that "...water isn't infinite. And the growth in California population-wise places a moral obligation on us to use water wisely on both sides."

"[The Colorado River] supplies either some or all of [the] water for about one out of ten Americans. And the fact that there's not enough of it and there never will be enough of it creates divisive conflict," said Gov. John Hickenlooper.

DAMMED IF YOU DO - Directed by Jesse Moss

"In a dry area like southwest New Mexico, water is everything--it's more important than oil to us," states Vance Lee, a cattle rancher. And we are now seeing nasty political fights over water rights, just like the ones that have been waged over oil for more than a century.

As water becomes scarcer, state governments have attempted to transform the Colorado River into a giant plumbing system in an effort to control nature and move water where they want it to go. While this approach has enabled the rapid growth of the West, our reliance on large infrastructure projects has also led to massive leaks, evaporation, and inefficiency.

KILLING THE COLORADO highlights the latest efforts in New Mexico to build a dam that would capture water from a still-untamed stretch of the Gila River, a small tributary of the Colorado, presumably to avert future water shortages. Neighboring Arizona controls most of the Gila's water rights, which the state uses to supply its farms and cities. Now, Congress is allowing New Mexico to claim more water from the river, with $62 million of federal funds. A fierce debate over the value--and wisdom--of the project has followed.

"From the earliest days, Americans have tried to build their way out of water scarcity in the West. But the best dam sites have all been taken, leaving only the most expensive and inefficient options," said Lustgarten. Despite the problematic history of even the best water management projects, many states are considering new efforts to wrangle their water supply in the face of this massive shortage. Is it even still possible to dam our way out of drought? And, if so, at what incredible cost?

WATER FOR SALE - Directed by Alan Raymond and Susan Raymond

In recent years, the practice of water trading has risen--partially, because investors see Western shortages as a chance to make a hefty profit, but also because market mechanisms may provide a possible solution for communities suffering from water shortages.

Now a billion-dollar business, water trading echoes the demand for cheap oil in the 20th century. Early water trades saw whole communities seemingly swindled out of their water and going dry, transforming once-prosperous places into ghost towns. KILLING THE COLORADO spotlights Crowley, Colorado, a cautionary tale of a town that lost everything when it sold its water rights to the highest bidder. This is contrasted against the innovative work of the team at Water Asset Management, a hedge fund that has successfully worked with cities like Prescott Valley, Arizona, to distribute water more equitably.

"Whether it is leasing water or acquiring water rights, there has been more and more active involvement by municipalities to work with the agriculture community to either shore up their water during times of drought or to outright purchase water rights to provide for their long-term needs," said Mike Connor, U.S. Deputy Secretary of the Interior.

While the situation appears dire, one thing on which almost every party can agree is that this is a manmade problem, so with appropriate planning and innovative thinking we can find manmade solutions. "I've come to understand that the shortages are man-made," explains Lustgarten. "I really think that the majority of the stress on the water system in this part of the country [is] caused by too many people going after too little amount of water. If you buy that, that it's a man-caused problem, then it means it's a totally fixable problem."

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