The Colorado River crisis is hitting cities and farms in the desert Southwest A reckoning has come for cities and farms in the desert Southwest that were built to rely on the Colorado River.

Where the Colorado River crisis is hitting home

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1124150368/1124441230" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The changing climate has yet to affect daily life for most people who rely on the Colorado River. The river provides drinking water to about 40 million people. As a decades-old drought lowers water levels, water managers have been able to find solutions and workarounds so far. NPR's Kirk Siegler has been asking how much longer they can go on.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: It feels so cliche these days to throw around the word dystopian, but it's hard not to use it when you're standing here on the road across the Hoover Dam, cars idling as tourists gawk at its huge exposed columns that for decades were underwater.

ARTHUR MURZEAU: I just think it's amazing to see the level of water so low.

SIEGLER: Arthur Murzeau is visiting from Belgium. Lake Mead, the nation's largest reservoir, is so low it's perilously close to what's called dead pool. It's a level where the dam's hydropower turbines would shut off for the first time in its 86-year history.

MURZEAU: I think we need politics to take actions. We need people to react and then to be really aware of what's going on.

SIEGLER: But are enough people aware? Even in the worst drought in 1,200 years, travel south along Highway 93 into Arizona, and it can feel like business as usual. And people continue moving here faster than almost any other state. Even in the driest, most barren-looking places, homes and RVs pockmark the desert shrub, and ramshackle real estate signs advertise cheap land, 160 acres, right here. Towns with names like Dolan Springs or, when you get closer to Phoenix, Rio Verde Foothills sound like false promises when it comes to water. Karen Nabity is one of a few activists here sounding the alarm. She's a realtor, but is dismayed that people are still being allowed to buy and build in Rio Verde - credit loose zoning and loopholes in water laws.

KAREN NABITY: What hasn't happened is they don't have a disclosure to the owner of that property to say, honey, you're building this house, but do you know on January 1 that we don't have a water source for you right now, right?

SIEGLER: Some 500 homes here, Nabity's included, are losing all their water January 1. That's because nearby Scottsdale, which gets most of its water from the Colorado, now says there's not enough to go around anymore. Remember dead pool up in Lake Mead? Nabity worries it's coming faster than predicted.

NABITY: Colorado River won't be flowing. Water won't be flowing down the canals. That should be an oh, [expletive], to this entire state. Guys, we are standing in the middle of the tracks. We're about to get hit by the train. For God's sakes, we need to do something, and we need to do it now.

SIEGLER: Nabity is trying to form a water district that could go out and buy farmland and its water rights to deliver to taps here next year - so far, no luck. She and her neighbors can pay water haulers for now to tap groundwater wells like this one off a dirt road at the very edge of the Phoenix sprawl. But there's not enough, and it's expensive.

NABITY: What is our state doing? People are still planting grass. People are still watering yards. We need to have our state step up more and start doing bigger cutbacks now because I'd hate to see cities that are saying, well, don't worry, residents, we can keep going 'cause we've got groundwater, and we've saved water in the ground. Let's use that up - well, how long is that going to last?

SIEGLER: Eighty miles to the south, through the megacity of Phoenix and into rural Pinal County, Ariz., farmer Will Thelander is resorting to pumping groundwater to keep his crops alive.

WILL THELANDER: It might rain tomorrow. I'm thinking we might get some later today.

SIEGLER: A plea for more monsoon rains because now that the Colorado is drying up, farmers here have lost all of their water deliveries from it. California has higher priority water rights in the century-old river laws, so fields that were converted from desert to farmland decades ago are now going fallow out here.

THELANDER: Because of the water cutbacks, we've had to shrink our farm by about 50% and use the available water we have through pumps.

SIEGLER: Thanks to the Colorado River, Pinal County is - or was - one of the most productive farming regions in the country, a big producer of alfalfa, corn for cattle and cotton in one of the hottest and driest places in the world.

THELANDER: So I know everyone says that my initial response is why'd everyone move to a desert? So you can build a city here, but you can't do other things?

SIEGLER: This drought is forcing Thelander to do other things. He started growing a new desert rubber plant that uses a quarter of the water as his traditional crops. The field next to him fallow, it's hard not to see a reckoning coming, though. These systems supporting farms and cities that made the Southwest boom were built at a time when people thought that the Colorado would always have excess water.

THELANDER: You can't just go, well, it's a desert, and they're out water, so we'll grow food elsewhere. Well, these industries have taken 50 to 100 years to establish. You don't just go, hey, we'll grow elsewhere. It's complicated. It's way more complicated than that.

SIEGLER: It's clear the 23-year megadrought is complicating everything, and some are starting to question why we're still even calling this a drought 'cause it suggests it might end. Ted Cooke runs the Central Arizona Project. It's the canal system that pipes Colorado River water 336 miles into Arizona.

TED COOKE: This is the worst drought and the longest drought that we've had based on tree ring studies for over a millennium, and the next wet period that we might see is so far in the future that it's essentially the same thing as not ever.

SIEGLER: Cooke is on edge, waiting to see how much more the federal government will order everyone to cut. Lake Mead doesn't have enough water to meet everyone's demands now, he says. We can't keep doling out water like it's the 1900s, when fewer people lived here.

COOKE: Climate change and the drought has caught up with us.

SIEGLER: Lake Mead is at 28% capacity. The federal government is projecting it could fall to the dreaded dead pool - no more hydropower and a lot less water within the next few years. At the popular marinas on its shoreline, Gail Kaiser's family business, the Las Vegas Boat Harbor, has had to pick up and move farther out into the lake nine times this year.

GAIL KAISER: It's tough because all you have is bad publicity.

SIEGLER: And she's sick of all the doom and gloom and dystopian references in the news and on social media.

KAISER: You know, yes, is there a drought? Absolutely, there's a drought. And do we need to watch what we do with our water and conserve and do all those things that's necessary? Yes, obviously. You know, we live in a desert. We need - we should have always been doing that.

SIEGLER: But there's still a big, beautiful lake here, she says, with good boating and fishing. She's fighting to keep it that way.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Las Vegas.

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.