The Colorado River drought is a climate cautionary tale

There’s something familiar about the high-water drama unfolding in the US Southwest.

The mighty Colorado River serves as economic artery from the region, feeding massive hydroelectric dams and supplying water to the region’s farmers and rapidly growing cities. But continued overuse during a massive long-term megadrought – the driest stretch the region has experienced more than millennia— caused water reservoir levels to drop to unprecedented low levels, endangering the water supply and the operation of important power plants.

Seven states rely on water from the Colorado River: Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Nevada. In June, the federal government told them they had 60 days to come up with a plan to massively reduce their consumption. Last week, that deadline came and went without an agreement. And even as the federal government announced a new round of water cuts in a previous drought plan — 21 percent for the Arzona, 8 percent for Nevada and 7 percent for Mexico, which also relies on the river — it did not follow about his threat to impose more severe water shutoffs if the state doesn’t act. This means reservoir levels are likely to continue to fall, risking severe electricity and water shortages across the region.

A former sunken boat stands upright with its stern stuck in the mud along the shore of Lake Mead at Lake Mead National Recreation Area near Boulder City, Nev., June 10, 2022.

John Locher—AP

The drought behind the problem is no accident — human-caused climate change is a significant part of the problem, with warmer temperatures causing more runoff from rain and snow to evaporate before it reaches the Colorado River. At the same time, it’s hard not to see the situation on the river as something of a smaller, accelerated version of the global climate crisis, with state and federal governments slowing down and pointing fingers as the situation that needs to be addressed becomes getting worse.

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As with climate change, the water problem is less technical than political. State governments want to protect water rights that are critical to agriculture and housing expansion. And neither governor is likely to get praise from voters for stepping up magnanimously to absorb a large share of the cuts. In theory, federal threats should prompt action—states would rather cut a deal themselves than let Washington decide who gets what share of the river’s declining flows. But that only works if the Biden administration is willing to follow through on its word and anger voters in the Southwest — a tough pill for Democrats to swallow heading into tough midterm elections.

This is not so different from the international climate situation, where, despite high promises, most countries are it’s still slow much of the difficult, urgently needed action to reduce emissions and prevent disaster (despite the adoption of the largest climate bill in history last week offered a welcome reprieve). In both cases, the leaders are playing a game of chicken in the face of looming disaster. Everyone refrains from making tough decisions, hoping that most of the costs will fall elsewhere, while the actual problem gets worse for everyone.

The sun rises over a canal that is filled with water from the Colorado River on August 17, 2022 near Buckeye, Arizona.

RJ Sangosti—MediaNews Group/The Denver Post/Getty Images

Both disasters have short-term consequences, but the bitter haggling over who makes what sacrifices is likely to play out in a radically shorter time frame in the Southwest, where the cost of inaction will hit power players like the agricultural sector hard and fast. Whether the region’s authorities sort out the mess or walk hand-in-hand into disaster could give us an idea of ​​how the global climate battle among the world’s biggest polluters will play out — whether international leaders will take dramatic action before they begin. -bad crises, or to wait to see what new escalating dangers will make the hard decisions for them.

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Write to Alejandro de la Garza c [email protected].

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