The West is the driest it's been in 1,200 years — raising questions about a livable future

·6 min read

Trees are dying. Riverbeds are empty. Lake Mead's water level dropped to its lowest point in history, and Utah's governor asked residents to pray for rain.

Water is increasingly scarce in the Western U.S. — where 72 percent of the region is in "severe" drought, 26 percent is in exceptional drought, and populations are booming.

Insufficient monsoon rains last summer and low snowpacks over the winter left states like Arizona, Utah and Nevada without the typical amount of water they need, and forecasts for the rainy summer season don't show promise.

This year's aridity is happening against the backdrop of a 20-year-long drought. The past two decades have been the driest or the second driest in the last 1,200 years in the West, posing existential questions about how to secure a livable future in the region.

It's time to ask, "Is this a drought, or is it just the way the hydrology of the Colorado River is going to be?" said John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

A parched Sin City

Greater Las Vegas is one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country, home to more than 2.2 million people, and it gets just over 4 inches of rain in a good year.

Around 90 percent of the water comes from Lake Mead, the reservoir on the Colorado River formed by the Hoover Dam, which is currently 36 percent full.

The drought has been so persistent that the Southern Nevada Water Authority and many other groups in the region have spent the last 20 years preparing for a drier future.

"It isn't sneaking up on us," Entsminger said. "Since 2002, our population has increased close to 50 percent, about 750,000 people in the last 19 years or so, and over that same time our aggregated depletions from the Colorado River have gone down 23 percent."

The good news, he said, is that per capita water consumption is down by 40 percent. Indoor water is recycled in southern Nevada, where residents are paid to replace grass with drip-irrigated landscaping.

That is one of the region's many ways of confronting a 21st century Colorado River with significantly less water than it had a century ago.

Image: A water canal in Carson City, Nev. (Ty O'Neil / SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Image: A water canal in Carson City, Nev. (Ty O'Neil / SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Entsminger said the region needs to "drastically increase our conservation and rethink how we are using almost every gallon of water in order to accommodate that kind of future development."

That includes a new law that will declare more than 30 percent of the grass illegal in southern Nevada.

"The future of the Colorado River in the 21st century is almost certainly significantly less water than we had in the 20th century," he said, and it will require collaboration between the U.S. and Mexico. "The challenge before us is how seven states and two countries can all cooperate to figure out how to get by in the coming decades with significantly less water than we thought we had."

'Bull's-eye of global warming'

Grass bans won't save the West, especially a place that is in the middle of the desert and surging in population, like Phoenix.

Phoenix is the "bull's-eye of global warming, heating up and drying out," said Andrew Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University and author of a book about Arizona's largest city called "Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World's Least Sustainable City."

Before it was Phoenix, the Hohokam Indigenous people lived on the land for centuries. "They had a wonderful irrigation network system, and they subsisted in the desert with their canal network for more than a 1,000 years," Ross said, but severe drought forced them to abandon the site. Phoenix is built atop the ruins of the Hohokam people's city, and the canal system that brings water to Phoenix was built on the path first used by the Hohokam.

"The allegory is built into the city," Ross said. The test is whether history repeats itself.

IMAGE: Corrales, N.M.  (Susan Montoya Bryan / AP)
IMAGE: Corrales, N.M. (Susan Montoya Bryan / AP)

Phoenix is a growth-obsessed city dominated by single-family-home real estate development. "You can't look at the long-term future of those developments without concluding that the challenges will only get greater by the year and with every new subdivision of low-density tract housing that's built," Ross said.

When he was writing his book on Phoenix 10 years ago, someone described Phoenix to Ross as a city of "people who are building homes for the people who are building homes." The metro area's population is almost 5 million, and it's expected to grow by around 2 million in the next 30 years.

Utah is in a similar situation. Its population grew by 18.4 percent over the past decade, making it the country's fastest-growing state, according to the latest census data.

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The state government recently allocated $280 million for water projects, $100 million of which is for conservation. Farmers, who consume the most water in the state, are no longer flooding fields to irrigate them; instead, they're using more targeted and less wasteful irrigation methods. Utah is so dry that state officials might totally ban fireworks, fearing wildfires.

"I've already asked all Utahns to conserve water by avoiding long showers, fixing leaky faucets, and planting water-wise landscapes. But I fear those efforts alone won't be enough to protect us," Gov. Spencer Cox recently said in a statement.

To adapt, cities must acknowledge that drought "is not a temporary condition we can expect to go away, but rather something we have to deal with," said John Berggren, water policy adviser for Western Resource Advocates, based in Boulder, Colorado.

What does a sustainable Colorado River system look like? "We have a long way to go" to answer that question, Berggren said.

Panic time?

While it's easy to imagine that the drought spells apocalypse, experts say what prolonged drought really requires is the appropriate response and a willingness to adapt.

A report this spring from Arizona State University's Kyl Center for Water Policy argues that "the perception that Arizona is worst off among the western states is wrong."

Irrigated agriculture consumes 74 percent of the state's water supply. But as populations boom, more farmland is becoming neighborhoods, driving down water use.

"Farming in the Sun Corridor faces a genuine crisis, but that does not necessarily translate into urban shortages," the report said. "Of course, the fact that the Sun Corridor's dominant city is named after a bird that periodically immolates itself clearly invites scrutiny."

It's not that Phoenix won't have water in 20 years, but rather that to ensure that it does, industry might need to rethink why Arizona, which is mostly desert, is one of the top three market-vegetable-producing states.

Berggren said it's time to start strategizing, suggesting that states might need to pay farmers to plow their land without seeding it temporarily to destroy weeds and conserve moisture in the soil.

"If push comes to shove, they might need to go out and buy water rights from farmers, and those farms might go out of business," he said. That's not an idea to take lightly, and also not one to disregard. "We can have thriving communities, growing communities, diverse communities in the West. We just have to do it in a different way."