Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and California all share water from the Colorado River, a hugely important water resource that sustains 40 million people in those states, supports 15 percent of the nation’s food supply, and fills two of largest water reserves in the country. The severe shortages of rain and snowfall have hurt California’s $46 billion agricultural industry and helped raise national awareness of the longer-term shortages that are affecting the entire Colorado River basin.
When officials divvied up rights to Colorado River water nearly a century ago, it happened to be a wetter period than usual. The result? The states vastly overestimated the river’s annual flow. Today, the river’s reserves are especially low and states are still claiming the same amount of water from the Colorado River that they always have — which is 1.4 trillion gallons a year more than the river actually produces.
California uses almost one-third of the entire Colorado River flow, having a larger share than any other Colorado River basin state. California gets 16 percent of its surface water — water that comes from snowpack, streams, and rivers — from the Colorado River via two huge aqueducts. The California Aqueduct runs beneath mountains into Riverside County and eventually toward Los Angeles, providing a substantial supply for both L.A. and San Diego. The All-American Canal moves water along the tail-end of the Colorado River near the Mexican border, nourishing one of the state’s most valuable agriculture areas, Imperial County, where a large proportion of the nation’s winter fruits and vegetables are grown. Of the seven basin states, California holds the most senior legal rights to the Colorado, which entitle it to keep drawing water even as Lake Mead runs dry and the rest of the Colorado River states suffer through shortages. That means in the short term, not much that California does will change the situation on the Colorado, unless it were to voluntarily surrender more of its entitlement to the river. But should Colorado River shortages worsen to the point that the states ever renegotiate that division of water, a reduction of California’s Colorado River water rights could have a brutal impact on California’s remaining supplies. Officials in California, like every other state in the region, are now facing a “new normal,”
For all of the warnings people in the West get about taking shorter showers and turning off sprinklers, the fact remains that agriculture uses the most water, by far. Farming and agriculture use more than 70 percent of the water that flows from the Colorado River to the seven river basin states.
Most of California is experiencing “extreme to exceptional drought,” and the crisis has now entered its fourth year. This month, signaling how serious the current situation is, state officials announced the first cutback to farmers’ water rights since 1977, and ordered cities and towns to cut water use by as much as 36 percent. Those who don’t comply with the cuts will face fines, but some farmers are already ignoring the new rules, or challenging them in court. The drought shows no sign of letting up any time soon, and the state’s agricultural industry is suffering. A recent study by U.C. Davis researchers projected that the drought would cost California’s economy $2.7 billion in 2015 alone.
Cotton is one of the thirstiest crops a farmer can grow, especially in a desert. As it happens, many of the crops that use less water entitle farmers to fewer federal subsidies, and so farmers don’t have much of an incentive to switch crops. Though cotton production has dropped steeply in California, since 1995, California farmers have gotten $3 billion in federal subsidies to grow it. On top of subsidies, “Use it or Lose It” clauses in state water laws actually encourage farmers to flood their fields with much more water than they need lest they lose the right to that amount of water in the future.
Calculations by the Pacific Institute indicate that, by eating food grown in California, each American indirectly uses more than 300 gallons of the state’s water each week. Almonds, which require a comparatively huge amount of water to produce, have become the most visible scapegoat for an enormous problem of which they are only one small part. One almond takes almost an entire gallon of water to produce — but so does a tiny slice of cantaloupe, four strawberries, two florets of broccoli, or a fraction of an egg. In fact, some of the biggest “water hogs,” indirectly, are meat and dairy. Cows and chickens and other animals eat a lot of crops, which in turn require a lot of water. So it takes 86 gallons of water to make just 1.75 ounces of beef. Some research has suggested that the country’s meat industries create such a high demand for water-thirsty feed crops, that if every American ate meat one less day a week, it could save as much water as flows through the Colorado River in an entire year.