Analysis: As Colorado River dwindles, water expert says ag must reform

On Tuesday, the Interior Department’s new water restrictions for the Colorado River offered a warning: If stakeholders fail to make further cuts in usage, one of the nation’s most vital watersheds could face, according to assistant secretary Tanya Trujillo, “catastrophic collapse.” Chronic water overuse and a 23-year megadrought have pushed the Colorado River to a breaking point. Lakes Powell and Mead, the two largest reservoirs in the country, could go completely dry within decades; water could stop flowing through the Grand Canyon even sooner.

But despite the dire rhetoric, the newly issued water cuts were far more moderate and incremental than they could have been. Last June, federal officials gave the seven Colorado River Basin states an ultimatum: come up with a plan to cut their annual water usage by a whopping 25 percent or the federal government would do it for them. After negotiating and squabbling over cuts for most of the summer, the states blew past their August deadline. In response, the Interior Department announced it would slash Arizona’s 2023 water deliveries by an additional 3 percent — a painful bite, considering that the state lost 18 percent of its historical allocation in 2022, but a less severe cut than many expected. Meanwhile, New Mexico’s water would be cut by an additional 3 percent and Nevada’s by 1 percent.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the Colorado River. Coursing from the Rocky Mountains in Colorado to Baja California, Mexico, the river provides drinking water to roughly 40 million people in seven western states, including major urban centers like Los Angeles and Phoenix. Thanks to Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam, it also supplies hydroelectricity to about 5 million consumers. Agriculture consumes about 80 percent of the basin’s flow.

“If the seven basin states are gonna reduce their use by 2 to 4 million acre-feet, there are going to be some really angry people,” Robert Glennon, one of the country’s leading experts in water policy and law, told me earlier this week. “And probably a lot of them will be farmers.”

I called Glennon, who teaches at the University of Arizona, to discuss the federal government’s Colorado River strategy and the policies that could help western farmers adapt to a drier, hotter world. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Did the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation go further than you thought it would, or was this announcement more of a nothing burger to you?

I don’t think it’s a nothing burger at all. Some environmentalists have said, “This is kicking the can down the road. But I think those who’ve been looking at how the Bureau has interacted with the states over the last 20 years know that the Bureau is not going to go very far down this path unless it has the support of the states — it needs that. And [Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton] wants to build pressure on those who aren’t really cooperating in these negotiations. She’s still in control. Have no doubt about that.

Did the states blow their August deadline? Yes. So that means they need to continue to negotiate. Some terrific proposals have been made, and people are having some really candid conversations. I think we’ll see some progress, but it didn’t happen on Tuesday.

Farmers may need to fundamentally change the way they grow food in the Colorado River Basin if the river is to survive. Before we get into those changes, why are we growing food in the high deserts of Arizona and in semiarid California in the first place? 

Well, farmers have been here — in the case of the Imperial Irrigation District in California — for 120 years. What are you gonna do, shut them down? Of course not. The question is what might change now? And how do you protect agriculture from going under? Because what we seriously don’t want — whether it’s for food security reasons or for the sake of fairness and equity — is to harm our rural agricultural areas.

Fortunately, we don’t have to. There’s a lot of room for keeping ag alive. There are ways to encourage farmers to move [away] from flood irrigation, in which farmers open a canal gate and let the land flood. You get tremendous evaporation loss, you end up percolating pesticides and fertilizers into the soil — it’s just generally a bad system. There are much more modern, efficient systems, such as sprinkler systems and even more efficient drip or micro-irrigation systems. But they are expensive, and many farmers are cash poor but land rich. So the simplest thing to do is to help farmers pay for more efficient irrigation systems.

But if we pay for farmers’ new, efficient irrigation systems, might they use those conserved gallons to expand their businesses, to grow more alfalfa or lettuce than before? 

Right. We can’t just let that happen. It has to be clearly understood what the farmer will get out of it, and it’s not a 20 percent bump in production. What we really need is for farmers to grow the same amount of product with slightly less water.

That leads to a bigger question: Should we regulate what people grow, and when they grow it, in this region of the country, given the severity of the water crisis?

No, I’m not in favor of that. I think it’s perfect folly to think that the editorial boards of the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times and The Washington Post ought to get together and tell farmers what to grow. I’m in favor of using carrots rather than sticks. Create some incentives for farmers to alter their crop patterns — and give them the ability to sell or lease the water they save to others who desperately need it.

So markets can help reallocate our finite water supply?

Yes. Markets are one tool, but not the only one. There’s conservation, and farmers aren’t the only ones who’ll need to conserve. Let’s talk about lawns. And we’ve got to have a major uptick in water recycling and reuse. Then there’s desalination, and [appropriate] price signals.

We need to start with a human right to water. That’s the morally right thing to do. We’ll guarantee the 12 or 15 gallons per day that the average American uses — either for free or for dirt cheap. And then we can have an adult conversation about how to price the 99 percent of our water supply that’s left. Those who want swimming pools, or rose bushes where they are not naturally grown, can pay more for it.

Would this pricing system also apply to agriculture?

Yes. There could be no exemptions. We’d have to apply the price increases in agriculture delicately and over time, but no one gets a pass on paying more for water. No one can be excused.

At the end of the day, I’m quite optimistic, because I truly know that we have the skills and the tools in our tool chest to take care of this water crisis. What we need is more courage, and the political will to act.