Water crisis out west. AZ,CO,CA and NV

I live in the eastern US but our son and his family are in AZ. I spent time in AZ (Yuma) for work before retiring for good. Seems like every time I open the paper or listen to the news I am hearing more and more on the worsening issues concerning the water and in particular the Colorado River. Is there any fix? Will weather conditions change and rains come in to help at some point? Does mankind stand a chance against mother nature and what is currently playing out? A very recent article from the WAPO regarding the issues facing the Colorado River. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/interactive/2022/colorado-river-crisis/?fbclid=IwAR2haBirEmQUYT3NJ5PMA6DxoXzw_UzeurUPywQ6sDBQ1sEX7Ael4YIqDbs

One of two things needs to happen: the western US needs to get more water, or the demand for the extant water needs to stop exceeding supply. Climate change has all but guaranteed that the current drought conditions are in fact the new normal and the halcyon days of plentiful water are no longer.

So there goes supply.

A significant portion of western US water usage (about 80%) goes to irrigate commercial food crops. While some may sneeringly joke about avocado toast and almond butter body soaps, the reality is that we humans like to eat, we like cheap foods, and much of western US agriculture satisfies those two points.

We aren’t going to be taking almond and avocado orchards out of production anytime soon. So there’s demand remaining static.

There are a lot of ideas being floated about:

  1. Massive, industrial scale desalinization plants along the pacific coast.
    Problem: what to do with the extra salt? How do you get the electric power to run them? How do you even make enough water to satisfy the agricultural needs of California alone, let alone the other states, let alone again the population centers and non-agricultural users? Desalinization isn’t the answer.

I live in a major farming community in VA and know the amount of water needed for crops. But we are nowhere near the shape all are on the west coast and as a matter of fact we had a pretty good wet (snow/rain) winter and an equally wet spring. My son, when we talk about this, says the building of new homes do not slow down at all in the area in and around Phoenix so apparently someone somewhere is not getting the message.

(Submitted too soon).

  1. Pipe water in from the Great Lakes. About as stupid as it sounds, and even if it was feasible from an engineering standpoint, it’s not legal – Canada IIRC has some say in how Great Lakes water is used, and pumping it to avocado orchards in California isn’t in the contract.

  2. Reduce usage to meet available allotments. An idea already discussed and discarded.

  3. Pray for rain. Been doing that for two decades, hasn’t happened yet.

So we won’t change our habits to live with the current situation and we won’t be getting any more water any time soon. Thus the closed FQ answer we have is basically: we’re screwed.

We’ve got a thread going very much in alignment with this one:

OK, there’s the first issue. News tends to sensationalize problems. Not to minimize the seriousness of the dry conditions, but it’s not climate Armageddon out here. Take a look at that other thread - there are a number of ideas and concepts being discussed - more factual than newsy.

However, a large percentage of crops grown out west are exported to other countries, which is nice for the growers, but does not add to our tables here at home. I say some modest reduction in acreage for some of the thirsty crops will very much help the situation, without much risk to our domestic food supply. We can afford to grow food in many of these places, but we may not be able to afford exporting food from them.

Residential water use is a small fraction of overall usage. Agriculture uses the lions-share of water. And from what I have seen in the large metros like Phoenix and Las Vegas, xeriscaping is encouraged, so that helps residents use even less water. Of course, if the rivers dry-up there will be no hydro power, so no electricity to run the air conditioner, but that is another problem.

I think this is part of the problem. Some people (not you, but people who’s job it is to be aware of these things and work to find solutions) see that the east coast has lots of rain, or there’s snow in Maine, or Florida got hit by a hurricane that dumped a foot of rain in 45 minutes or whatever, and say “See? There’s no shortage of water. We just need to wait. Next year will be fine, promise, so lets just continue using what we have at current rates because it’s a nothingburger.”

Thank you! I knew there was another thread discussing this topic from a slightly different angle but could not find it.

OP, there’s lots of good info in that thread as well.

But there must be more sensible locations, right? Even if outside the U.S.

No. Just a couple of years ago, CA had record rainfall. While yes, the West will get warmer, climate change does not say we will get less rain necessarily.

We should. Reduce almond crops by just 20%, and that is more water saving that everyone stopping watering their lawns. 10% reduction in AG water is close to all the water used by residential.


Really bad idea. For less energy, and no salt issue, we just purify the waste water. That would also help ocean pollution.

Small modular nuclear reactors. Pump a very dense saline to the Nevada salt flats. Package and sell some salt in the aquarium industry.

Necessarily? No. The thing about climate change is that it’s, well, changing. And how that will look in decades or centuries hence is something of a crapshoot, but still likely to get warmer and, in the case of western US, drier. And genuine certified smart people, who study this stuff day in and day out, say that the southwestern North America has been in drought since 2000.

2000–2021 was the driest 22-yr period since at least 800.


At 22-yr long, the turn-of-the-twenty-first-century drought is highly likely to continue through a 23rd year and match the duration of the shortest of the reconstructed megadroughts (1571–1593; Fig. 2b). We reach this conclusion by conducting simulations in which we repeatedly determine how long the current drought would last if it were immediately followed by each of the 1,183 40-yr sequences in our 800–2021 SWNA soil moisture record (Extended Data Fig. 10).

One wet season does not eliminate a 20+ year long drought. We need sustained rainfall over several/many years to even begin to undo the damage that the current drought has wrought.

I’ll accept your numbers as accurate, but that still doesn’t address 1) the remainder of the crops that utilize irrigation for sustained growth, and 2) the continued need for water to maintain forests and grasslands and the currently quickly depleting yearly snowpack that those ecosystems rely on.

A good idea, and I think that speaks to what I think will be a (small) part of the answer: we’re going to have to incorporate and utilize a number of different remedies to address the water shortage, just to keep residential usage at current levels.

As far as agriculture goes, I say again: as long as this drought continues we’re screwed.

Then we’d have two Salton Seas on our hands, with the accompanying pollution nightmares.

Well for millions I really hope it all works out. My son and his wife/son love AZ and living out there as both of them, not my. grandson, grew up on the east coast.

Thanks. Have posted very little in here and when I started this it showed me a few possible similar threads but none were applicable. Didn’t really need to reinvent the wheel so to speak.

Even if California has good rain, that doesn’t solve the problem for the rest of the west. I also recall warnings that the level in the Ogallala aquifer under the midwest was becoming depleted.

During the drought in California several years ago, it was reported that many farmers were wasting water with bad irrigation practices, because if they stopped using their allotment there was a likelihood the state would take it, never to give it back. (Much like the old joke about civil service budgets - if you don’t use your full budget this year, your budget is cut next year; so everyone got a new desk last February.) Someone told me that when they were in Arizona, many of the houses had landscaped gravel with a few shrubs instead of lawns - but the golf courses were still green…

Places like Israel have made a point of using high-tech irrigation like drip irrigation using buried pipes, to make the most of a scarce resource. OTOH, that hasn’t stopped them from almost draining the Jordan River, such that the Dead Sea is dropping a meter a year. Similarly, the Aral Sea is almost gone, thanks to over-irrigation going back to the Soviet era. Part of it has been reclaimed by damming a constriction point across the north part. And the Colorado is pretty much non-existent by the time it flows across the border.

The simple rule of thumb is - if things can’t go on like this - they won’t. If there’s no replacement water, then the people will have suffer toilets and showers that suck, high water bills, and eventually will have to move.

I do question whether it is possible to pump water across the Rockies in sufficient quantity to alleviate shortages. I don’t think most people appreciate the volume used. I recall pictures of the diameter of pipes under construction that would provide merely additional feed to NYC for example. That was gravity fed- how do you pump that much volume uphill, and with what energy? At that point it gets really expensive.

These are the kinds of ‘solutions’ that just beg for additional problems. In addition to the creation of another runoff duststorm hellscape, it is necessary to backflush reverse osmosis filters to be able to maintain them for use, so it isn’t as if you can just scrape off the salts. The “aquarium industry” is not hurting for supplies of salt, and generally speaking the idea of pumping enough volumes of water from the coast to the interior (or across the country from the Great Lakes) is risible given the energy and throughfare issues. “Small modular nuclear reactors” is one of those concepts that seems very useful when you see it in Popular Science but is actually a very inefficient use of the already scarce and expensive resource of low enriched uranium, and the last thing we should be doing with non-sustainable energy supplies is using it to produce non-sustainable fresh water for agriculture and industry.

The real solution is to put the crops where the water is. There is little we can practically do about the drought conditions other than avoid overtaxing already declining supplies of water, and unfortunately that means that long term habitability in the American Southwest is going to require shrinking populations and the corresponding demand upon water supplies, which we can start by eliminating grass lawns and golf courses with artificial streams and ponds running through them.

Then there is the Ogallala (High Plains) Aquifer…


No, but yes. The problem is average rainfall may stay roughly the same (averaged over a couple of decades), but warming means other, less obvious effects. One is even more feast or famine yo-yoing from year to year than even famously variable CA has been used to - more drought years, more flood years. Two is a shorter, more concentrated average rain-year (again, averaged over decades) with less spread in the Fall/Spring months - this means more drying between rainy seasons and longer/worse fire seasons.

Three, and most importantly, less moisture falling as snow, quicker snow melts, less snow pack. Much of CA’s water capture/management system is traditionally built around the snow pack/snow melt. It is not designed to capture liquid water nearly as effectively. This can be engineered around a bit, but not quickly or cheaply. It might take decades.

Fully agreed here - this is the partial solution that needs more emphasis. Though I will add the caveat that though wastewater reuse is cheaper than desalination that doesn’t mean it is cheap and it does create waste brine, just less concentrated and toxic than desalination.

Solutions? Channelling Bobcat Goldtwaite “DON’T LIVE/MANUFACTURE/FARM IN A ^@%$ DESERT!”. Or if you do, expect to pay freaking market rates for scarce commodities.

As a lifelong Chicagoan, believe me, I appreciate the allure of living someplace warmer. But this just strikes me as one of the simpler problems facing Americans.

Pretty much every time I’m speaking with someone from an area I’m not familiar with, one of my first questions is, “Where do you get your water from?” It gives me comfort having Lake Michigan right there. And it bugs me when people think IT is infinite.

If you’re typing this on something battery powered … it’s not all doom and gloom:

Is that going to massively screw up something else ? Of course. We’re Americans (many of us). It’s what we do.