Declaring a Water Shortage

Terry Schwadron
4 min readAug 22, 2021


Terry H. Schwadron

Aug. 22, 2021

With the world’s eyes on Afghanistan, there was less attention this week than there might have been by a declaration by the federal government that the 20 years of drought in the West has reached dangerous levels.

What happened last week was the the first-ever official water shortage declaration on the Colorado River,and specifically in Lake Mead, one of the river’s main reservoirs. The declaration triggers all sorts of important events, including water cut-offs for at least three states and pending enforced conservation measures across more. The dryness is affecting susceptibility to wildfires.

Arizona farmers, for example, will be cut off from much of the water on which they have relied for decades, forcing fields to lie fallow. Nevada and New Mexico will see water cutbacks starting shortly, there are warnings of possible regional electrical outage, and significant water conservations measures look for California, as well as the upper basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah.

For anyone who has spent time in the West, water issues top just about all other politics. Water policy shaped agriculture, business, leisure, housing development and jobs. Shortages affect everything from fighting forest fires to maintaining various endangered animal and plant species to shaping how and where we live. Water cutbacks, affecting upwards of 40 million people in the West who rely on the river for at least part of their water supply, clearly are on their way in coming years.

For those not in the West, the water wars are important harbingers of shortages in food and lots more already evident from climate disruption. Today, the warming climate continues to reduce how much water flows into the Colorado River from rain and melting snow, but it is headed your way as well.

Western Lifeline

Simply put, the Colorado River is essential to social, economic and environmental vitality of the West, providing water to irrigate millions of acres of farmland and low-carbon energy. While the problem has been building for a long time, this declaration is a kind of emergency beacon, a pivot towards the effects of Big Drought.

The declaration is based on measurements at Lake Mead that show the lowest level since the 1930s.

Following the recent UN report on the acceleration of climate changes, we have a building case for Washington and other governments to pay attention to something other than their own reelection campaigns.

Naturally, solutions will require significant sacrifices just of the sort that we are seeing rejected in public health measures. This will require more than cooperation from owners of backyard swimming pool owners.

It will also require using a variety of technological innovations and public policies, ranging from development of less water-needy plants to better irrigation techniques to less wasteful urban developments, and maybe, finally, more emphasis on desalination technologies, say people who know about such things.

The alternatives include pumping out much more ground water — which carries its own environmental risks — or doing with less water usage, which simply annoys people. The continuing criticism that Donald Trump aimed on water-conserving toilets and showers comes to mind as an example of not wanting to take water policy seriously.

Expecting that people and governments will naturally seek out ways to manage water sounds a whole lot less reliable than thinking people would take vaccines to prevent a pandemic from spreading — a campaign that shows lasting hesitancy among a third of the nation. If public health education is a problem, imagine what it will take to explain a need to live differently with fewer water sources.

“As this inexorable-seeming decline in the supply continues, the shortages that we’re beginning to see implemented are only going to increase,” Jennifer Pitt, who directs the Colorado River program at the National Audubon Society, told The New York Times. “Once we’re on that train, it’s not clear where it stops.”

Emotional Politics

The politics of water are often emotional — people want to protect their chosen way of life — rather than scientific. Water seems a rich lode for culture wars to come.

In recent years, the federal government, the states around the Colorado River, Mexico and Native American tribes have been working with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to develop a new long-term management plan for the Colorado River, due by 2026. Those efforts have called on scientists to use

satellites to improve water modeling and prediction, industrial water treatment and recycling and sustainable policies. Many Western congressional offices are backing specific competing bills to address the drought.

A 2020 Gallup Arizona Project survey conducted for the Center for the Future of Arizona found that residents identified a secure water supply as a top priority for the state, with broad bipartisan support.

The new Senate-passed infrastructure bill, which still must pass in the House, includes several billion dollars that could help the region to improve so-called natural infrastructure, including forests, watersheds and underground aquifers, which could help bolster the supply, or at least slow the decline.

Lake Mead now contains about 12 million acre-feet of water, far below its capacity of nearly 30 million acre-feet. The last time it was anywhere near full was two decades ago. Since then, much of the Southwest has been mired in a drought that climate scientists say rivals some long-lasting droughts in the past 2,000 years.

Drink up slowly.