Interest compounds over time, allowing a relatively small amount of savings, or an apparently containable debt to grow impressively – sometimes frighteningly – large.
But the same thing is true of political dishonesty. The consequences of what look like small adjustments to demonstrable reality to push a political agenda can grow, over time, into huge and serious problems whose reality can no longer be easily fixed.
For almost one hundred years, the purposeful miscalculations of politicians with a growth agenda – economic and population growth based on unrealistic assumptions about the amount of water generated by the Colorado River – have led to expensive overbuilding of infrastructure and dangerous over-allocation of that water.
The results are clearly visible in the so-called bathtub rings that mark the shores of the Colorado River’s two great reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, rings that mark where water was once stored, before excessive allocation and heedless overuse began to drain both man-made lakes.
But, as is often the case, the visible signs, obvious – even spectacular – as they are, tell only part of the story. Harder to see are the invisible wounds of decades of avoidable, or at least manageable conflict, between regions…the Upper and Lower Basins of the Colorado, and among the states that make them up…Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico in the Upper Basin…Nevada, Arizona and California in the Lower Basin.
Unrealistic designations of who should get how much of the Colorado River’s annual flows have also contributed to international conflict between the United States and Mexico, especially at the river’s mouth, where it flows into the Sea of Cortez, or doesn’t, – because in many years all the water has been used up in America before it gets to Mexico.
The worst part of the Colorado River water story is that much of this conflict and often ill-advised spending could have been avoided had the politicians bent on developing the American Southwest listened to the advice offered them by some of the leading hydrologists monitoring the Colorado, ironically, on assignment from the U.S. government. As E.C. Larue, who first published a report on water sources of the Colorado in 1916 and continued publishing and testifying for another 10 years put it: “We were sent to secure certain information for the government, and we got it.”
What LaRue and at least two colleagues from the 1920s, and successors in the 1940s and 1960s, right up to the present day concluded – more or less unanimously – was as clear as the waters flowing south from Colorado. All of it, all that runoff from snowpack and springs at the top of the Rocky Mountains “is not sufficient,” LaRue wrote in 1916, “to irrigate all the irrigable lands lying within the basin.”
Or to make the message even simpler, when it comes to potentially developable land, you can’t have it all, and when it comes to river water, even if you could have it all, it wouldn’t be enough.
Today, as the facts of Colorado Basin hydrology become inescapable, the folks seeking the fairest division of water resources are confronted by two more, old, old problems that somehow are presented as if they were new: continued population growth and climate change.
John Fleck is Professor of Practice in Water Policy and Governance and Director of the University of New Mexico Water Resources Program. Much of his career was spent in journalism, focused since the 1980s on the interface between science and political and policy processes, with special emphasis on climate and water in the southwestern United States. He was the Water Resource program’s writer-in-residence for three years before transitioning to academia full time in 2016. In the field of water resources, his primary interest is in nurturing the collaborative water governance needed to adapt to scarcity in the southwestern United States as populations grow while climate change reduces water supplies. That goal animates the Water Resources Program, where he and his colleagues work with graduate students who will become the region’s future water managers. In both the Water Resources Program and the Department of Economics, he also works on translational activities – helping make the technical work done in academia of maximum benefit to political and policy processes.