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The West is the driest it has been in 1,200 years, raising questions about a liveable future

The trees are dying. The river beds are empty. Lake Mead’s water level has dropped to its lowest point in history and the governor of Utah has asked residents to pray for rain.

Water is increasingly scarce in the western United States – where 72 percent of the region is in “severe” drought, 26 percent is in exceptional drought, and populations are booming.

Insufficient monsoon rains last summer and poor winter snowfall have left states like Arizona, Utah and Nevada without the usual amount of water they need, and the forecast for the season summer rains are not promising.

This year’s aridity is occurring against the backdrop of a 20-year drought. The past two decades have been the driest or the second driest of the past 1,200 years in the West, posing existential questions about how to ensure a liveable future in the region.

It’s time to ask, “Is this a drought, or is this just the way the hydrology of the Colorado River is going to be?” Said John Entsminger, CEO of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

A parched city of sin

Greater Las Vegas is one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country, home to over 2.2 million people, and it receives just over 4 inches of rain in a good year.

About 90 percent of the water comes from Lake Mead, the reservoir on the Colorado River formed by the Hoover Dam, which is currently 36 percent full.

The drought has been so persistent that the Southern Nevada Water Authority and many other groups in the region have spent the past 20 years preparing for a drier future.

“It doesn’t surprise us,” Entsminger said. “Since 2002, our population has increased by almost 50%, or roughly 750,000 people over the past 19 years or so, and over the same time period, our aggregate Colorado River depletions have decreased by 23%.

The good news, he said, is that per capita water use is down 40%. Indoor water is recycled in southern Nevada, where residents are paid to replace grass with drip irrigated landscaping.

It’s one of the many ways the region faces a 21st century Colorado River with much less water than it did a century ago.

Image: A water canal in Carson City, Nevada (Ty O’Neil / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

Entsminger said the region needs to “dramatically increase our conservation and rethink how we use almost every gallon of water in order to accommodate this type of future development.”

This includes a new law that will declare more than 30 percent of the weed illegal in southern Nevada.

“The future of the Colorado River in the 21st century is almost certainly a lot less water than we had in the 20th century,” he said, and that will require collaboration between the United States and Mexico. “The challenge before us is how seven states and two countries can all cooperate to find a way to manage in the decades to come with much less water than we thought.”

“The focal point of global warming”

Weed bans won’t save the West, especially a place in the middle of the desert and in full swing like Phoenix.

Phoenix is ​​the “target of global warming, warming and drying out,” said Andrew Ross, professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University and author of a book on the largest city in the world. Arizona titled “Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City.”

Before it was Phoenix, the indigenous Hohokam people lived on the land for centuries. “They had a wonderful irrigation system and they subsisted in the desert with their canal system for over 1,000 years,” Ross said, but a severe drought forced them to abandon the site. Phoenix is ​​built on top of the ruins of the city of the Hohokam people, and the canal system that brings water to Phoenix was built on the path first used by the Hohokam.

“The allegory is built into the city,” Ross said. The test is whether history repeats itself.

The West is the driest it has been in 1,200 years, raising questions about a liveable future

IMAGE: Corrales, New Mexico (Susan Montoya Bryan / AP)

Phoenix is ​​a growth-obsessed city dominated by single-family home real estate development. “You can’t look to the long term future of these developments without concluding that the challenges will only get worse with each passing year and with each new low density housing subdivision built,” Ross said.

When he was writing his book on Phoenix 10 years ago, someone described Phoenix in Ross as a city of “people who build houses for people who build houses”. The population of the metropolitan area stands at nearly 5 million and is expected to increase by around 2 million over the next 30 years.

Utah is in a similar situation. Its population has grown by 18.4% over the past decade, making it the fastest growing state in the country, according to the latest census data.

The state government recently allocated $ 280 million for water projects, including $ 100 million for conservation. Farmers, who consume the most water in the state, no longer flood fields to irrigate them; instead, they use more targeted and less expensive irrigation methods. Utah is so dry that state officials could ban fireworks altogether, fearing wildfires.

“I’ve already asked all people in Utah to conserve water by avoiding long showers, fixing leaky faucets, and planting water-efficient landscapes. But I’m afraid those efforts aren’t enough to do it. protect us, ”Governor Spencer Cox recently said in a statement.

To adapt, cities must recognize that drought “is not a temporary condition that we can expect, but rather something that we have to deal with,” said John Berggren, policy adviser to the water for Western Resource Advocates, based in Boulder, Colorado.

What does a sustainable Colorado River system look like? “We have a long way to go” to answer that question, said Berggren.

Time for panic?

While it’s easy to imagine drought equating to apocalypse, experts say what a prolonged drought really requires is an appropriate response and a willingness to adapt.

A report released this spring by the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University argues that “the perception that Arizona is in the worst situation among western states is false.”

Irrigated agriculture consumes 74 percent of the state’s water supply. But as the population explodes, more and more farmland becomes neighborhoods, reducing water use.

“Farming in the Sun Corridor faces a real crisis, but this does not necessarily translate into urban shortages,” the report says. “Of course, the fact that the dominant city in the Sun Corridor is named after a bird that periodically sets itself on fire clearly invites close scrutiny.”

It’s not that Phoenix won’t have water in 20 years, but rather that to make sure, the industry may need to rethink why Arizona, which is predominantly desert, is one of the three main vegetable producing states in the market.

Berggren said it was time to start strategizing, suggesting states may have to pay farmers to plow their land without temporarily planting it to destroy weeds and keep moisture in the soil.

“If the situation arises, they may have to buy water rights from farmers, and these farms may close,” he said. It is not an idea to be taken lightly, nor to be neglected. “We can have thriving communities, growing communities, diverse communities in the West. We just have to do it in a different way.”

The West is the driest it has been in 1,200 years, raising questions about a liveable future

Image: Thoreau, New Mexico (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

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