Water Wars: A US Legacy of Poor Natural Resource Management

Last week, Mother Jones reported that 5,433 people living in the world’s seventh largest economy have no running water—nothing coming out of their kitchen or bathroom faucets. This headline, which may seem more appropriate in a post-apocalyptic epoch, is the reality for residents in California’s Central Valley, a region which is being referred to by many as ground zero of California’s four-year drought.

While the rest of California is still able to rely on public water systems in the midst of the drought, residents of Tulare County don’t have that luxury. Instead, residents are becoming accustomed to relying on private domestic wells that provide access to groundwater between twenty-five to fifty feet below ground. Between the absence of replenishing rainfall and the significant use of water by farmers (who maintain a significant portion of Tulare’s economy and the nation’s food supply), thousands of wells are drying up. Of the 1,200 Tulare County households that have dry wells, nearly all of them have signed up for a free bottled water delivery service managed by local officials. According to Mother Jones, the county is also providing public portable showers and toilets in front of a church in East Porterville. Tulare’s severe water crisis, however, is just the latest development in a decades-long impact of what is panning out to be one of the greatest natural resource management blunders in human history. California and seven other states get a majority of their water from a single source: the Colorado River. This river has been the victim of systemic and structural mismanagement stemming from passé “water laws” that not only waste water at an alarming rate but also contribute to global warming. According to journalist Abrahm Lustgarten, author of the “Killing the Colorado” series on Propublica that lays out the historical roots of today’s “water wars,” four key narratives are at play in California’s water crisis. First, the amount of Colorado River water that was divvied up between seven basin states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, California, and Nevada) in the Colorado River Compact made nearly a century ago is approximately 1.4 trillion gallons more than the river actually produces. Second, industrial agriculture uses upwards of 70 percent of the river’s water supply to sustain the alfalfa/cotton industries and America’s meat-heavy diet. In fact, farmers who already have a cotton crop are incentivized to continue planting the water-guzzling crop with subsidies as part of the US Farm Bill—as are corn, rice, wheat, and alfalfa crops. Third, farmers are incentivized to waste water as a result of an archaic “use it or lose it” clause, which requires holders of water rights to maximize “beneficial use” of water or have their unused share of water reappropriated, resulting in farmers using as much water as allowed simply to keep their rights to it. The fourth issue is the Navajo Generating Station, a power plant that pumps Colorado River water up 3,000 feet and across 336 miles to Phoenix and Tucson. This enormous feat in human engineering contributes to global warming by consuming about 22,000 tons of coal each day—that’s 16 million tons of carbon dioxide every year just to move around water. By contributing to global warming and air pollution, the Navajo Generating plant is indirectly heightening the negative effects of the drought in California. As greenhouse gases continue to trap and maintain the heat produced by the four-year drought, the agricultural industry will suffer even more, wildlife will be put in harm’s way, and wildfires will become more deadly and widespread. This fourth issue was directly addressed by the President last week. On August 3 President Obama launched the Clean Power Plan, what he called an “important and historic step in reducing carbon pollution from power plants.” This plan, two years in the making, is unique in that it does not propose a one-size-fits-all solution for every state. It gives each state the ability to tackle their energy pollution in the way that is most manageable for them. For example, though the Clean Power Plan is too late to mitigate the effects of California’s current drought, by mandating a 38 percent cut in emissions rate from the Navajo Generating Station, it will ensure that future droughts in the area will have less severe effects than we are seeing today. But by directly targeting coal-mining plants, Obama will draw the ire and lamentation of those who make a living off of its use. Within hours, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, echoing the thoughts of coal miners across America, warned of the crucial jobs that will be lost due to Obama’s stringent and, to some groups, impossible demands. In response, Obama rebutted that the development of solar as well as other forms of renewable energy are proven to create more jobs at a faster rate than the coal industry. The Clean Power Plan is not perfect, but it’s an important first step in mitigating the various negative impacts of the historic blunders that continue to plague the water system of California and its neighbors.