The federal government’s recent announcement that it would impose significant cutbacks in water allocations to the seven states reliant on water from the drought-stricken Colorado River is the latest sign that climate change is ravaging global water systems.
Arizona will lose more than 20 percent of its water allocation, and Nevada 8 percent. Northern Mexico, which is also reliant on the Colorado River and has been provided 1.5 million acre feet of water per year from the river since a water-sharing treaty between the two countries was signed in 1944, is being hit hard as well, with a 7 percent reduction in its water allocation from the river.
Thirty Indigenous tribes, which have land in the Colorado Basin — and which, as a result of a 1908 Supreme Court decision, have water rights from rivers running through their territories — are also preparing for a more arid future. Some are cutting back their water contributions to state reservoirs; others, in a letter to the Department of the Interior, have noted that they aren’t being adequately consulted on fundamental decisions regarding water usage and distribution in the region.
In Europe, much of the continent is facing its worst drought in half a millennium, with water levels on rivers like the Danube so low that sunken World War II ships are being exposed above the water line. Major hydroelectric generators in France, Italy and Spain are seeing drops in electricity production of 30 percent this summer. Crop yields across the continent are dwindling as the weather heats up and the rains fail to materialize, with the production of many staples forecast to decline by up to 9 percent over the next year.
In China, crops yields are also being hammered by the hottest (and longest) heat wave on record, and so worried is the government that it is launching a series of “Hail Mary” attempts to seed the clouds in the skies above the dwindling Yangtze River with rain producing molecules.
India’s crop yields are down so much this year, due to climate-related changes, that it has imposed strict limits on food exports.
Each of these crises in and of themselves has the potential to destabilize global food markets. Taken as a whole, they represent a growing climate change-induced catastrophe.
In the American West, which scientists now believe is experiencing its worst drought in 1,200 years — tens of millions of people have migrated into the region since the federal water compacts around Colorado River water usage were signed a century ago. Even in non-drought years, the growing population routinely overdraws groundwater supplies, reducing stores of water that accumulated over vast geological timespans. In the course of just four human generations, areas that once were simply desert have been converted into water-intensive global agribusiness hubs, and into mega-cities such as Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas, evermore reliant on the waters from the Colorado River that are carefully stored in, and distributed from, Lake Mead and Lake Powell. Now, with these two vast reservoirs at only 28 percent of their capacity, many of those areas have to find ways to collectively reduce their water usage next year by between 2 and 4 million acre-feet, or a third of the annual flow of the river in an average year, which is what federal authorities believe is necessary to bring the river back to health. It’s a staggering task.
Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah, located in the upper basin of the river, are also facing large water supply deficits, though not nearly on the scale faced by their southern neighbors. So far, unlike Arizona and Nevada, they haven’t faced mandatory cuts imposed by the federal government. California, being an older state, has more senior water rights than its neighbors to the east, and thus it is, for now, spared from cuts in its Colorado River allocations. That’s a saving grace for southern California, the sprawling cities of which receive roughly one-third of their water from the river. But the relief is tempered by the fact that the state is facing its own devastating water shortages as a result of years of drought and a declining snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Reservoirs such as Shasta Lake and Lake Oroville are at or under 50 percent capacity. More than half a million acres of California farmland have been left fallow this year as farmers try to navigate shrinking water allotments from California’s water supplies. The crisis of land use will only worsen next year, according to analysts.
Drought conditions now affect roughly half of the landmass of the 48 contiguous U.S. states. As a result, crops across the country are under stress: The U.S.’s cotton crop this year could fall by 40 percent. But from Texas westward, the crisis is omnipresent. Farmers in the western states are reporting crop declines in fruits and tree nuts of up to 50 percent. Almond crops, which are extremely water-intensive, as well as rice and wine grapes, are at risk in California, where up to 800,000 acres of land could lie unused next year. Tomatoes, garlic, and other staples also aren’t being planted in many California farms. And, as with earlier droughts, livestock are being slaughtered in Texas, Oklahoma, and other drought-stricken states, as owners struggle to pay for increasingly scarce feed and find enough water to keep the animals alive and healthy.
All of this is pushing the world’s food supply chains into crisis mode. We have gotten used to an abundance of industrially produced, cheap food over the last hundred years. Especially from the post-WWII period on, we have become wedded to the notion that, at least in wealthy countries, food scarcity is a thing of the past. We have come to assume that if natural disasters impact food production in one locale, our sophisticated globalized supply chains will always have enough slack to make up for the local shortfalls. In other words, we complacently take it for granted that our crises will be staggered rather than occurring simultaneously, that the fates will somehow be considerate to us in metering the food production challenges they send our way.
But what if that assumption turns out to be wrong? What if a series of interconnected, and accelerating, climate crises around the world erupt simultaneously and rapidly take away the slack from the system? What if the fertilizer shortages caused by the war on Ukraine, and other geo-political crises, further reduce food supplies? What if the energy crisis exacerbated both by the Ukraine war and also by the reduced availability of hydroelectric power as river levels fall makes it even harder to produce affordable food at industrial-scale quantities? What if large areas of the American West not only cease to be agriculturally productive, but also no longer have access to enough drinking water to sustain the tens of millions of people who now call the region home?
The cuts to the Colorado River water allocations are unlikely to be simply a one-year blip. While this year’s heavy monsoon in the Southwest has somewhat alleviated the drought, it will take years of abundant rainy seasons to make up for the deficits in water supply created by 22 years of drought and decades of cavalier over-drawing of scarce reservoir water and groundwater supplies. In the meantime, the American West’s population continues to grow at unsustainable rates, the demands on its agricultural infrastructure keep expanding, and its insatiable thirst for water shows no sign of easing. If there’s an exit ramp to this particular highway, a method to avoid the pile-up just ahead, it’s unclear where it is, or how it can be accessed. Water rights activists have long called for more equitable distribution of water, for more infrastructure to secure drinking water in poor rural communities in particular, and for a move away from the most water-intensive crops, and most water-wasteful practices, in areas with dwindling groundwater supplies. Now, as the global water and food crises intensifies, these issues are acquiring critical importance in social justice campaigns not just in the U.S. but around the world.