The recent Colorado River water deal reached between the three lower basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada is being celebrated by the corporate media as “historic,” although final approval by the Department of Interior is still pending. While the states agree to reduce water use over the next three years by 1 million acre-feet per year through 2026, water resources remain in a unsustainable, precarious state.
The deal lacks any attempt to address long term overconsumption of water resources in the drying landscape of the West. The river basin has been overdrafted for decades; in other words, more water is being removed than replenished. Importantly, climate change is also adding to the crisis As the global climate warms, less snowfall is occurring which historically fed the river system. This along with increased evaporation due to higher temperatures, has forced states to address unsustainable usage. While seven states and Mexico source water from the Colorado River basin, the three lower basin states consume half.
Although Mexico is part of the lower basin with rights to Colorado River waters that supply farmland in the Mexicali Valley, they were excluded from these negotiations. Despite a 1944 water treaty that entitled Mexico to 1.5 million acre-feet per year of the river waters, their share has dwindled over time and is expected to be further cut by 7% this year. Depletion of river waters has led to an 80% loss of forest and wetlands in the Colorado River delta region, which has led to a major decline in biodiversity and has devastated indigenous communities in the region, while further exacerbating climate change.
The water reductions set in the deal fall far short of Bureau of Reclamation goals that were outlined in a Senate hearing last June, which urged 2 to 4 million acre-feet in reductions per year to avoid “dead pool.” As of April 2022, both Lake Mead and Lake Powell were around 150 feet above dead pool levels, which if reached means water can no longer flow downstream past the dam, impeding hydropower production and water flow to lower basin states. Current inflows into the river system average around 12.4 million acre-feet, while consumption is around 14 million acre-feet, meaning the deal reduces—but fails to eliminate—overdraft.
Deal fails to address root causes
The deal brokered by the Department of Interior will provide $1.2 billion in Inflation Reduction Act funds to the agriculture sector in the three lower basin states to reduce water use. Farmers reducing water use have three ways to use the funding allocation: leave fields fallow, implement irrigation technology that can detect dryness and minimize waste, or switch to less water-intensive crops—which bring in lower profits.
While switching to climate-appropriate crops is one step in the right direction, expecting already stretched small farmers to lose income from these less profitable crops makes it an unlikely choice. In general, the deal fails to address the root cause of the problem—the commodification of our food system that subsidizes thirsty cash crops using monocrop industrial methods which deplete water resources, as well as the trajectory of climate change toward an increasingly drier landscape. The West has been experiencing a megadrought for over 20 years now—the worst drought in 1,200 years—which has resulted in record low levels in the reservoirs of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the water supply for 40 million people.
Seven states and Mexico rely on the Colorado River water for crops, livestock and industrial and residential use. While the recent housing boom in arid Arizona, which had four of the 10 fastest growing counties in the country in 2022, added to the unsustainable use of river waters, residential water consumption in river basin states accounts for only 12% of usage.
Root cause: capitalist agriculture
By far the biggest culprit is industrial agriculture and the growing of cash crops unsuitable for the region’s climate. Overall, 79% of water from the Colorado River goes to agriculture with 55% of those crops grown for livestock feed. Industrial agriculture methods deplete the soil and impede groundwater recharge. Healthy soil can hold more moisture and better absorb rainfall, recharging ground water. Overgrazing of cattle denudes the landscape, adding to the drying of the region and higher air temperatures. So why isn’t more being done to address the root causes, such as reduction in livestock numbers and a shift to regenerative, organic farming methods and less water intensive crops, which would greatly reduce demand and restore soil health?
A recent article I wrote on the California drought goes into more detail about the root causes and real solutions to the water crisis in the West. In the end, the system of capitalism is incapable and unwilling to sacrifice profits to truly solve the crisis. The very nature of the system is based on extraction of “natural capital” and the maximization of profits at the expense of the wellbeing of humanity and the planet, which is what has gotten us to the brink of collapse that we now face. Continuing with business as usual and big agribusiness is simply more profitable.
Another disincentive for change is that capitalism is always able to find ways to profit regardless of the catastrophic outcome for the people. Like vultures circling around dying prey, financial speculators are buying and selling rights to diminishing Colorado River water resources. Co-founder and president Matthew Diserio of the Manhattan-based hedge fund, Water Asset Management, described water in the United States as “the biggest emerging market on Earth” and “a trillion-dollar market opportunity.” WAM and other investors are buying up farmland in the West, not for the land itself, but for the water rights that come with the farmland. This is likely the same reason behind Bill Gates recently becoming the largest single owner of farmland in the country. A drier future with water scarcity guarantees a sound return on these investments.
This is the sickness of capitalism, a sickness which actually makes it more profitable for the ruling class to allow our climate to unravel, rather than implementing the transformational changes that could actually solve it. While the Colorado River deal is “historic” for the ultra-capitalist United States, where in the current epoch any attempt by government to control big business is called “socialist,” we must organize for real climate action that can secure a livable future for all.
Tina Landis is the author of the book Climate Solutions Beyond Capitalism.