Some miles south of the Mexican city of Los Algodones, near the Baja Peninsula, the Colorado River ends. It used to flow to the sea, emptying into the Gulf of California. As recently as midcentury, its delta was a wetland ecosystem, with lagoons, fish, and jaguars. Now the drainage basin is an arid wasteland. Motorists have to pay a toll to drive over a bridge that crosses only sand. In 2014, an agreement between the United States and Mexico authorized a one-time release of river water through an upstream dam over an eight-week period. Children came to marvel at a river they didn’t even know was there.
In Where the Water Goes, longtime New Yorker contributor David Owen explores one of the most complex water systems in the world. Although visually stunning, the Colorado River is not a storied transportation waterway like the Mississippi or a cradle of civilization like the Nile. It is only 1,400 miles long and not very wide in places. Yet what it lacks in size it makes up for in footprint. The Colorado runs dry because it provides water to tens of millions of people. In addition to residents of northern Mexico and southern California (including Los Angeles), the river and its tributaries supply water to Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah.
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Along its southwesterly path from the snowpack of the Rockies, the Colorado winds through a network of dams and reservoirs that provide hydroelectric power as well as water to large portions of the West. The system’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, “have been treated like lower-basin credit cards,” Owen writes, and now stand at historically low levels. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation estimated recently that the Colorado has a “structural deficit” of over a million acre-feet per year — meaning claimants have paper rights to more water than actually exists. (An acre-foot is the volume it takes to cover one acre in water to a depth of one foot — roughly 325,000 gallons.) Climate change will only exacerbate the shortage by reducing the precipitation that forms the snow that becomes the river. The situation is unsustainable.
The answer would appear to be obvious: “All we need to do is turn off the fountains at the Bellagio, stop selling hay to China, ban golf, cut down the almond trees, and kill all the lawyers,” Owen writes facetiously. Not at all. Where the Water Goes exposes and revels in the complexities of water policy. The Bellagio’s famous fountain in Las Vegas, for instance, might seem like a wanton waste of a precious resource in the middle of a desert. Yet it is a drop in the bucket. The fountain uses a miniscule 64 acre-feet of water — and its source is not the Colorado but a combination of groundwater and storm runoff. Moreover, Las Vegas and Nevada more broadly have some of the most effective water conservation policies in the Southwest. Las Vegas has reduced its annual consumption by over 15 billion gallons since 2007. If southern California were so efficient, the river would produce a surplus rather than a deficit.
Owen writes that water problems do not have easy solutions. Trees in the southwestern cities and suburbs exist because of irrigation. One way to reduce consumption would be to stop watering them. But this would only produce a different environmental problem. The loss of shade provided by tree canopy would lead to a dramatic spike in energy consumption. Perhaps people should not live in deserts, then — but if they moved elsewhere, Owen writes, they would strain the water systems of their new homes as well. Another paradox is agriculture, by far the biggest use for Colorado River water. Some might argue that growing plants in an arid region makes little sense. Yet desert agriculture carries far less risk of catastrophic storms, droughts, and frosts, and supports a year-round growing season in which precise planning — and thus efficient use — is possible. In other words, addressing the Colorado’s shortage is not as simple as using less water.
What, then, is the solution? Here Where the Water Goes suffers its only real shortcoming. The book is a delightful read, digressive and omnivorous in its concern with natural history, travel, public policy, and geography. But Owen does not pretend to have answers. While identifying difficult trade-offs in water management, he does not make any choices. The closest to an effective water policy the Colorado has seen in recent years was a sharing arrangement known as Minute 319 between the United States and Mexico after the Baja earthquake of 2010. It was a momentary reprieve from the tragedy of the commons that the Colorado River exemplifies. But rights sharing won’t halt population growth or climate change. Get it while you can. One day it will be gone.