The Colorado River Drought Is a Cautionary Climate Tale

There’s something familiar about the high stakes water use drama playing out in the U.S. Southwest.

Colorado River, a major economic and water supply artery for the region, powers large hydroelectric dams that provide power to the regions farmers. But continued overuse during a massive yearslong megadrought—the driest stretch the area has experienced in more than a millennia—has caused water reservoir levels to fall to unprecedented lows, imperiling water supplies and the operation of crucial power plants.

The Colorado River supplies water to seven states: Colorado, Wyoming Wyoming, New Mexico Arizona California Nevada and Arizona. They were given 60 days by the federal government to devise a plan for drastically reducing their consumption. That deadline was not met last week. And though the federal government did announce a new round of water cuts mandated in a previous drought plan—21% for Arzona, 8% for Nevada, and 7% for Mexico, which also relies on the river— it didn’t follow through on its threat to impose more severe water cuts in the absence of state action. As a result, the area’s reservoir levels are likely to continue falling. This could lead to severe power and water shortages.

On June 10, 2022, a boat that was once sunken is seen standing straight up in the air while its stern remains stuck in the mud near Lake Mead National Recreation Area. This area is located close to Boulder City, Nev.

John Locher—AP

The drought behind the problem is no fluke—human-caused climate change is a significant part of the problem, with higher temperatures causing more runoff from rain and snow to evaporate before it reaches the Colorado River. At the same time, it’s hard not to see the situation on the river as something like a smaller, sped-up version of the global climate crisis, with state governments and the feds delaying action and pointing fingers as the situation they are meant to be addressing grows ever worse.

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Like climate change, water problems are less technical than they seem. The state governments are keen to preserve water rights that are vital for agricultural development and the expansion of housing. No governor will be praised for their generosity in taking on large portions of the cuts. In theory, federal threats should force action—states would rather hash out a deal themselves than let Washington decide who gets what share of the river’s dwindling flows. But that only works if the Biden Administration is willing to make good on its word, and anger Southwest voters—a hard pill for Democrats to swallow heading into a tough midterm election.

That’s not so different from the international climate situation, where despite lofty promises, most countries are still delaying much of the difficult, urgently-needed action to cut emissions and stave off disaster (though the U.S. passage of the largest climate bill in history last week offered a welcome reprieve). Leaders are engaging in a chicken game when confronted with imminent catastrophe. All are avoiding making hard decisions in the hope that the cost will be shared elsewhere. However, the problem is getting worse.

On Aug. 17, 2022, the sun rises above a channel that’s full of Colorado River water near Buckeye in Arizona.

RJ Sangosti—MediaNews Group/The Denver Post/Getty Images

While both calamities will have immediate consequences, the bitter negotiations over who pays what is expected to be held on a much shorter timeline in Southwest. The price of inaction in this region will impact powerful actors like the agriculture sector. Whether the region’s authorities hash out the mess or else walk hand-in-hand into disaster could give us an idea of how the global climate fight will play out among the world’s biggest polluters—whether international leaders will take dramatic action before the worst crises begin, or wait to see what kinds of new, escalating peril will make the tough decisions for them.

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