Is the Southwest on Borrowed Time?

Posted by: Keith Kloor  :  Category: climate change, southwest, water

Living in a marginal (but stunning) landscape with obvious constraints has its drawbacks when too many people move there and the natural resources become depleted. In the American Southwest, those drawbacks are not really being felt by the hordes who live there now.


But based on my own knowledge of the drought history of the Southwest (specifically the last one thousand years), I’ve always felt that a cruel reckoning was just around the corner.

That reckoning may happen faster, according to a new study released today by Stockholm Environment Institute. Bryan Walsh at Time has a good overview:

The report found that the already dry states of the American Southwest—Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah—will face a major water shortfall over the next century just based on population and income growth alone. (The region has long been one of the fastest-growing in the U.S., in part because of the hot and dry weather.) But climate change could make the situation much, much worse.

Now there are a couple ways to look at this. Like the recent debate over Egypt and food prices, the underlying problems in the Southwest are not related to greenhouse gases. But when you look at the way people live in those Southwestern states (in terms of lifestyle, sprawl, and unchecked development), there is a business-as-usual attitude. Do folks out there really feel they are being pushed to the limits of their environment? My sense from afar (and based on intermittent travel and one recent year spent in Colorado) is no.

So given all this, it seems that irrespective of climate change, Southwesterners have plenty of good reasons to get their house in order. Will yet another report warning of imminent climate change related impacts nudge them in that direction? Maybe, but I doubt it.

And even if Southwestern states go ahead and implement all the Stockholm Institute’s water use recommendations, but demographic and growth trends remain the same, will it even matter?

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19 Responses to “Is the Southwest on Borrowed Time?”

  1. Tom Fuller Says:

    So, do you think Canada will make more money shipping water than tar sand oil? Looking at the available sources of fresh water, that’s the obvious choice.

  2. Andy Says:

    I grew up in Colorado and I can never remember a time when this was not an issue.  The classic example is the Colorado River Compact which assumed higher flows than are the case or will be expected in the future.  Just look at the level of Lake Powell.
    Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to see this kind of study, but it seems to me it’s not that original - at least to those of us who live(d) in the region and followed the issue.  In short, yes, it’s going to get ugly and the status quo is not sustainable, even without any effects from climate change.

  3. Keith Kloor Says:


    Oh, I know the issues of water scarcity and drought are everpresent out there.  I didn’t mean to imply that people don’t worry about it or that policymakers and water managers and planners don’t grapple with it. They obviously do. And discussion of the Southwest’s sustainability is always happening on various levels.

    And yet…best as I can tell, it’s all background noise, based on my reading of the West’s demographics and development. So what I see is a big disconnect between the way the West is developing and the long-term sustainability concerns expressed in various public and private forums out there.

  4. Tom Fuller Says:

    Do you think the Snowbird quality of much of the population contributes to ignorance/indifference to the issue?

  5. LCarey Says:

    Canada is likely to have its own water issues in the next few decades.  From the projections in the official Atlas of Canada:

  6. Tom Fuller Says:


    Hmm. Well, I guess we’ll see. But if global warming is expected to increase precipitation by 5%, decreased water in Canada should mean an increase elsewhere. Gotta say that map looks a bit iffy to me…

    “The results are based on climate change simulations made with the Coupled Global Climate Model developed by Environment Canada.”

    And they only modeled one IPCC scenario: “The projected changes in greenhouse gases concentrations and aerosol loadings are based on the IS92a scenario developed in conjunction with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to portray one of several possible futures.”

    My understanding is that none of the models are able to provide details at a regional level-how is it that they think they can come up with Canada-specific information?

  7. Zajko Says:

    The mood in Canada about shipping water south is a sensitive one. In recent years there has been a developing discourse about water as “the new oil”, and water as a human right and not a commodity. There’s been a growth of “river-keeper” type movements based around certain sources. We have some water stresses here too, which in some regions have been getting worse. Truly massive water transfers would become a major political issue, and cannot be taken for granted. It would really divide the population.
    But like the US, water management here often falls into gray areas. Outdated regulatory frameworks are no longer a good fit for upcoming realities of increased scarcity due to increased consumption (and where I live there is also talk about not being able to rely on glacial melt in a warming world). There isn’t much of a consensus on what to do with water, other than the fact that we apparently value it.
    Canadians love to sell their resources to Americans, but if they perceive domestic scarcity or the commodification of a public good, there will be trouble.

  8. harrywr2 Says:

    but demographic and growth trends remain the same
    Demographic and growth trends never stay the same.
    The baby boom turned 65.

  9. Jack Hughes Says:

    These Stockholm people are really onto it:
    “Bad stuff may happen some time this century…”

  10. Dean Says:

    The Southwest is probably on borrowed time even without global warming if the growth trends persist. The new Okies anyone?

  11. Ron Broberg Says:

    Urban dwellers, largely divorced from their climates anyway, will adapt while grumbling about govt control: restricted faucets, waterless toilets, the banishment of the bermuda lawn. Water importation is a real possibility; water desalination plants are already a reality.
    Hydroelectric power will be impacted.
    But it is the farmer that will have to adapt most. Plastic covered humidity controlled fields, micro-watering. Food and feed become more expensive. Will Mexico be able to make the adaptations? Is their drought already contributing to a social breakdown?
    The costs of climate mitigations and/or adaptation are one additional economic stress which, when combined with rising energy prices, increasing debt and changing demographics, will fundamentally change the economic history of this nation.

  12. Jack Hughes Says:

    Interesting psychology here: they prefer to say
    “the reservoir is half empty”
    rather than the more upbeat version:
    “the reservoir is half full”.
    And its peppered with the words “could”, “may”, “perhaps”, “if”, …
    Nobody really knows what the rest of this century will look like. Just imagine if we were here in 1911 trying to guess how the 20th century would play out.

  13. Pascvaks Says:

    Whether local, regional, or global, it all always boils down to the size of the human footprint (impact).  And, it always has from the get go ~4million years ago.  Have we reached the tipping point in numerous areas?  Absolutely!  Are we doing much about “The Problem”?  Nope!  Is there going to be hell to pay?  Yep!  Who will eventually “resolve” The Problem, Man or Mother Nature?  My money is on Good Ol’ Mother Nature, people won’t (maybe because they can’t) change.

  14. kdk33 Says:

    If government can resist interfereing…  A water scarcity will signal, through price, for consumers (including farmers) to conserve.  A strong enough signal and southwest immigration/emmigration will correct. 

    When pondering the effecient use of scarce resources that have alternative uses, there’s something to be said for the free market.

  15. Keith Kloor Says:

    Felicity Barringer at the Times covers the Stockholm study too, and the comments in the thread are worth reading, as well, such as this one.

  16. Ron Broberg Says:

    Eight Principles for Successful Rainwater Harvesting

    If I recall correctly, on the Colorado River, California is depending on other states to not use their full allotment. As those states do so, CA will fall further into the red.

  17. Ron Broberg Says:

    kdk33: If government can resist interfereing…
    Government and civilizations were created to build and defend infrastructure - especially water projects. Outlines of their irrigation projects appear like ghosts in satellite imagery.
    Asking government to “not intefere” in Western water is like asking government to “not interfere” in international disputes. It totally misses the point of government and the history of the SW USA. Take away government and you take away all the Western reservoirs worth noting - Mead, Powell, …

  18. Steve Reynolds Says:

    As kdk33 and Ron Broberg mention, agriculture will most feel any effects. City dwellers will pay much more for water than farmers can afford. Since agriculture uses huge amounts of water in the SW, there is plenty to divert to supporting population. We may need to stop producing bio-fuels, though. I say this as a Colorado resident with a 400 foot deep well. 

  19. kdk33 Says:

    Water privatization is controverisal, but not new.  There are a variety of private/public mixed models wherein market forces can act on price.  Water can be auction off.

    When prices rise, government will be tempted to curry favor by subsidizing - water is a human right, the constituents will cry.  But water is a commodity, same as wheat and pork bellies and should be priced similarly.  Subsidies, in the face of scarcity, will not work; in fact, quite the opposite, as high prices are needed to motivate conservation.

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