By William Yardley
18 July 2015
(Los Angeles Times) – The Colorado River begins as snowmelt in the Rocky Mountains and ends 1,450 miles south in Mexico after making a final sacrifice to the United States: water for the farm fields in this powerhouse of American produce.
Throughout the winter, perfect heads of romaine, red-and-green lettuce, spinach and broccoli are whisked from the warm desert soil here onto refrigerated trucks that deliver them to grocery stores across the continent. If you eat a green salad between Thanksgiving and April, whether in Minnesota, Montreal or Modesto, odds are good that some of it was grown in or around Yuma.
The summer freshness on all of those winter plates reflects the marvel of engineering the Colorado has become — and why managing the river in the Southwest’s changing landscape seems so daunting.
The Colorado is suffering from a historic drought that has exposed the region’s dependence on a single, vulnerable resource. Nearly 40 million people in seven states depend on the river, a population some forecasts say could nearly double in the next 50 years.
The drought, now in its 16th year, has made one fact brutally clear: The Colorado cannot continue to meet the current urban, agricultural, hydroelectric and recreational demands on it — and the point at which the river will fall short could come sooner than anyone thought.
That is true even after an unusually wet spring in the Rocky Mountains, where runoff feeds the Colorado and its tributaries.
In the decades to come, federal officials say, significant shortages are likely to force water-supply cutbacks in parts of the basin, the first in the more than 90 years that the river has been managed under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
They would not apply evenly. In Arizona, which would take the steepest cuts, officials are warning that the elaborate conservation measures and infrastructure put in place in the 1980s to guard against shortages will probably not be sufficient. As the drought continues, serious shortages and more severe cutbacks have become more likely.
Farmers who grow cattle feed and cotton in central Arizona could be forced to let fields lie fallow, maybe for good, and cities like Phoenix might have to begin reusing wastewater and even capping urban growth, the region’s economic engine.
Here in Yuma, though, there may be no cuts at all. Thanks to the seemingly endless idiosyncrasies of the rules governing the Colorado, much of metropolitan Phoenix could theoretically become a ghost town while Yuma keeps planting lettuce in the desert.
The looming shortages have opened a contentious new conversation here in Arizona, with increasing calls for rethinking the way the state divides the water it also shares with six other states, including California. Some experts say that a recalibration is in order — that while it may not make sense for millions of people to live in the arid West, people should take precedence over growing leafy greens on an industrial scale.
In a 2013 study, the Bureau of Reclamation suggested transferring about a million acre-feet of water from farms. Academics say it is only a matter of time before agriculture is forced to yield some of its supply — and that farmers could benefit financially from such transfers.
That kind of talk is rattling farmers in Yuma. They know they have water priority but not necessarily political priority.
“They believe there’s a target on their backs,” said Tom Buschatzke, who leads the Arizona Department of Water Resources. “I believe they’re right.” [more]
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