The “Biden Administration Proposes Evenly Cutting Water Allotments From Colorado River,” New York Times, April 11, 2023. According to John Entsminger, the lead negotiator for Nevada, “We have 19th-century laws, 20th-century infrastructure, and a 21st-century climate. And those three things don’t fit very well together.”
While the East Coast has a problem with too much saltwater, the Southwest suffers from insufficient fresh water. On the East Coast, that has led to houses toppling into the rising sea. In the Southwest, it has pitted states like Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming against the 800-pound gorilla in the room — California.
The Colorado River starts as a shallow fish-filled stream flowing off the west slope of the Continental Divide. Drawing water from tributaries as far away as Wyoming and New Mexico, it twists and turns down through Utah and Arizona, where it carved out the Grand Canyon millions of years ago. Then it flows to dribble depleted through a small corner of California to exit inside the Baja Peninsula in Mexico.
California bases its water usage rights on this moderate stretch of the Colorado River and the Law of the River. The law grants water rights based on which states have the oldest claims. According to this accounting, California has the right to irrigate almost 5.5 million acres of agricultural land that helps feed the nation. Meanwhile, New Mexico and Arizona use Colorado River water for drinking and sprinkling on lawns, where no grounds should exist.
Because the Department of the Interior owns Lake Powell
and Lake Mead
the federal government has requested that the affected states come up with an agreement to allocate their water rights, or they will do so unilaterally.
In January, all the states, except California, presented their plan. It proposed that the bulk of the cuts for water use come from California. California then offered its plan — that most of the cuts come from Arizona.
Now the Department of Interior has declared that if the states don’t arrive at a workable solution this year, it will reduce the amount of water it delivers to Colorado, Arizona, and Nevada by as much as twenty-five percent. This would be the first time a federal agency has had to intervene in allocating states’ water usage in response to climate change.
Eventually, the awareness of how vulnerable the Southwest is to its chronic drought conditions will reduce its land values, just as the East Coast’s growing awareness of its vulnerability to sea level rise is creating its real estate bubble.
Earlier this year, Nature published a study that showed that billions of dollars overvalue properties in such risky locations. Insurance companies are usually the first canaries in the coal mine to react to such risks. True to form, their rates are becoming so expensive that people have trouble obtaining mortgages to buy and sell vulnerable homes. According to the study, this will cascade from a housing problem into a financial crisis.
The big question is, when will this bubble burst? NOAA, The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, predicts that sea level along the East Coast will rise by between 10 to 14 inches by 2050 and 4 to 7 feet by 2100.
However, Bill Sargent’s prediction for the market crash will be about 2035. Then, awareness of the financial risks of global warming will coincide with the one-hundredth anniversary of the Dust Bowl
and the 18.6-year peak of what is called the Proxigean, or less accurately, King Tides.
These tides occur when the moon is closest to the earth, the earth is closest to the sun, and are all in a line. During the peak of these tides, you see inlets form, houses toppling into the sea, and barrier beaches breaking down as the sea starts to rise faster than the beaches can migrate shoreward.
The last time this happened, there was a spate of articles about sea level rise. However, the tides and storms were the real problems—this time, I expect to see a spate of articles about the financial collapse. However, the real problem will continue to be our rapidly changing climate and how it is creating chaos in the institutions that support human civilization.