Is water water actually everywhere?

CNN published an exceptional narrative about the looming Colorado River water crisis -- but never asked what might be the most essential question.

Last week, CNN published an exceptionally well-crafted interactive essay by Drew Kann, Renee Rigdon, and Daniel Wolfe detailing the history of water usage, access, and policy in the Colorado River basin. The Colorado — it turns out — feeds a huge proportion of human water consumption across the SW from CO, UT, and NV to AZ, CA, and northern Mexico. The entire piece is worth the read but perhaps the key to the entire question is hinted at in the first few hundred words:

Las Vegas relies on the river for 90% of its water supply, Tucson for 82% and San Diego for around 66%. Large portions of the water used in Los Angeles, Phoenix and Denver also come from the river, and experts say these booming metropolises would not have been possible without its supply.

The piece is well-researched and compelling down to the painful historical details of how the original 1922 Colorado River Compact that (along with amendments and other negotiations since) defines apportionment of water across the region was calculated and codified in absolute terms (rather than relative) after a decade of flood years that have never in the hundred years since been duplicated in terms of potential volume. With river volumes falling due to climate change and overuse, the entire region is facing significant questions about how to sustain the communities and industries that rely on this one river for survival — and who goes thirsty first.

But that last phrase “…these booming metropolises would not have been possible without its supply,” sticks with me. It is a sentiment echoed repeatedly through the narrative. And it suggests a really important question that the article — and the entire debate about water — fails to ask: should humans be living the way they are there?

Deserts are not ideal biomes for large-scale agriculture of water-thirsty crops like cotton which requires at least 10,000 liters (not a typo) of water per kilogram and naturally grows in places with a minimum of 24 inches of rainfall per year (approximately 10 times as much as usually falls in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona each year. They aren’t ideal environments for dairy production where a typical cow can produce as much as 7 gallons of milk each day but requires somewhere around 4 times that in drinking water daily. That math for dairy production water consumption doesn’t include the water required for the feed or cleaning — but if a cow eats about 6 pounds of alfalfa per gallon of milk and it takes more than 600 gallons of water to grow each pound of alfalfa … the all-in numbers are silly.

Now, humans have been in that desert for more than 12,000 years and the Hohokam have been using various forms of irrigation for at least 8,000 from diverting summer rain runoff from alluvial fans to actual canal building. What is instructive about their experience is what survives. The heaviest irrigation, most destructive agricultural practices were also the most labor intensive. They are also the forms of agriculture that were either abandoned or simply did not survive. We are repeating mistakes made thousands of years ago by communities in the earliest generations of what we refer to as the Agricultural Revolution out of arrogance and the now deeply anchored cultural belief that humans are separate from nature, that we are superior to it somehow, and that natural systems are meant to exploit. But that story started with the communities who failed, not the ones who survived. We created narratives about human dominance as part of the cultural evolution required to sustain a failing way of life, and we’re stuck with them and still paying the price.

The unasked question about water in the Colorado River Basin is whether we can live in a different way? I’m not suggesting we abandon Phoenix. But we are not trapped in an inexorable suicide pact marching toward inevitable drought and resource wars over water. But are we capable of questioning the momentum of our choices and making new ones? Perhaps cotton isn’t the best choice. Maybe we can leave the dairy to the Cheeseheads. Maybe we can reimagine how we fit into the biomes we occupy and see ourselves as members of, protectors of natural systems rather than conquerors and exploiters. Yes, the transportation of food is wildly problematic — perhaps we can eat what grows where we are, maybe it would help shift our relationship to the land to be fed by it. But questioning our entire modern American diet is for another day — I’ve got TX-style brisket to smoke for Labor Day.

The question for today is how much are we willing to take as givens the momentum and choices that are driving us toward oblivion and how much are we willing to ask what might be different? I believe we have enormous capacity for creativity.