In the mean time, the national media continue to zero in on our ecological ticking timebomb along the Colorado River… Well, that is, when they’re not cutting back their climate change coverage to focus on the critical “Breaking News!” of billionaires shooting themselves into outer space.
As we hinted last month, the Colorado River’s water levels are dropping so low that it’s virtually guaranteed that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will officially declare a “Tier One Shortage” at Lake Mead next month. As we look at the growing possibility of a more permanently diminished Lake Mead, we must again ask ourselves: Have we been ignoring the basic laws of Mother Nature and economics for far too long?
Most likely next week, we’ll return “To the Water Front” to examine some critical lessons from the ongoing saga of St. George’s spiral of sprawl, that one attempt to extend the Las Vegas metro area into Lincoln County that ended in ghastly scandal, how a system of reservoirs in Colorado and Wyoming tie into our situation in Nevada, why the recent thunderstorms are nowhere near enough to end the current “mega-drought”, and why both urban planning and water resource planning must be part of any and all efforts to address climate change going forward.
As an ecologist, I think we should consider if the Colorado River basin has reached what is termed the “tipping point”. That is the point at which the ecosystem has tipped into a different ecological system, functioning on a different set of physical-biological-chemical parameters. If the basin has reached its tipping point, we can logically point to the causative agent – climate change. I do not expect the basin to ever return to pre-tipping point conditions, ever. Just focusing on water for the moment, we will have less and less water to meet human demands. The majority of the water demand in both the lower and upper basins is for agriculture. Ranchers and farmers will face new pressure to adapt to less water wrought by climate change. For example, under Tier 1 criteria Arizona will be the first big looser and receive one-third less water, from 1.5 million ac-ft to 1 million ac-ft. This will have immediate and direct impacts on agriculture especially in Pinal County. So, the lesson is that as climate change alters our basin’s ecology, agriculture must adapt to very different water uses. I have traveled extensively throughout desertified and drought stricken countries, and the best example of adapting agriculture to water- limited ecosystems is in Israel. Israel is the bread basket of the Middle East. Drive across the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt into Israel and you’ll experience two worlds; one is a desert the other is a green oasis in the desert. It is no secret that Israel has perfected drip irrigation and raises all its crops with drip systems, even rice and other high water demand crops. Obviously, if it works in the Negev it will work in the Mojave. Converting much of Pinal agriculture to crop rearing with drip systems will require significant investment in which government subsidies would be necessary. I write this as an example of how we, our state agriculture societies, can adapt to climate change and declining water sources. While it is important for municipalities and other water uses to be as conservation focused as possible, agriculture, because it uses 70% to 90% of the water, depending upon the subbasin, must take the lead in water conservation.