Southwest Water Resources

The Problems We Face, Part 2 Page 1

By Jay W. Sharp

This article is the second of a three-part series on water issues in the Southwest. In the first part, we reviewed the primary ground and surface resources available to our growing population. In this, the second, part, we will examine the problems emerging from a dwindling supply, growing demand, and long-term drought. In the third part, we will review potential long-term solutions for our looming severe water shortages.

Rio Grande ford where the conquistador Juan de Oñate and his expedition crossed with the help of local Indians in the year 1598 to establish the first colony in what is today the American Southwest. With much of the water used upstream, the Rio Grande flow has often dwindled considerably by this point. Its banks have become overgrown by invasive plants.  

Rio Grande ford where the conquistador Juan de Oñate and his expedition crossed with the help of local Indians in the year 1598 to establish the first colony in what is today the American Southwest. With much of the water used upstream, the Rio Grande flow has often dwindled considerably by this point. Its banks have become overgrown by invasive plants.  

If it's not a perfect storm, it'll do until one comes along.

Across the desert Southwest, our ground- and surface-water supplies are declining. Simultaneously, our population and water demands are growing, and a long-term drought – magnified by global warming – may well be under way. To make things even worse, in some areas, vital underground and surface waters are becoming polluted. Collectively, it all calls into question our paradigms of how we should value and manage our water – that supremely important resource – in coming years. 

Critical Problems

Current or pending water shortages threaten the lands of our farmers (by far the largest users of water); the homes, businesses and industries of our communities; and the environmental health of our desert basins and mountain ranges. Complicating matters, contamination may be rendering important water sources totally unsalvageable in some areas. As one might expect, the shortage has prompted struggles for sustainable clean water supplies among U. S. communities and states and between the U. S. and Mexico. 


 Our Southwest irrigation farmers – an economic force in the region for centuries –cultivate some 2.5 million acres of land, including about 2.25 million acres in the lower Colorado River Basin and 0.25 million acres in the upper Rio Grande Basin, according to data in the U. S. Geological Survey report "Water-Use Trends in the Desert Southwest—1950-2000," by A. D. Konieczki and J. A. Heilman, and our farmers are now facing major change that will emerge from looming water shortages. 

While producing vitally important foods, fibers and livestock feeds, the farmers use several times more water than all municipal, domestic and industrial users combined. Under most current irrigation practices, a farmer often uses several acre feet of water per acre per year in his fields. (An acre-foot of water – that is, enough water to cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot – comprises about 326,000 gallons, enough to meet the household needs of a typical family of four for a year or more.) Only a small fraction of the irrigation water actually benefits his crops or recharges the natural aquifers. The balance escapes from irrigation channels or evaporates into the sky. (In the northern Chihuahuan Desert, annual average rainfall equals less than nine inches. Annual average evaporation rates equal more than nine feet.)

Row crop with flood irrigation. 

Row crop with flood irrigation. 

Oftentimes, the farmers' income from their crops may only barely exceed the value of the irrigation water they use. For example, as Robert Kunzig said in a recent issue of National Geographic magazine, compared with the price that San Diego has paid recently for water ($300 per acre-foot), "…the irrigation water in the Imperial Valley [in southeastern California] is worth nearly as much as its entire agricultural revenue, which is around a billion dollars a year." While owners of large farms might benefit from selling their water to municipalities rather than using it for irrigating crops, "Many more people fear the loss of jobs and, ultimately, of a whole way of life."

More than 20 years ago, in Western Water Made Simple, Ed Marston made the dire prediction that, "Agriculture is slated to die. Even in the productive Arizona and California valleys, irrigated agriculture is seen as a stopgap: a 100-year-long activity that will be bought out or forced out by urbanization." 

While Marston probably overstated his case, the farmers of the desert Southwest face the increasingly urgent requirement to capitalize on more efficient (and undoubtedly more expensive) technology for irrigating their crops.


Municipal water managers have become acutely aware of the dilemmas raised by increasingly short water supplies available to their communities. 

"…we're not running out of water, we're running out of inexpensive water," Ed Archuleta, Director of El Paso Water Utilities, told David Ogden-Tamez, "Water: A Growing Concern in The Border's Desert Communities," published on the New Mexico State University Internet site. Archuleta probably summed up the problem for many communities across the desert Southwest. 

"…municipal water conservation programs are required" in central and southern Arizona "and new residential developments for which there is not a 100-year assured water supply from primarily non-groundwater sources are not allowed," Roger Manning, executive director for the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association, told the Environment News Service Internet site, "Global Warming Brings Perpetual Drought to the U. S. Southwest." 

Parched soil, a symbol of drought.

Parched soil, a symbol of drought.

"We're the canary in the mine shaft," Patricia Mulroy, general manager, Southern Nevada Water Authority told Sunset magazine, March 2008. "When I look at the Colorado River, I know that by 2010, Hoover Dam could potentially not generate electricity. That Lake Mead is down—90 percent of Las Vegas' drinking water comes from there. What do you do?" 

"Ground zero is right here in Las Vegas," Scott Huntley, spokesman for the Las Vegas Valley Water District, told the Environment New Service Internet site. 

Confronting intensifying shortages, cities across the Southwest have moved to curtail water use and to tap new sources. Some have set higher water-saving standards and regulations for new domestic and commercial plumbing and fittings, offer economic incentives for retrofitting old plumbing and fittings, promote use of water-saving technology, restrict watering of lawns, encourage planting of desert-adapted vegetation, buy water rights from farmers and ranchers, and offer programs to educate the public. Increasingly, communities have begun using "gray" water – treated sewage water – to cool industrial plants and irrigate public lands such as golf courses and parks. A few, for instance, El Paso, Texas, and Alamogordo, New Mexico, have built new treatment plants for purifying mineral-laden ground waters. Others, like Las Vegas, are contemplating reaching out, laying pipelines for hundreds of miles across the desert, to connect them to distant water sources. 

The cities' efforts have produced some results. From 2002 to 2006, the Las Vegas metropolitan area – at the epicenter of the shortage – was actually able, said Kunzig, "to reduce its total consumption of water by around 20 percent, even though its population had increased substantially." Nevertheless, "…every water manager also knows that, as one puts it, 'at some point, growth is going to catch up to you.'" Most Southwest communities still have to deal with difficult choices and formidable challenges in developing long-term sustainable water supplies. 


Our Southwest environment reflects the heavy burden imposed by the overuse of ground and surface waters—in the desert basin ground surfaces above the aquifers, the riverine environments along the stream drainages, the wooded slopes of the mountain ranges, and water sources with significant domestic and industrial contamination.

"As water levels in the aquifers decline," said the U. S. Geological Survey in "Desert Basins of the Southwest," Science for a Changing World Internet site, "the slow drainage from the clay and silt layers cause them to compact, and the land surface to be lowered." West of Phoenix, for instance, the surface has subsided some 18 feet. At Eloy, Arizona, it has subsided 15 feet. Near Mendota, in central California, it has subsided 29 feet! The land surface can tilt and crack, setting the stage for damage to "buildings, pipelines, canals, drainage ditches, roads, railroads, dams, and bridges." 

Along the Colorado River, impoundments have permanently changed the aquatic ecosystem, according to the Land Use History of North America, Colorado, Plateau, Internet site, "Endangered Fish on the Colorado Plateau." The impoundments "have drastically changed water temperature, converted the river from [nutrient-rich] sediment-laden to relatively clear, altered historical patterns of spring floods and the general water-flow regime, and blocked migratory pathways for fishes." This, combined with drainage of aquifers and consequent loss of springs, means that "fishes in the western United States are clearly more imperiled than those in the eastern United States." 

At the Colorado River's mouth, at the northern end of the Gulf of California, the 1.9-million acre riparian habitat currently "hangs by a thread," according to the Environmental Defense Fund's Internet site. It began drying up in the 1930s, when the river's waters were diverted to irrigate fields and supply communities. It now receives less than one-tenth of one percent of all the water in the river system. CounterPunch Newsletter said in March of 2001, that the "estuary used to be one of the wonders of the world; a vast wetland, teeming with more than 400 species of plants and animals." It is now little more than "a salt flat."

click here to read more for page 2 of part 2


Southwest Water Resources Series:
Dwindling Southwest Water Resources - Part I
Southwest Water Resources - The Problems We Face (Part II)
Southwest Water Resources - A Glimmer of Hope (Part III)

Other Related Pages:
Water, Water ... Nowhere

The Colorado River: Water and the Desert
The Colorado River: Lifeline of the Southwest
On Desert Water Rights the relevance of literary
traditions to interspecies relations, and
the Disney Weltanschauung...



Share this page on Facebook:

DesertUSA Newsletter -- We send articles on hiking, camping and places to explore, as well as animals, wildflower reports, plant information and much more. Sign up below or read more about the DesertUSA newsletter here. (It's Free.)

The Desert Environment
The North American Deserts
Desert Geological Terms



Joshua Tree National Park - Black Eagle Mine Road Video - Beginning 6.5 miles north of the Cottonwood Visitor Center, this dead-end dirt road runs along the edge of Pinto Basin, crosses several dry washes, and then winds up through canyons in the Eagle Mountains. The first 9 + miles of the road are within the park boundary. Beyond that point is BLM land. Several old mines are located near this road.

Death Valley - Scotty's Castle Video
Find out how Scotty's Castle came to be, when Albert Johnson met Walter Scott, later known as Death Valley Scotty. Take a tour of the magnificent rooms and see the castle's fantastic furnishings. Hear the organ in the music room as you experience this place of legend first-hand.

Death Valley - Titus Canyon Video
As Titus Canyon Road in Death Valley reaches the foothills, it starts to climb and meander among the sagebrush and red rock outcroppings. The road becomes steeper and narrower as it approaches Red Pass, amply named for its red rocks and dirt. Enjoy the ride!


Take a look at our Animals index page to find information about all kinds of birds, snakes, mammals, spiders and more!

Hot temperatures in the desertAre you interested in the temperatures in the desert?

Click here to see current desert temperatures!

is a comprehensive resource about the North American deserts and Southwest destinations. Learn about desert biomes while you discover how desert plants and animals learn to adapt to the harsh desert environment. Find travel information about national parks, state parks, BLM land, and Southwest cities and towns located in or near the desert regions of the United States. Access maps and information about the Sonoran Desert, Mojave Desert, Great Basin Desert, and Chihuahuan Desert.

Copyright © 1996-2017 and Digital West Media, Inc. - -