Here we go — again. One year after first declaring a water shortage on the Colorado River, triggering cutbacks in water to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico, the federal government recently announced additional cuts are necessary based on dangerously low water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell. The announcement’s timing coincides with the expiration of a deadline imposed by the Department of the Interior in June.
The Colorado River states were given 60 days to create an emergency plan to stop using 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water in the next year. The federal government warned that cuts would be made unilaterally if the deadline passed with no agreement in place. This is in addition to the federal government’s announcement of planned holdbacks from Lake Powell, fearing insufficient water to power the Glen Canyon Dam in May. These announcements form part of a broader trend of increasing federal government intervention in Western water management as collaboration efforts at the state and local levels have repeatedly failed.
Federalism and historical norms ceded substantial power to the states in the allocation and management of water rights; the federal government has the constitutional authority to play a more significant role. As discussions around water scarcity increasingly highlight the water, energy, and food nexus and the potential national security consequences, a more active role by the federal government is necessary.
The Colorado River has come to symbolize the struggle over water in the West. Supplying water to over 40 million people and millions of acres of farmland, it is a key water source for seven states, indigenous communities as well as Mexico, in addition to providing hydropower to the broader region. The Colorado River Compact of 1922 divided the water equitably among the states into an upper basin comprised of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, as well as a lower basin consisting of Arizona, Nevada and California. The natural tension between the upper and lower basin states with different needs, interests and stakeholders lies at the heart of the problem. Lower basin states are, in many respects, at the mercy of the upper basin states. Since the early 2000s, failing consensus by the states regarding voluntary reductions, the federal government has been forced to issue formal directives, usually with a threat of intervention or possible litigation, to secure agreement.
As climate change exacerbates water insecurity, failure is not an option. And yet, cooperation and collaboration remain increasingly elusive. Numerous theories have been proffered regarding the failure of collective action. Theorist Garrett Hardin’s, Tragedy of the Commons, long held as fundamental to understanding human action in relation to shared resources, argues that individual self-interest adversely impacts the pursuit of the common good, eventually leading to its destruction or ruin. The theory advocates coercive, top-down action as a way to ensure the sanctity of the commons, or in this case, the protection of the water supply.
In contrast, more contemporary theories of collective action have suggested that a collaborative or bottom-up approach is necessary to achieve sustainable solutions. In the domestic water supply context, however, these later theories fail to account for the renewed sense of individualism reflected in the current political and social discourse. Such individualism is antithetical to the principles of collective action, fundamental to solving our water crisis.
The federal government’s role has evolved from financing infrastructure and development to protecting the environment and indigenous water rights. Today, against a backdrop of growing water insecurity, the focus must be on protecting our national security interests. Greater attention must be paid to the cascading impact of resource depletion on other resource sectors. For example, the increasing importance of, and the significant security implications in the water, energy and food nexus, highlights the need for a more integrated, holistic approach to water management with greater involvement by the federal government.
However, any future role of the federal government must be considered from both a short and long-term perspective. In the short term, emergency measures will be necessary to manage crises, and without more coercive measures, voluntary action by the states is unlikely. Longer-term, the federal government must develop and implement a national water policy incorporating integrated water resource management principles covering water, land and energy, among others. As part of a broader policy, guidelines should be introduced requiring the implementation of demand-side measures in conjunction with monitoring by the states. In the meantime, as time is not on our side, ongoing federal government intervention will be the new reality in the West.
Carolyn Kissane is the assistant dean at the NYU Center for Global Affairs and director of the SPS Energy, Climate Justice and Sustainability Lab.
Lisa Craig is an independent energy-climate consultant.
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