Part 1: Life, Liberty, and Legislating Happiness
“The lifeline of the southwest.” This is the professional consensus on what the Colorado River is as it pertains to human civilization in the American Southwest. There is an honest-to-god plea in those words to take that phrase literally. The river, which drains the Colorado River Basin, supplies water to 35 million people and 4 million acres of agricultural land as it winds its way across seven different states in its bid for the Gulf of California. Along the way, 70 percent of it is siphoned off for human consumption. Its delta at the north end of the Sea of Cortez once spanned 3,000 square miles, it now reaches about 250. What does it mean to take a phrase literally? Is it simply an acknowledgement of the objective; an internalization of statistics? I say it is an inglorious phenomenon that the mere comprehension of data too often leaves us emotionally uninformed and altogether unchanged. The people of the American Southwest can no longer afford emotional apathy because the river that makes their lives possible is running out of water to give.
Somehow, as we pump water out of reservoirs, across mountains and deserts, and into faucets in places like San Diego and Phoenix, we not only filter the impurities out of the river water, we have also managed to filter out the fundamentality of our connection to it. Lost in a web of technologies that allow humans to voraciously populate an expansive desert, is the sense of debt we owe to a river that sustains us. I am well versed in the unspoken mantras of the bourgeoisie, fully aware of the lustful American mentality to manifest a carefree private domain over which each of us has a rightful mastery. This domain is exhibited in such forms as private households, the freedom of automobiles, personal identities, and political convictions. American liberty has become colossal existential buffet, where one can simply pick and choose their own structure of truths and obligations. The tragic underbelly of our noble cry of self-determination is that we legitimized this buffet as a source of truth, and something as fundamental as water has slipped between the cracks of societal and personal empathy. Under the tutelage of the American way, men and women deserve to be left to their own devices, yet are simultaneously called to look out for one another as each new challenge arises. In examination of the Colorado River over the last century one finds that men and women look after each other, if they happen to occur within a particular special interest group, but fail to adequately look after the most important member of society, nature.
“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” There is ambiguity in those words as they occupy a peculiar space between subjective abstractions and objective rights. This particular piece of history has been a source of great psychological and physical liberation, yet as of today it also maintains near lawfully protected ignorance within this country. Numerous Americans have developed their liberty into willingness to ignore reason and morality to preserve self-interest and profitable gain. As a result, a popular resistance to environmentally protective policy has asserted itself as a prominent feature of the American political landscape.
The “Great American Buffet” allows an obese interpretational range for developing notions of reason and morality. Whereas acts such as rape, murder, and child abuse paint a black and white legal picture of what is reasonable and moral and what is not, constructs such as racism, sexism, and environmentalism do not receive the benefit of universal agreement. What is right and moral cannot always be so unmistakably legislated, and in the absence of legal clarity, it becomes our cultural duty to come together and discover what is right, and act accordingly. Therein lies the critical second part of the American Way, the part where we look out for one another as challenges befall us. In political terms, we call it representative democracy; the act of collectively electing officials whose job is legislating American well being.
Pursuing life, liberty, and happiness, is the act that moves our social and political institutions forward, sideways, and backwards. Whether we accomplish it or not, the objective is to always move forwards, to learn from the past and create a superior future. As citizens, we exuberantly disagree on how this ought to be accomplished, but we seek to do it in the same way: legislation. Behind all the suits in Washington, the passionate ideological declarations, the spiteful social media commentaries, the polls, and he votes lies the complex goal of happiness. We create the rule of law to disseminate happiness as far and wide as we can. Happiness is a headache of subjectivity, but there are certain objective elements that a human needs to have any hope of achieving happiness. Chief among them: water.
We have the responsibility to legislate proactive environmental policy and initiate human reconnection to nature after the age of industrial severance. Instead, the thousands of Americans that are passionate about this change find themselves banging their heads up against a wall of denialism or apathy that is both amoral and unreasonable. Water is not subjective, if we have it we can survive, if we do not we will die. There is no compromise in that relationship.
Nevertheless, environmental policy is anchored in the school of compromise. Certain operational comforts must be sacrificed to stabilize humanity’s relationship with the natural world, or there will be enormous consequences. While American liberties are born of the core compromise of the social contract—that personal liberty comes with the sacrifice of social responsibility—in ideology and in rhetoric, American freedom knows no compromises. Often our liberties are advertised as provided and preserved by our military (the military truly has a compromise complex); the story of the American Revolution provides a heroically incontrovertible origin story to our liberty; and passion for economic virility gives most citizens’ liberty an active purpose. As individuals inherit liberty, it is commonly felt as an inalienable right; something we own rather than earn, and are entitled to rather than create.
About sixty percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in the last presidential election. Close to 93 million people that could vote, did not. The vote is the method by which a citizen contributes to the creation of the rule of law and the structure of their own liberty. Forty percent non-participation is a tragic portion in a country that views itself as the pinnacle of freedom. Moreover, that was the most popular political event we throw. Surely far more people remain ignorant of the nuanced policy that does not receive constant media attention, such as water policy, that directly effects the laws under which they most directly live. The sad truth that many are now witnessing is that liberty is in fact alienable, and does not exist miraculously within the borders of the United States. Our greatest creation, liberty for all, has also become our greatest delusion, and a deluded America has frightening consequences.
Part 2: Mother Earth Is Not a Narcissist
Climate change, and the projections for our future demand on natural resources, magnifies the consequences of ignorance and drops them square on laps of everyday Americans, perhaps nowhere more immediately than the people of the American Southwest. The region’s relationship to the Colorado River needs to be critically reevaluated if life is going to be maintained in a way that resembles what is already in place. Unfortunately, what is already in place is not conducive to the changes that need to be made. Culturally the American Southwest is bound in narcissism; it is built on a celebration of industry, economic bloating, and the all-powerful I. While environmentalism as a movement has a strong cultural presence in many areas, the water dilemma in the Southwest demands cooperation between a huge diversity of people. Not only cooperating to reduce individual water usage, but to rollback decades of a cultural identity that is not particularly pressed by its worldly obligations, and uses a whole lot of water.
The Colorado River supplies a human region vaunted for a fantasy pursued by millions of lives across the spectrum of luxury. Southern California sells its iconic breed of sexy and unapologetic egoism; Las Vegas prescribes a medicine of debased indulgence; quirky communities of artists, adventurers, and mere wanderers litter the landscape, espousing curious forms of personal enlightenment. The sheer abundance of suburbia is numbing, and always growing. Immigrants from all over the world have been steadily adding their dreams of prosperity for years. The American Southwest is a choice destination to grow old in predictable comfort, and fade away alongside the relevance of your convictions.
The attitude of human growth in the region has not been one that popularly feels a debt to the world, rather it has been one of profound individualism. Whether it is in pursuit of fame, golf, or warmth, for generations people have been descending into the sunshine in search of personal appeasement. Habitation of the American Southwest is a perceptive window into the universal human dilemma of accepting the harsh truth of an impartial reality, and devising ways to distract oneself from it. We have transformed it into a naturally ironic and technologically iconic landscape; a place that is naturally incapable of sustaining large amounts of biological life has been developed to support vast amounts of it.
Agricultural and industrial migration incentives throughout the 20th century defined the region as an untapped resource. Albuquerque went from a quaint stop on Route 66 to a nuclear fountainhead. WWII transformed the region into an industrial centrifuge; oil was discovered and infrastructure was built to sell it around. In 1949, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California, Phillips Petroleum, General Motors, and Mack Trucks were convicted of conspiring to monopolize the sale of buses, and related products, to local transit companies controlled by National City Lines. Essentially, they ripped up the electric trolley car system in 44 American cities, and replaced them with buses using internal combustion engines made by General Motors, burning Standard Oil gasoline, rolling on Firestone rubber. It was a concerted effort to make each American burn oil as they were pushed from urbanized settlement and out into suburbia.
Los Angeles burned its oil as it rose to the elite echelon of US metropolises, and onward to global repute. The suburban evolution of the American dream (the largest social engineering project ever undertaken) and the quintessential fantasy to be transcendent of obligations to anyone else but oneself, added a vane concoction of opportunity and pleasure to the region’s identity. Hollywood erupted like a volcano of popular culture, sending a diaspora of endless summer, sex, and envious celebrity out to the world. The Sun Belt Migration beginning in the 1970’s turned the Southwest into the country’s fastest growing region, and it remains that way to this day.
The cultural history of the region in the 20th century is a place where excess is often celebrated, and vanity is social currency. It is a region that rescued a generation of farmers from a dusty nightmare; it is where you can grow crops all year, and never have to be cold again. Surrounding all this is a natural world predicated on something entirely different: desperation. Desperation is the status quo within the ecosystems across most of the southwest. It contains everything from a vast, dry, and confounding desert, to vertiginous mountain ranges. Indeed, for thousands of years, human habitation of the region operated on the same rules of desperation. Yet by draining the Colorado River Basin, the Colorado River gave an industrialized humanity a natural canal moving huge amounts of water through the heart of the region, unlocking the region for habitation. The trick became moving it to where it was wanted, and making sure water was always available.
Part 3: River technology: Big, Beautiful, Brutal, and…Complicated
The technological development of the Colorado River Basin made the 20th century economic and cultural bloating of the American Southwest possible, and it continues to sustain the region as the population rises to a projected 19 million more inhabitants by 2030. The reason the Colorado River provides the human potential of the southwest comes down to a significant investment of energy. As explained by Mike Hightower, a researcher at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, “it takes a lot of energy to push water around.” Needless to say, the populations relying on the Colorado River Basin are engaged in a significant amount of “pushing water around.” Between 1980 and 2005 the population of Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico grew by 71 percent, and the population in those states is projected to grow another 54 percent by 2030. Populations need water to grow, to not only quench their thirst and flush their shit away, but to build things, transport themselves, power homes, and communicate. Civil expansion is a huge investment of energy, and energy requires water to produce.
Turning turbines in hydropower plants requires water; cooling thermoelectric plants is water intensive; the various methods and stages of oil production require significant water usage; water is an essential component in nuclear energy production, and this list is by no means exhausted. It is called the water-energy nexus: energy resource production requires water, and water resource production requires energy. The pleasantly beautiful nature of such a relationship was succinctly outlined by Jennifer Pitt, a senior resource analyst with the Environmental Defense Fund in Boulder, Colorado: “When thinking about the water-energy nexus it becomes starkly apparent that every drop of water conserved has the added benefit of energy savings and lowered carbon emissions while every kilowatt hour of energy saved has the added benefit of water conserved.”
Extra savings, the sweet American dream. Unfortunately, the American Dream so often seems not to account for climate change variables. The 71 percent population increase starting in 1980 enacted a 130 percent power demand increase, meaning the power demand could again double by 2030. These increases in power demand result in greater demands for water as well. This unsurprising formula for growth would work quite beautifully if water were sustainably replenished to a point that allowed us to produce the required energy to meet demands. At one point, that is exactly what we were achieving with the hydroelectric output generated by dam projects in the region. While hydropower consumes little water, it is dependent on streamflow and our ability to store water in reservoirs. In the Colorado River Basin, a combination of sociological factors, inefficient policy, and climate change have negatively impacted the amount of water in storage, creating significant questions for the region in the very near future.
Philosopher Martin Heidegger defined one facet of man’s relationship to technology as an “instrumental setting-upon,” in which humans develop technology to convert the natural world into a “standing-reserve” of resources. Few places demonstrate this relationship with more vivacity than the Colorado River Basin. More than a decade (I think I was about 12 years old) ago my family was boating on Lake Mead in one of our more bourgeois vacation efforts. I roasted in the early afternoon sun as we gradually pulled around yet another rocky bend in the shoreline of what is a labyrinthine lake system. The lake shore had been an arid parade of browns loving reds, and hardy plants defining their precarious territory on barren rocks; the strip of bleach-white rock that always raced beneath this parade served as a glaring reminder of the used resource. As boat pulled into another anonymous corner of the reservoir, I was unsettled to see the parade come to a sudden halt against a powerful slab of concrete. The Hoover Dam towered with more authority than any skyscraper I have seen, and more hubris than any mountain I have climbed. The water grew cold and dark as miles of undulating angles in the eroded cliffs came to an abrupt halt at the overwhelming behest of man’s design. Dams command a unique symbolism in the visual vocabulary of those who behold them, or at least I suspect they do. Few other structures match a dam in their attempt to be something on the scale of a canyon or a mountain. A dam is a human structure that aspires to the ambitions of nature in terms of capability of creation. It is a bold objective to stop a river in its path with a giant cement wall, but yet, the ingenuity of it is absolutely indispensable.
The Hoover Dam is as tall as a sixty-story building and is 660 feet thick at its base. The hydropower plant it houses produces a yearly average of 4.5 billion kilowatt hours to serve 8 million people across Arizona, Southern California, and southern Nevada. It is regarded as a timeless feat of engineering, and along with numerous other dams, a critical structure in powering the region and managing lawful apportionment of water to rights holders. Lake Mead has the capacity to store close to 29 million acre/feet (maf) of water. That is enough water to cover 29 million acres at a depth of one foot, or roughly the state of Pennsylvania. In total The Colorado River Basin has been developed to store about 60 maf of water, about four times the average yearly flow of the river. This allows planning flexibility in times of sustained drought, such as the past 17 years.
Between the years 2000 and 2016 it was the driest 17-year period in one hundred years of record keeping in the basin; all but two of those years saw below average river flow. Projections by the United States Geologic Survey estimate that by 2050 total flow could decrease by anywhere between 5-20 percent, while the SECURE Water Act Report, released in 2016 by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, projects and 8.5 percent decrease in mean annual runoff. Decreased runoff and flow results in decreased total storage of water; which is like an insurance policy with less coverage and higher premiums. By storing enough water, we ensure that all those who have water rights, get their portion; that the water utility service you pay, can actually pump some into your faucet. If there is not enough water for them to get their full allotment, your faucet gets less, and you pay more for what you do get.
A July 2009 study by the University of Colorado, Water Supply Risk on the Colorado River: Can Management Mitigate? concluded that if river flow depletes by 10 percent there will be a 25 percent chance of full reservoir depletion by 2057; if flow depletes by 20 percent there will be a 50 percent chance of full reservoir depletion by 2057. Reservoirs must also remain above a certain level to produce power. The Glen Canyon Dam, which created Lake Powell upriver of Lake Mead, generates about $120 million in power revenue each year, offsetting the costs of numerous important operations. It also provides power to millions and a hypothetical loss of it, like Lake Mead, as a power source would dramatically spike energy costs in the region. Significant reservoir depletion has the real potential to enact very tangible consequences on the lives of millions within immediate lifetimes. Given the increasing demand on the river and its waning supply, the job description for those in charge of managing the water becomes quite difficult.
Water planning is a unique field that demands planning for decades even centuries into the future considering so many aspects of everyday life are affected by its availability. The Department of Energy estimates that 75 percent of the cost of municipal water processing in this country is attributable to electrical power needs, a testament to the idea that electricity, in the words of a well-informed friend of mine, “is literally fucking everything.” The very fabric of our society is woven by wires, and there is a cultural expectation in this country that 50, 100, 300 years down the line, the conditions of comfort and societal ease that we enjoy today will exist for posterity; that the fabric will not. The entire structure of civilization as we know it relies on a perpetual input of energy, and the ways we are most adept at accomplishing that, consume significant amounts of water.
As for the Colorado River, there seems to be a prevailing uncertainty regarding projections for exactly how much water will be available to attempt to meet demands put on it. While hydrologic studies can tell us that total streamflow will decline, it is difficult to project the exact cultural futures that exert demands. If Trump’s isolationist ideology prospers and hydraulic fracturing is ramped up to reduce our use of foreign oil, it will be an intense demand on water whether the fracking is in North Dakota or in Utah. At the current technological state, three barrels of water are required to extract one barrel of shale-produced oil. Six oil companies have filed for 7.2 maf of Colorado River Water, that’s close to half of the average yearly total flow. This is partially due to the fact the Green River Formation in parts of Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah, contains the largest known oil-shale deposit. Given the correct economic and technological conditions it could yield an estimated 1.5 trillion barrels of oil. It is little surprise then, that the Colorado is one of the most regulated rivers in the world. Legal regulation is our way of enacting human ownership over the river; it is how we divide up the water equitably, and spread it around to sustain society, and generate profits. Yet the political arena also creates the space for the fine twitch muscles of capitalism to flex, and for water rights to be leveraged for localized interests.
Our technological development of the river is justified by the cultural supremacy we place in the law, and the justification for enacting the law, is managing the growth of the nation. Growth is the brute objective of a culture that has been wrapped around the economy so many times it is impossible to distinguish them. The Colorado River is the critical tool for achieving this objective in the Southwest, logically then it has been—and will be—heavily used to meet human ends. Some may say this attitude toward the natural world is exploitative, more likely it is an inevitability. Regardless, we find ourselves in an unfolding drama of pragmatism. The basic necessity of water truly demands a creative, efficient, and communally beneficial regulation machine with a commitment to conservation. A look into the history of regulation of the Colorado reveals a recognition of water as a critical building block of society, and a wish to capitalize on it as a society at large. Tragically, it also reveals merely a trace amount of obligation to conserving the river.
Part 4: The Law of the River
By 1922 the need to eliminate controversy and comprehensively regulate the river was apparent. Fighting for water rights between states, and securing the necessary resources for prosperity had become…testy, so representatives from Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California gathered in Bishop’s Lodge New Mexico and hammered out The Colorado River Compact of 1922. This was the most significant step in creating the Law of the River as we know it today. The Law of the River refers to the compacts, federal laws, court decisions and decrees, contracts, and regulatory guidelines used to regulate the river. Tying all these elements together is a recognition of the immense importance of the water resource to civilization, and a wish to capitalize on its civil potential. The compact plainly reflects this in the wording of Article I:
“The major purposes of this compact are to provide for the equitable division and apportionment of the use of the waters of the Colorado River System; to establish the relative importance of different beneficial uses of water, to promote interstate comity; to remove causes of present and future controversies; and to secure the expeditious agricultural and industrial development of the Colorado River Basin, the storage of its waters, and the protection of life and property from floods. To these ends the Colorado River Basin is divided into two Basins, and an apportionment of the use of part of the water of the Colorado River System is made to each of them with the provision that further equitable apportionments may be made.”
At the suggestion of Secretary of Commerce, and future President Herbert Hoover, The Colorado River Compact divided the seven participatory states into two regions, The Upper Basin (UT, CO, WY, NM) and The Lower Basin (CA, AZ, NV). Each were allotted 7.5 maf of river water to develop each year. This was their lawful apportionment, the amount of water they were allowed to extract to develop and maintain their societies. Since 1922 there have been numerous installations to the “Law of the River” building on this original framework, highlights include:
The Boulder Canyon Project Act of 1928: Ratified the Colorado River Compact of 1922; authorized construction of the Hoover Dam; apportioned the 7.5 maf of river water between the Lower Basin states, Arizona (2.8 maf), California (4.4 maf) and Nevada (0.3 maf); created the Colorado River Dam Fund (administered by the Secretary of Treasury) to carry out the provisions of the act.
Upper Colorado River Basin Compact 1948: apportioned the 7.5 maf amongst the Upper Basin states; created the Upper Colorado River Commission. The UCRC is an agency for Upper Basin water management and is comprised of one representative appointed by the Governor of each Upper Division State and one member appointed by the President to represent the United States.
California Seven Party Agreement of 1931: alleviated a well-established conflict between the 7 California water districts using Colorado River water: Palo Verde Irrigation District, Imperial Irrigation District, Coachella Valley Water District, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, City of Los Angeles, City of San Diego, and County of San Diego. Generally, the tension arose from the cultural friction between burgeoning metropolitan areas, and the critical agricultural sector. This cultural divide has long been underlined by the river.
The Mexican Water Treaty of 1944: Allocated 1.5 maf of the river’s annual flow to Mexico.
The Arizona v. California U.S. Supreme Court Decision of 1964: Reached a verdict on a 25-year dispute between the two states who share a border partially drawn by the Colorado River. Arizona wanted to build the Central Arizona Project (CAP) in order to actually access their full river apportionment. California argued that Arizona’s use of the Gila River tributary fulfilled their apportionment, and the historical precedent of California using the unused part of Arizona’s allotment invoked prior appropriation and precluded the development of the CAP. The Supreme Court ruled against California.
One critical conclusion to be drawn from an historical overview of the Law of the River is that water rights are protected very closely despite the initial emphasis on “interstate comity.” Neighboring states went all the way to the Supreme Court over water that technically belonged to Arizona but California had grown accustom to using. Another good example is Las Vegas. The city came to prominence after most of Colorado River water rights had already been sold, as—not surprisingly—nobody ever expected that many people would live at the southern tip of Nevada. Today Las Vegas has a national reputation for their forward thinking water policies, technologies, and regard of conservation. The State of Nevada was awarded 0.3 maf of water in 1928 when the total population was about 100,000 residents, this is the allotment with which they still operate. The population of Las Vegas alone now exceeds 600,000, yet due to their commitment of recycling the water they use back into Lake Mead, decreasing waste where possible, and constantly exploring water technology innovation, Las Vegas is able to host the indulgent fantasies of millions of tourists, and the day-to-day existence of its permanent residents. Yet the glaring fact is, that despite their rapid growth, no more water was made available, because the entirety of the yearly flow of the Colorado River, and then some, had already been bought up for decades. Let Las Vegas serve as a microcosm of conservation policies that the surrounding region ought to adopt, because it is that state of necessity that is drawing itself over Nevada’s neighbors with each passing year.
As of today, the core objectives of the compact are still intact: interstate comity and industrious use of the river. Simplified: growth and harmony. American ideology has constantly put these two together as conditions for a thriving society in all regards, yet on the whole, this nation has a mixed record on unifying those elements to say the least. While the Law of the River portrays significant historical effort to achieve equitable division of water and great interstate industrial cooperation, the fundamental nature of water as a resource has inevitably led to division. The Seven Party Agreement of 1931 lays the foundation for an urban versus agricultural struggle that is still being politicked today. The sustained regional drought has driven the basin states into negotiations that are being called a “drought contingency plan.” 2016 was an intensified year for the talks, as reservoir levels continued to plummet, and a critical election for environmental policy loomed in November 2017. No plan was passed as the presidency shifted from blue to red (from cogent to ludicrous), and one major reason the talks have stalled came down to the accidentally toxic lakebed of the Salton Sea.
Part 5: Flowing Forward
The Salton Sea, a huge shallow lake, serves as the ending place for the agricultural runoff for California’s Imperial Valley, which irrigates its farmland with Colorado River water. Over the decades more water has been diverted to urban areas due to increased demand, shrinking the amount of water supplying the Salton Sea. Being an accidentally created lake, with a meager history of comprehensive management outside of tourism, the Salton Sea has no outlet, and in the oppressive heat of the desert it simply recedes with evaporation. The lake—rich in fertilizer, pesticides, and salt—leaves behind large swaths of lakebed that bakes in the sun, then is swept into the air as dust and inhaled into millions of lungs. Odor warnings advisory warnings are not uncommon in the area as decaying organic matter pumps the aroma of hydrogen sulfide into noses as far away as Los Angeles (130 miles). In 2002 the Imperial Irrigation District, which oversees vast and critical agricultural land, agreed to fallow farmland to help put water into the Salton Sea and avoid a public health crisis. Robert Schettler, an Imperial Irrigation spokesperson said, “our lifeblood is agriculture, but we agreed to fallow agricultural land for 15 years to give the state enough time to figure out what to do.” Well it is fifteen years later, and the state has yet to figure it out, but the demand for solutions is stalling the drought contingency plan.
The Imperial Irrigation District is the largest single user of Colorado River Water; it takes a lot of water to supply the country two-thirds of its fruit and vegetables in the wintertime. Yet, kids are not growing up to be farmers, and people are not moving to the country. Urban areas are, as they have been for a long time, the developmental future of humanity. Their economic gravity demands water, but when the water source is overdrawn, somebody must give some up. The Lower Colorado Basin, which enacts a greater demand on the river than the upper basin, operates on what is called a “structural deficit,” meaning their total demand for water per year—about 10 to 10.5 maf—is more than annual inflow into Lake Mead of 9.0 maf, from Lake Powell and the upper basin. The current need in the basin states is for consumption to mirror supply. Under the proposed contingency plan the Imperial Valley would indeed curtail consumption, but they are unwilling to do so until the Salton Sea situation is addressed.
Water policy is certainly not a popular political arena, but its effects are unparalleled in how they tangibly effect each citizen, and the influence it yields in other political regions. Given the centrality of the water resource, it stands to reason that an optimized socio-political water philosophy for generating policy ought to be in place. Unfortunately, the management culture in the United States is not one built on the truths of the water-energy nexus. Rather water and energy tend to be isolated from each other, studied separately, and overseen by independent agencies, despite being synergistic resources.
The institutions we use to manage, regulate, and distribute energy and water (utility providers, oil companies, Bureau of Reclamation, etc.) are kept economically viable and influenced by the behavior of the public at large. Yet, they hold an enormous power over each citizen due to the centrality of their product to our way of life. The industrial age has made a technological spectacle out of the interdependency of individuals and societies. Millions would be dead in the desert without the elaborate ways we transport water and energy hundreds of miles to homes. The days where you can settle by a river, or dig a well and resource your own water are long gone, but there is a residual impulse for that kind of independence still operating in the American psyche. I suppose it is one reason America still has a widespread resistance to the very word socialism. More than anything, a contemporary call for socializing our society is a call to recognize that reality demands that we exert our efforts collectively, and feel an obligation to the societal apparatus that creates the conditions of life. But our right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” has allowed us to internalize something of the opposite: that we have a right to a society that provides conditions for happiness, rather than a responsibility to build one.
Our relationship with water up until now is reflective of this cultural symptom, but in the Colorado River Basin it is an abusive relationship and we have the responsibility to extricate ourselves. Integrated Resources Planning and Development is the idea that land use, energy, and water policies ought to be created and combined in a synergistic manner to sustainably meet demands across the spectrum of development projects. With the realities of climate change at hand, any forward thinking and economically capable society ought to pursue policies that ensure sustainable and equitable distribution of resources. In the United States, the water and energy sectors combine to emit a significant portion of the total greenhouse gases produced by the country; the electricity sector alone is responsible for 31 percent of emissions. Innovation in both of these sectors is certainly in society’s best interest; as stated by a University of California study, “joint solutions for water and energy can help to ensure reliable access to energy and water resources while proactively addressing climate change and grappling with aging infrastructure.” As it stands different utilities are delivering water and energy individually to American households, leaving room for contradictory policies. Integration of this structure would invest more money, science, and organization into the water-energy nexus, and produce more technological innovations for an existence founded on conservation.
As it stands certain changes are underway that reflect an integrated resource viewpoint. One prevailing action of the past years has been to update and replace existing technology, rather than increase reservoir storage capacity. In 2001, though many in the Bureau of Reclamation didn’t realize that it was the dawn of a sustained drought, dropping water levels became an opportunity to update dam technology. As of 2009, in the Hoover dam, wicket gate replacement recouped 84 megawatts (mw) of lost energy, with an annual value of $2.7 million, while updating the turbines to be more efficient in constrained conditions has generated an extra $3.4 million per year. Increasing dam storage has a similar outcome, but it does so at a great investment of energy, and therefore water. Technological innovation is going to be the arena that ultimately unlocks the water-energy nexus, through technology we have the ability to extricate water from its necessary role in the energy sector.
Renewable energy sources that do not require water to produce, if popularly implemented in the Southwest, will alleviate the demand on water. Solar energy is an ideal solution to this as it requires no water in its energy harvesting, and taps into the most prolific source of energy for about 4.2 lightyears in any direction. What makes solar energy truly important though, is its cultural viability. Solar cell technology has been around since the 1954 and has enjoyed its share of rising and falling periods of popularity. These periods are generally correlated to the waxing and waning of global oil prices, but the presence of solar energy is firmly within the scope of the American public’s imagination. More importantly, research and development has created an affordable possibility of private, low scale solar energy collection. This holds the possibility of enacting change on an individual level throughout society, or at least at the household level. Moreover, by connecting individuals more intimately with their energy sources, it has the effect of increasing empathy towards the contemporary mechanisms of survival. Empathy allows a more nuanced understanding of an object, as it colors in the between the lines of statistics and data with emotion. It is our emotional realizations that ultimately are the greatest impetus of personal change.
To enact the cultural evolution to achieve the necessary conservation objectives, there must be a well distributed shift in perspective that happens on the individual worldview level. Throughout the vast majority of human history, a debt to water and other life sustaining resources was greatly felt throughout cultures. These debts often expressed themselves in the spiritual relationship between humans and deities. Gods were created out of rivers, rains, and oceans, such was the magnitude of importance felt around the resource. Secularism has all but studied a sense of spirituality between man and water into nothingness, and replaced it with calculations, regulation, and elaborate systems of distribution. An incredible feat of adaption in its own right, but one that underrepresents the critical element of interconnectivity. Technology has allowed us to understand nature on ever deepening level of intimacy, ironically it has also allowed us the delusion that we have reordered the hierarchy between man and nature. The Colorado River is a sobering reminder that without the fundamental support of the natural world, we would be quite literally lost in a desert. This has been true for each individual minute of human history, yet in the last 150 years or so we have bred this truth out of our most powerful societies, particularly the United States of America.
The current climate of environmental activism is encouraging; it indicates a profound and necessary respect for the natural world is alive and well. But to entrust environmental activists alone with spurring a movement of change (as they are trying to do) is nearsighted. The American habit that prioritizes dreams over reality, and pursues self-interest at the expense of society is a vast cultural symptom that must be unpacked, understood, and reordered in far more locations that the Colorado River Basin, and far more sociological sectors than environmentalism. While an increased investment and societal awareness in renewable energy and conservation policies are absolutely the right steps, they do not quite address the roots of the issue. The ravenous American consumer must be caged, and the notion of American exceptionalism must be truncated. To accomplish this, it appears we have to reevaluate our founding ideologies of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and focus on the notions of obligation it actually possesses. The founding fathers envisioned a government “for the people, by the people.” Thomas Paine—a famous author and one of the men who wrote the Constitution—once wrote, “those who wish to reap the blessings of freedom must…undergo the fatigue of supporting it.” It is 2018, and freedom has long since been a solo performance. Americans need to feel a profound obligation to act for each other to sustain freedom, a conclusion that is drawn from a real understanding of the societal apparatus in which we live. If this is accomplished then the environmental policy will fall into place because it will be legislated by and for a populous much more aware of the incontrovertible fact that the entirety of civilization is built on a foundation of natural resources.