What would a lack of water and power from the Colorado River do to sprawl?

The suburban sprawl in the United States depends on the availability of water and power, among other resources. So what happens if the Colorado River, a source of water and power for numerous people, no longer can supply either?

Photo by Cameron Rainey on Pexels.com

Such an outcome — known as a “minimum power pool” — was once unfathomable here. Now, the federal government projects that day could come as soon as July.

Worse, officials warn, is the remote possibility of an even more catastrophic event. That is if the water level falls all the way to the lowest holes, so only small amounts could pass through the dam. Such a scenario — called “dead pool” — would transform Glen Canyon Dam from something that regulates an artery of national importance into a hulking concrete plug corking the Colorado River…

As the water has receded, so has the ability to produce power at Glen Canyon, as less pressure from the lake pushes the turbines. The dam already generates about 40 percent less power than what has been committed to customers, which includes dozens of Native American tribes, nonprofit rural electric cooperatives, military bases, and small cities and towns across several southwestern states. These customers would be responsible for buying power on the open market in the event Glen Canyon could not generate, potentially driving up rates dramatically.

The standard rate paid for Glen Canyon’s low-cost power is $30 per megawatt hour. On the open market, these customers last summer faced prices as high as $1,000 per megawatt hour, said Leslie James, executive director of the Colorado River Energy Distributors Association.

The issue of water has already increased concerns about development in the Southwest. A landscape full of single-family homes, lawns, lots of roads, and other suburban features requires a lot of water. Can life in sprawl not require as much water or is there a point where no more sprawl is just not possible? Then add in the issue of power. This includes transmission lines, homes, and other structures. Can the existing sprawl even be maintained with less electricity and water?

It also worth paying attention to how these changes with the Colorado River have ripple effects elsewhere. If as much water is not available, where can water come from? I imagine those around the Great Lakes have thoughts. If not as much power is generated, is there electricity capacity elsewhere? How much can be done short-term to shore things up while also considering long-term consequences?

More broadly, what might stop American sprawl? Not having water or power would be a powerful incentive. Others have speculated about a certain price of gas. Perhaps cultural beliefs about the suburban good life change. Or there might be something unforeseen. The conditions with the Colorado River might just offer a glimpse into what happens when sprawl has to stop.

Water shortage hits the Colorado River and the agreement governing water distribution dates back to 1922

Updating infrastructure to meet new challenges is an issue in numerous areas, including in securing water. The current case of the Colorado River illustrates how updating is needed:

The 1922 compact overestimated how much water was in the river system to begin with. And now there’s even less. On top of that, the rules about divvying up the water – whether you’re a city, an irrigation district, or a rancher – essentially operate like dibs or calling shotgun in a car.

The phrase that people like to use in the West is “first in time, first in right.” The water users who arrived first in these places where the water is used and claim the water when they got there, hold the most senior water rights, and their water rights remain senior no matter who comes after them. Those senior water rights trump junior water rights even to this day, with an exception: The law says that if you don’t use those senior water rights to their full extent every year that they could be confiscated and given to somebody with more junior water rights…

Why has the frontier mindset survived to 2021 in the way we think about and legislate water?

Part of it is cultural. The culture of the West survives. In the north, in the mountains, it’s a culture of rugged individualism, and in the south, it is still a bit individualistic and conservative. The rights to the water track to the history of the place, not to how it has evolved in more modern times. [These] cities didn’t exist in the mid-1800s, so they have very junior water rights now, even though that’s where most of the people are. So literally the largest volume of water goes to the people in places with the deepest historical roots.

Future battles about access to water will be fierce, particularly in places where less water is available than in the past.

Will this slow growth in states where growth has been a feature of life for decades? This could affect communities, metropolitan areas, states, and a whole region.

Does this help break the obsession Americans have with green grass lawns? The drought in California half a decade ago could have been just a taste of the future.

Does this become a major issue in elections? How exactly does a water distribution renegotiation occur, particularly if elected officials have little direct influence?

What would a more collectivist mindset to water look like in the United States compared to a more individualistic approach or one rooted in history in the area? I could imagine a quick switch of systems would be difficult but phasing in changes over time might be possible.

A new bridge just beyond Hoover Dam

The road from Phoenix to Las Vegas crosses right over the top of Hoover Dam, one of the engineering marvels of the United States. Now travelers have a bypass route: a new bridge, the second tallest in the United States, was recently completed allowing travelers to avoid the slow, two-lane road over the dam.

Read more about the project at its official page.

Will the new bridge include guides who will tell you “take all the Dam photos you want!”?