For more than a decade the Colorado River has been practically drained dry before it reaches the Gulf of California – 5 trillion gallons of water sucked out by thirsty cities and farms across the south-western USA and northern Mexico. And demand is increasing.
Rising in the central Rocky Mountains in the USA, the river flows across the Colorado Plateau before reaching Lake Mead on the Arizona-Nevada line, where it turns south towards Mexico. Forming a large delta, it empties into the Gulf of California between Baja California and Sonora. En route the river passes through the Grand Canyon with its dramatic rock sculptures and white-water rapids.
The states that depend on the Colorado River for their water have long been seeking solutions to the shortage. In 2006 the seven US states served by the Colorado River commissioned a study to look into ways to augment the existing supply of water. Consultants were asked to consider the feasibility of options ranging from the large-scale re-use of household waste water to importing fresh water from further afield and even towing icebergs down from the Arctic.
Importing water is not a new idea. For years, engineers and politicians have been coming up with proposals to transport water from water-rich northern California or Alaska down to the desert south-west. In the early 1970s, the US Bureau of Reclamation began looking into the idea of building an underwater aqueduct to carry water from northern California to the south of the state. And in the 1990s an ocean pipeline was suggested to run from Alaska to the south-west USA. Engineers concluded that projects closer to home – like water conservation, and desalination of sea water – were more practical and realistic.
The Colorado River system can be described as the lifeblood of the American Southwest, nourishing some of the richest and most diverse wetlands in the region and providing a vital habitat for endangered fish and wildlife. Recently, Mexico and the USA agreed new rules to share and manage the supply of water from the Colorado River, which serves some 30 million people in the two nations.
Under the deal, Mexico will forgo some of its share during drought in the north, a practice already followed by the states of California, Arizona and Nevada. In return, Mexico will be allowed to store water in times of plenty in Lake Mead, a vast reservoir by the Hoover Dam on the Arizona-Nevada border. Mexico will also get $10 million to repair irrigation channels damaged during the 2010 earthquake and there will be funding to restore the Colorado River delta, which has largely dried up.
This may look like a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” deal, but its pragmatism offers hope for other cross-border regions of the world. Currently there are water conflicts affecting the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers (between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq); the Jordan River (between Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestine territories); the Nile River (between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan); and the Aral Sea conflict (between Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan).
Wishful thinking? Everyone needs water to survive and compromise is clearly the name of the game. Avoiding water conflict may be a key to avoiding future armed conflict.