Can Anything Save the Drying Southwest?
Quite by accident a couple of weeks ago — I was looking for a vineyard — I found myself driving through the northern reaches of California’s Central Valley, the verdant and productive fruit and vegetable basket of the U.S. To the left and right of highway 101 were fields of produce stretching to the horizon, just a small section of an agricultural superpower that produced $21 billion worth of fruits and vegetables in 2007. It’s the rich soil and perfect climate that has helped make the Central Valley so productive, but something else has made a big difference as well: irrigation. Fountains running up and down the fields sprinkle a steady stream of water onto the soil, without which farming on such a massive scale would be all but impossible in this dry climate. And that water comes from both the ground — farmers pumping deep water to the surface — and from a sprawling irrigation network that is fed in part by the great Colorado River.
Or at least, it used to be great. These days the Colorado River — which starts in the Rocky Mountains and cuts through much of the Southwest — isn’t what it once was. The water of the river has been dammed and divvied up, with more than 40 million people in the region now depending on it for irrigation and municipal supplies. But persistent drought along with the growth in the West has reduced the river’s flow, to the point that these days it usually dries up before it reaches what had been its mouth on the Pacific coast of Mexico. We’re draining the river dry.