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Where the Colorado River crisis is hitting home

Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the nation, has shrunk so low there's concern the Hoover Dam will soon be unable to generate hydropower.
Kirk Siegler/NPR
Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the nation, has shrunk so low there's concern the Hoover Dam will soon be unable to generate hydropower.

LAS VEGAS — These days it can feel almost cliche to throw around the word "dystopian." But it's hard not to use it while standing on the narrow road crossing the Hoover Dam as tourists gawk at the hulking structure's exposed columns that for decades were underwater.

"It's amazing to see the water so low," says Arthur Murzeau, who's on holiday in Las Vegas from Belgium.

Lake Mead, the nation's largest reservoir, is so low it's getting perilously close to what's known as "deadpool," the level where the dam's hydropower turbines would be shut off for the first time in its 86 year history.

"I think we need [politicians] to take actions," Murzeau says. "We need people to react and to be really aware of what's going on."

But are enough people aware?

Even in the worst drought in 1,200 years, and despite repeated alarms, day-to-day life hasn't really changed for most of the 40 million people who rely on the Colorado River for drinking water.

Cities and water managers are proud of the conservation solutions and workarounds they've found to prevent a crisis. But travel through the epicenter of the western megadrought, and you'll find plenty of people who are dealing with, or on the cusp of, dire consequences.

Leaving 'Mas Vegas'

Travel south of the Hoover Dam and Highway 93 descends into Arizona, a place people continue to move to faster than almost any other state. Even in the driest and most barren looking places, including the unincorporated area sometimes nicknamed "Mas Vegas," homes and RVs pockmark the desert shrub. Real estate signs line the highway and side roads advertising cheap land — 100 acres here, 160 there.

Communities with names like Dolan Springs, or closer to Phoenix, Rio Verde Foothills, sound like false promises when it comes to water.

In Rio Verde at the far northeastern edge of the Phoenix sprawl, Karen Nabity appears to be one of a few activists sounding the alarm. She's a realtor but is dismayed that people are still being allowed to buy and build in places like this.

"They don't have a disclosure to the owner of that property to say, 'You're building this house, but do you know on January 1st we don't have a water source for you.' "

Development continues largely due to loose zoning in Maricopa County — one of the nation's fastest growing — and loopholes in Arizona water law.

This Jan. 1, some 500 homes in the Rio Verde Foothills community, Nabity's included, are losing all their water. That's because nearby Scottsdale, which gets most of its water from the Colorado River, now says there's not enough to go around anymore. And its long standing delivery program will cease.

Karen Nabity's home, and some 500 others in her neighborhood outside Phoenix have been told they'll be cut off from water due to cuts in deliveries from the Colorado River.
/ Kirk Siegler/NPR
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Kirk Siegler/NPR
Karen Nabity's home, and some 500 others in her neighborhood outside Phoenix have been told they'll be cut off from water due to cuts in deliveries from the Colorado River.

Remember "deadpool" up in Lake Mead? Nabity worries it's coming faster than predicted.

"The Colorado River won't be flowing, water won't be flowing down the [Central Arizona Project] canals, that should be an 'oh shit' to this entire state," Nabity says. "I'm an Arizona native and for God sakes wake up Arizona, we need to do something and we need to do it now."

The end of water deliveries wasn't a surprise, Nabity says. They were first notified back in 2016 that they'd eventually need to find a longer term water source. She's been trying to organize her neighbors to form a water district which could then go out and buy farm land and its water rights. The water could then be trucked to taps here next year. It's common in Arizona but so far Maricopa County has denied their plan.

"What is our state doing? People are still planting grass, people are still watering yards. We need to have our state step up more and start doing bigger cutbacks now," Nabity says.

Arizona's "secret" underground reservoirs

One reason it may feel like business as usual across large swaths of urban Arizona is because for decades now, many cities have been storing their legal share of Colorado River water underground.

Tucson's water director John Kmiec stands next to a basin of Colorado River water.
/ Kirk Siegler/NPR
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Kirk Siegler/NPR
Tucson's water director John Kmiec stands next to a basin of Colorado River water.

Tucson's water director, John Kmiec, is standing on a patch of desert shrub more than 330 miles from the shrinking river, from which his city gets the bulk of its drinking water.

"We have a shortage on the Colorado River but it's really not going to affect the Tucson basin because we've banked more than five and a half years of excess Colorado River water in these aquifers already," he says.

You can think of it like a secret reservoir hidden underneath this vast Sonoran desert with its blazing sun and saguaro cactus. About thirty miles west of the city on a plot of former farm land lies a collection of forty acre basins - some bare dirt, some holding water that has yet to seep into the soil.

"We fill these large reservoirs up, they look like small lakes. But what's actually happening is the water is slowly going down and percolating into the aquifer and turning into groundwater," Kmiec says.

A basin where the city has been "banking" its excess Colorado River water for two decades.
/ Kirk Siegler/NPR
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Kirk Siegler/NPR
A basin where the city has been "banking" its excess Colorado River water for two decades.

For more than 20 years now, Tucson has been preparing for this crisis, implementing aggressive conservation measures as well as pumping its legal share of Colorado River water from the federally built CAP canal into the ground. Arizona pioneered "water banking" because it had to, says Kathryn Sorensen, a water policy expert at Arizona State University.

Sorensen, who used to run Phoenix Water, says Arizona has long known its water rights are junior to California's, so they have to bank the river water they are given and aggressively conserve the rest.

"I think the advantage that water planners in Arizona have is that it is a desert, and we do have lower priority water to the Colorado River. So you know to plan for worst case," she says.

Farms are shrinking fast

Will Thelander has his own theory for why people in most Southwestern cities aren't panicking right now. Cities, he says, can more easily spread costs across big populations, and raise enough money to go out on the market and find and buy expensive water.

Thelander, 35, farms in Pinal County, a rare, but shrinking piece of open desert between the encroaching sprawl of Arizona's two largest cities, Phoenix to the north and Tucson to the south.

Thanks largely to the Colorado River, Pinal County is — or was — one of the most productive farming regions in the United States. It's a big producer of alfalfa, corn for cattle feed and cotton, even in one of the hottest and driest places in the world.

Will Thelander's family farm in Pinal County, Ariz. had to shrink by half as farmers there lost all of their Colorado River water supply due to mandated cuts.
/ Kirk Siegler/NPR
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Kirk Siegler/NPR
Will Thelander's family farm in Pinal County, Ariz. had to shrink by half as farmers there lost all of their Colorado River water supply due to mandated cuts.

"So I know everyone says that," Thelander says. "My initial response is, why did everyone move to a desert? So you can build a city here but you can't do other things?"

This drought is forcing Thelander to do other things. For starters, he's resorting to pumping groundwater because farmers in this county are no longer getting any Colorado River water deliveries due to cutbacks. Pinal County users are generally far junior to their counterparts in California in the century old laws that govern the river, so when there's a shortage they get cut off more quickly.

Due to the cutbacks, Thelander's farm has shrunk by about 50% this year. Figuring he can't count on Colorado River water anymore, he's started growing a new crop, a desert plant called guayule that produces a natural rubber for tires. It also uses a quarter of the water his traditional crops do.

"It can provide a different avenue for economics and responsible water use here in the Southwest," Thelander says.

Farmer Will Thelander has begun growing a less water intensive desert crop called guayule that produces a natural rubber for tires.
/ Kirk Siegler/NPR
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Kirk Siegler/NPR
Farmer Will Thelander has begun growing a less water intensive desert crop called guayule that produces a natural rubber for tires.

This is the first year in recent memory that there won't be any cotton in the ground on the family farm. The field next to him lies fallow, it's hard not to see a reckoning coming. The system of dams, pipelines and canals that support farms and cities that made the Southwest boom were built at a time when people thought the Colorado would always have excess water. Even amid record growth, cities still consume a fraction of the water that farms gulp up in the Southwest.

"You can't just go, well, it's the desert and they're out of water, so we'll grow food elsewhere," Thealander says. "These industries have taken fifty to a hundred years to establish, it's way more complicated than that."

Why are we still calling this a 'megadrought'?

It's clear the 23 year megadrought in the Colorado River basin is complicating everything. And some are starting to question why it's still even being called a drought because that term suggests it might end.

For Tucson city councilman Steve Kozachik, it's a false hope.

"This is the climate reality that we're living in," he says.

In Tucson, like in much of the rest of the Arizona, you don't see many signs in hotels or restaurants urging water conservation. On a recent evening, misters outside local cafes and bars sprayed water full bore in 105 degree heat to cool patrons. Kozachik recently urged city leaders to leave its share of Colorado River water in Lake Mead, in part for the city to lead by example and force other users to the negotiation table.

He isn't convinced that a five and a half year supply "banked" in the ground is much of a cushion.

"Three years from now, five years from now, whenever it is, we can all be standing along the banks of the Colorado looking at a dry riverbed, saying all I did was take what I was entitled to, and we sucked it dry," he says.

Across the river basin in Nevada, Arizona and California, water managers are supposed to be figuring out plans to dramatically cut their water use, as water levels in Lake Mead continue to drop.

Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, says climate change and drought has caught up with the long overallocated river.
/ Kirk Siegler/NPR
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Kirk Siegler/NPR
Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, says climate change and drought has caught up with the long overallocated river.

Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, expects the federal government to implement mandatory cuts soon because the lake is so overallocated. Water is being doled out — and users are expecting it to be delivered - as if it's still the the 1900s when the climate was wetter and fewer people lived here.

"There's not enough water to go around and if we strictly interpret what the law of the river says, then you get to these ridiculous outcomes," Cooke says.

Cooke says water managers had been able to keep Lake Mead relatively stable since 2014, but, "climate change and the drought has caught up with us."

Sick of all the Dystopian apocalyptic references

Lake Mead is currently at just 28% of capacity. There are projections now it could fall to the dreaded deadpool — no more hydropower and a lot less water — within the next few years.

At the popular marinas on its shoreline, Gail Kaiser's family business, the Las Vegas Boat Harbor, has had to pick everything up and move farther out into the lake nine times this year alone due to the receding shoreline.

"It's tough 'cause all you have is bad publicity," Kaiser says. "You know, the lake is still bigger than Lake Mohave below us and Lake Havasu below that put together."

And she's tired of all the doom and gloom and Dystopian references in the news and on social media.

Marinas along Lake Mead have had to be moved several times this year alone as the shoreline recedes.<a href="https://files.slack.com/files-pri/T031C6G0U-F043CHXNK4K/img_6548.jpg" data-qa="message_file_image_thumbnail" data-file-id="F043CHXNK4K" data-remove-tab-index="true"></a>
/ Kirk Siegler/NPR
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Kirk Siegler/NPR
Marinas along Lake Mead have had to be moved several times this year alone as the shoreline recedes.

"Is there a drought? Absolutely there is a drought, and do we need to watch what we do with our water and conserve and do all those things that's necessary? Yes, obviously, we live in a desert. We should have always been doing that," Kaiser says.

But there's still a big beautiful lake here, Kaiser says, with good boating and fishing. And she's fighting to keep it that way.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.