The water shortage in the Colorado River Basin threat 40 million people and five million acres of farmland from Mexico to Wyoming. A lot of people call it a disaster, but it makes it sound like a force majeure. It is not just climate change that is causing low flows: industrial agriculture, urban sprawl and concrete infrastructure designed to control water aggravate the region’s water problems. And bringing in water from elsewhere won’t solve the problem.
Summer is approaching and the Biden administration’s recent proposed limits on water withdrawals along the river demonstrate the seriousness of the situation; After decades of drought and the inability of states to compromise on much-needed reductions, the feds can actually intervene.
looking for my book Water is always a winner: thriving in times of drought and flood, I have met people from all over the world who have shown me that if we respect the action of water and collaborate with it, we can protect ourselves against these extremes. Because Euro-American culture myopically focuses on human well-being, we tend to think of water as a commodity or one flood threat. We try to solve these problems with targeted projects like dams and dykes, a manifestation of the cultural will to control our environment. This characteristic, globalized by colonialism and capitalism, has disrupted the water cycle, aggravating floods and drought almost everywhere. Instead, we need to think of water as a living system and ask ourselves: what does water want?
Water wants what development has disrupted: its slow phases in wetlands, floodplains, grasslands and forests. Historically, many now seasonal streams flowed year-round, fed by healthy aquifers replenished by persistent surface waters. By making space for these slow phases, we can get the most out of water. I have come to think of this approach as the “slow motion of water”. In slow-moving water, solutions are systems-based, equitable, decentralized, and community-driven. Slow-flowing water projects address floods and droughts, store carbon dioxide, retain soil, reduce the need for irrigation, and support a myriad of life forms, including humans.
Not everyone sees water as something to control. Many cultures consider water more like a friend or relative. This view, shared by groups ranging from indigenous peoples in North America to Kenyan government officials to Tamils in South India, is akin to the perspectives of some ecologists, landscape architects (including one I met in China), urban planners and environmental engineers around the world. I call these people “water sleuths”. Water detectives make room for the complex relationships that water has with all elements of ecosystems, including humans, understanding that with the right to water comes the responsibility to care for it. In turn, these healthy systems support us.
We have broken the water cycle; globally we emptied up to 87 percent wetlands; contained and diverted in regards to two-thirds of the major rivers; and, since 1992, doubled the area of the urban pavement. Through this transformation of land and water, more overpumping, killing beavers, cutting down forests and overgrazing grasslands, we have severed the connection between surface water and groundwater. Our development in the Colorado River watershed exemplifies these trends and has dried up the land.
In California And Washington flood management strategies are beginning to make room for slow-moving water, pushing levees away from banks to give rivers like the Cosumnes and Nooksack back access to parts of their floodplains. In this strategy, water from the floodplains slowly returns to the river, extending the flow during the driest months, when farmers need it most.
A lowered water table increases the risk of fire And reduce the rain. Replenishing water tables and raising the water table within reach of plants allows them to transpire water. On average, 40 percent of precipitation on land transpires from plants and evaporates from the ground. Networks of plants let water through through a process called moisture recycling Or humidity jump. Projects around the world, including in the Colorado River Basin, are already slowing water on private and public lands. For example, a couple in Arizona built thousands of small stone walls across their creek, resulting in 28% more water flowing downstream than into a nearby untreated stream.
Another strategy involves beavers; there is no animal so adept at healing water systems. Before the trappers almost made these animals disappear, about 10 percent of North America was created by a beaver swamps. Their dams slow down the water and filter it underground; a researcher found stored beavers 75 times more water per 100 meters of stream only in the stretches without them. This storage is increasingly important as the snowpack and glaciers disappear. Their ponds and the well-hydrated plants that surround them too act as a firewall. We can help by learning to live with them instead of kill them. Washington state is a leader in beaver coexistence, and the movement is spreading across the West.
Yet many engineers and policymakers argue that nature-based solutions, including slow-flowing water projects, cannot be a significant part of the solution. It’s a misunderstanding of scale. Because we’ve done such extensive damage, we need small projects spread across watersheds where water can linger on the ground and move underground.
Another problem is that the cost-benefit analyzes we use for gray infrastructure such as dams and levees generally ignore the benefits of healthy water supply systems, including flood protection, storage and cleaning of water, precipitation, cooling, food production and carbon storage. Nor do they deduct the costs of damage to these systems caused by control-oriented infrastructure.
Our gray infrastructure-centric approach to water is clearly failing. Importing water from elsewhere is not the solution. Sociohydrologists know it just creates more demand, like adding new lanes on the freeway generates more traffic. The result is that human activity has moved to places without enough water to support it. Long distance water transfers are also a environmental justice issue, bringing more water to 20% of the world’s population but reducing available water to 24%. On the Colorado River, for example, water demands from the United States drained much of it before it reached Mexicowhere two million people in Tijuana depend on it.
Fortunately, we can change our habits, as demonstrated by leaders who deploy slow-flowing water projects. In addition to the latest move to reduce human use of the Colorado River, the Biden administration is potentially allocating money for nature-based solutions, including slow-moving water, via the Infrastructure Investment and Employment Act and the Inflation Reduction Act. But the scale is still relatively small and funding relies on local and state authorities knowing about these solutions and requesting them. That of the administration Nature-based solutions roadmap could help: it calls for new educational, scientific, financial and political initiatives to better collaborate with nature.
Disasters such as today’s water scarcity are an opportunity to rethink business as usual and make difficult changes. Agriculture consumes 80 percent of the water used by humans from Colorado. But the biggest consumers are not critical foods, but rather cash crops like alfalfa, almonds and cotton. Water must be diverted from profit to the greater good.
In southwestern cities, landscape irrigation, especially for lawns, uses as much as 70 percent residential water. But cultures can change. cities like Los Angeles offers landlord discounts that replace their lawns with native, drought-tolerant plants, and 30 water agencies, including those serving Phoenix and Las Vegas have pledged to remove ornamental lawns. Cultural change began years ago in Phoenix, and many locals now take pride in their saguaros and palo verde, and display snapshots of bobcats and roadrunners in their yards.
While California has plenty of water from elsewhere this year, other western states face continued water stress and political fights over sharing the Colorado River remain unresolved. It’s time to replace control with collaboration. When we work with water systems, we make ourselves resilient. People around the world and across the West are already rehydrating, rather than dehydrating, the earth. Every gesture counts, and the effect is cumulative, like how the solar power on everyone’s roof produces a lot of electricity. We can start today, at home.
This is an opinion and analytical article, and the opinions expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of American scientist.