In California, the Salton Sea"s waters are too salty to sustain life. Here, dead tilapia have washed ashore.
The management of the Colorado River is accomplished through an interlaced system of treaties, compacts, dams and tunnels. Interstate compacts define delivery and management roles between adjoining states that share in this body of water. These states, then, are divided into upper- and lower-basin states with additional compacts defining water-sharing agreements within and between these conglomerates. Next, a compact along the entire river system details sharing beyond the basin, and finally, a treaty between the U.S. and Mexico ensures minimum quantity and quality measures at the border.
Over time, these arrangements have altered the shape of the Colorado River and its watershed. Dams, pumping stations, desalination facilities and hundreds of miles of aqueducts store, carry, clean and move water throughout the basin. New Mexico takesits negotiated share of the river through 30 miles of tunnels in order to carry water fromthree Colorado River tributaries under the continental divide and into the Heron reservoir near Abiqiu, NM—the once pristine home of Georgia O"Keefe—where it joins the Rio Grande and flows to the Atlantic. For years the focal point of Southern Utah"s tourist economy has been Lake Powell, where tourists can explore ancient pictographs and sandstone arches as God intended—by boat. Passing through Glen Canyon Dam, the River turns massive electrical turbines before flowing through the Grand Canyon and intoLake Mead where it again powers and waters a rural desert community—Las Vegas, NV, America"s fastest growing city.
After leaving Hoover Dam, millions of acre-feet are funneled off into the Colorado Canal for delivery to thirsty residents, pools, fields, and golf courses in Southern California, the residue being hung out to dry in the Salton Sea—saltier than the ocean, more polluted than a can of soda. The Central Arizona Project brings another share of this water all the way from the state"s western boundary to Phoenix through series of siphons (to carry water uphill), tunnels (to carry water under mountains), and pumps (gigantic wells) that allow America"s fifth most populous city to stay hydrated, to swim and to golf year-round. When a few persistent gallons reach the U.S./Mexico border, the River is run through a plant to remove just enough of the salt that accumulates through irrigation and evaporation to meet the terms of our agreement with Mexico, but not so much that a fish could live in it or a farmer could spread it on her field.
Perhaps this is just an economic downturn and not the moment when the chickens of past crimes against the environment come home to roost, but it should at least give us pause. Moving forward we will face additional challenges to our limited natural resources including climate change and continued population growth. As we begin to address these issues, it is important that we learn from our past actions and consider the relationships between our housing policies, our environmental policies and our natural resources in order to better envision our future from a broad perspective and to shape policies to help us move towards societal goals of environmental and economic sustainability.
ANDREW ERDMANN holds Master’s degrees in Natural Resources Planning and Water Resources and lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.