The southwestern United States is becoming hotter and drier with most of Arizona currently afflicted by moderate or severe drought conditions. California’s governor has declared a drought emergency. The water levels in California’s reservoirs are extremely low, the snowpack levels in the mountains are among the lowest recorded. The danger of wildfires is increasing, water deliveries to farmers are being reduced and mandatory water conservation measures are under consideration. The drought is also battering parts of Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Oklahoma, Texas and Colorado. With no end to the dry spell in sight, the long-term outlook is not very good.
The combined effects of population growth, ongoing drought, and global warming trends have made the region’s water future murky. Across the nation, beef prices have reached an all-time high because cattle herds have been reduced to the smallest size since 1951. The water level in the Colorado River’s storage lakes has been steadily dropping, leading to the possibility that Arizona’s cities will face a future water shortage. A number of weather scientists believe the drought could drag on for another 20 years. They see evidence linking the current dry period to a reoccurring drought pattern that has come and gone for the past 1,000 years.
Drought has upended societies in the Southwest in the past. It was a factor contributing to the decline of the Hohokam culture in the early 1400s. Prior to its demise, Hohokam society had developed fairly sophisticated irrigation and farming techniques. The vacant, impressive structural ruins the Hohokam left behind fascinated and puzzled the early Spanish explorers traveling through the area.
The $3.6 billion Central Arizona Project is designed to deliver 1.5 million acre-feet (an acre-foot of water equates to 325,851 gallons) of Colorado River water from Lake Havasu to Pima, Pinal and Maricopa counties. The water travels a distance of 336 miles through a water system that terminates 14 miles south of Tucson.
When Colorado River water was apportioned to the using states, little was known about reoccurring drought patterns and the effect of climate change. If runoff in the watershed continues to decline, water deliveries to cities will have to be reduced. Depending on the severity of the runoff decline, planners think water deliveries to Phoenix and Tucson could to be reduced by 35% to 50% as the supply shrinks.
While there is some disagreement among experts as to the causes, timing and severity of the looming water shortage, there is a general consensus that there will be a future shortage of Colorado River water. Due to the lack of recharging rains, Tucson’s ground water supplies will also diminish. As overall water availability declines, Arizona’s urban centers will have to consider the costly solutions that other locations pinched for water have implemented. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a place much more arid than Arizona, has been dealing with chronic water shortages for years. It is a nation so dry that it doesn’t have a single river that flows all year long.
About the size of the United States east of the Mississippi River, Saudi Arabia has been investing in desalination technology since the 1970s. It has become the world’s largest producer of desalinated water, accounting for over 25% of world production. There are 30 desalination plants operating on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea and Persian Gulf coasts. To keep up with demand, Saudi Arabia is expected to invest $90 billion in water and sewage systems during the coming decades.
One of the world’s largest desalination plants is located at Jubail on Saudi Arabia’s Persian Gulf coast. The massive complex produces around 50% of the nation’s drinking water. The plant supplies two pipelines that move water 290 miles inland to Riyadh, the capital. The system of pipelines and pumping stations delivers over 200 million gallons of water per day to a population of 7.3 million.
The effects of a drying climate will cause economic disruption, damaging agriculture and depressing regional growth. With the cost of desalinated water running about 10 times the cost of current supplies, water use habits will drastically change. The massive increase in price will focus attention on conservation and water reclamation. Unlike the Hohokam, we have access to the technology that can help prevent urban water disasters in a hotter, dryer Arizona.
If the predicted water shortage begins to affect southern Arizona, the closest source of ocean water is less than two hundred miles away on the Gulf of California in Mexico. It is advantageous that the governors of Arizona and Sonora are working to forge closer commercial ties. The improved relationship will come in handy if drought forces Arizona and Sonora to jointly become involved in the water desalination business.