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The Growing Crisis of the Colorado River: A Sign to Us All

THE GROWING CRISIS OF THE COLORADO RIVER:  A SIGN TO US ALL –Kim Scipes, Ph.D.   There is a growing crisis out in the southwestern part of our country that has a message for us all.  Politicians and the mainstream media from all over the country are ignoring it or generally treating it as a…

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Kim Scipes


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–Kim Scipes, Ph.D.


There is a growing crisis out in the southwestern part of our country that has a message for us all.  Politicians and the mainstream media from all over the country are ignoring it or generally treating it as a “one-time” issue to cover, not understanding that it is a sign  of great importance for all Americans and the world.

The reality:  most of the Southwest is dependent on water and electricity from the Colorado River, not only for life, but for industry, agriculture, and tourism.  As Pam Wright, writing for the website, reports from a recent study, “The Colorado River Basin encompasses seven states and northern Mexico, and is home to 22 federally recognized Native American tribes.”  Further, “The river provides municipal and industrial water for 40 million people distributed across every major Southwestern city both within and without the basin, including Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, Denver and the entire Front Range of Colorado, Albuquerque and Santa Fe.”

It also provides electricity for the entire region, which is essential for modern life.  However, additionally, while it may not seem as important for areas on or near the coast or those at higher altitudes, it is a requirement for living in desert areas:  for many people, especially the very young and the very old, it is necessary for survival in the desert areas because they cannot live in the harsh climate without air conditioning.  And desert areas such as Las Vegas and Phoenix are some of the fasting-growing population centers in the country.

Yet the climate in this region is changing.  It is in the middle of the worst drought in 1,200 years, and overall climate change is adding to the problem.

Accordingly, the Colorado is drying up.  Lake Mead and Lake Powell, two man-made lakes behind the Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams, respectively, are the two largest reservoirs in the country: let’s focus on Mead, the larger of the two:  Lake Mead is 110 miles long. Lake Mead has dropped nearly 170 feet since 2000–you can actually see a “bathtub ring” around the lake, showing how far it has dropped–and today stands at 28 percent of capacity; as the Los Angeles Times notes, the River is “continuing to decline.”

This has important ramifications not only for the Southwest but for many parts of the country.  Many areas get most of their winter vegetables and citrus fruits from the Imperial Valley, in far southern California into Mexico, and the nearby area around Yuma, Arizona.  A former university student of mine just reported in a recent paper that two-thirds of our fruits and vegetables in Northwest Indiana, where we live, come from these areas.  These areas are dependent on Colorado River water.

And the reality of the Colorado is that water supplies are going to be cut dramatically; and agriculture is expected be a major loser.

Yet this isn’t stopping “development” in the region, with free flowing fountains, lakes big enough to ski on, ponds, and surf parks dotting some of the chosen areas. The population of the Phoenix-Mesa-Chandler metropolitan area is over 4.9 million people, and continues to grow. 

The town of Buckeye, Arizona—southwest of Phoenix in some of the harshest desert anywhere—plans to triple its population by 2030, and eventually sees growth from about 110,000 to a projected 872,000.  (In 1970, according to the Census, Buckeye was a town of 2,599 and the local area was home for 7,807 people; I used to ride my motorcycle through Buckeye regularly, traveling to and from the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma and Phoenix, where my mother lived, between 1970-73.)

Arizona has already taken a 21 percent cut of its share of Colorado River water.  Buckeye is depending on water from underground aquifers.  Yet the groundwater in the region has been “disappearing nearly seven times faster than the combined water losses from Lakes Powell and Mead,” according to a hydrology professor who studies water security:  “Groundwater losses of that magnitude are literally an existential threat to desert cities like Phoenix and Tucson.”

The environment has been trying to tell us there are limits beyond which humans cannot safely live; wildfires in California, hurricanes across the Gulf of Mexico, sea levels rising, and shrinking rivers and lakes in the Southwest.  We humans have not generally listened.

Now, the water crisis of the Southwest has been enough to spur elected officials in some areas to begin to wake up:  Scottsdale, Arizona, an eastern suburb of Phoenix, has cut off water to a development outside of the city, in an unincorporated area; Scottsdale officials want to make sure they have sufficient water for those who currently live there.

As the Los Angeles Times recently reported, “This reckoning with the reality of the river’s limits is about to transform the landscape of the Southwest.”

As a child of the desert Southwest, I argue that the lesson is much more profound than this:  a key idea of US culture—that Americans can do anything we can individually afford or get credit to afford—is outdated and that efforts to violate environmental limits will only come with increasing misery and self-destruction.  We can no longer let individual “initiatives” determine social development; we have to begin to think collectively for the good of all, and reject individual and corporate self-interests to prevail.  We ignore this lesson at our own peril.


Kim Scipes, PhD, is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Purdue University Northwest in Westville, Indiana, and has taught a course on “Environment and Social Justice” since 2006.  Raised in the desert Southwest and a 1969 graduate of Alhambra High School in Phoenix, Dr. Scipes has lived, worked, traveled, and served in the US Marine Corps in the Southwest, where his siblings still live.  The author of four books, his “Climate Change, Environmental Destruction, and Social Justice” web page can be reached at