Dead Pool, the Colorado River and the Solution Space

In Dead Pool, James Powell sketches out an apocalyptic scenario facing the hydraulic society we’ve built in the West on Colorado River water. (It’s a great read. If you’re interested in western water, you daren’t miss it.) After building up the history, science, politics and policy that have developed over the last century, Powell lays out his hypothesis for what happens next, when increasing demand collides with decreasing supply and the web of institutions we’ve built to manage the whole thing collapses.

Lake Powell drops to “dead pool” in his scenario, the point at which no electricity can be generated and there’s no usable water storage left, just a stagnant pond with every acre foot that flows in simply passed on to downstream users. Litigation follows, and upper basin water users (including Albuquerque in Powell’s scenario) are cut off. They turn back to their dwindling groundwater, but that runs out, and slowly but surely the cities that depend on Colorado River water are abandoned:

Businesses and families begin to abandon Phoenix, creating a Grapes of Wrath-like exodus in reverse. Long lines of vehicles clog the freeways, heading east toward the Mississippi and north toward Oregon and Washington. Burning hot, parched and broke, the city that rose from the ashes achieves its apogee and falls back toward the fire.

It’s a scenario rooted in conflict, and while it is only one of many ways the conflict might play out, it has a plausible feel. What we’ve got here is not exactly a classic “tragedy of the commons,” but it has key elements of one, and Powell’s “dead pool” scenario is a spot on example of the collapse of such a commons.

At the same time I was reading Dead Pool, I’ve also been reading Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons. Ostrom won the economics Nobel for her work looking at commons where tragedies don’t happen. (Nothing like a Nobel to provide a marketing platform for one’s ideas. I’m really glad Ostrom won it!) In her book, Ostrom documents the development of the institutions for the management of Southern California’s groundwater basins. It’s an unholy mess, but Ostrom argues that it has worked – that faced with the risk of a classic commons collapse, the various government agencies and private water companies in Southern California cobbled together a set of institutional arrangements that avoided a collapse.

Two years ago, the seven basin states and the federal government established a shortage-sharing agreement. Is this an example of an Ostrom-style solution on the Colorado River? I’m not prepared to argue that the shortage-sharing agreement itself is the solution to the long term problem Powell lays out. But I’m intrigued by the possibility that the unholy mess that now exists as the “Law of the River” – the body of statute, policy and court decrees that govern the management of the Colorado’s water – in fact is the result of an Ostrom-style process for resolving our particular tragedy of the commons, and that the shortage-sharing arrangement is one example of how the conflicts get worked out.

Or are we just screwed? Perhaps this should be the topic of my next book.

(Picture courtesy U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)


  1. I am reading George Carlin’s Last Words…. not always funny… need funny…. just looked at the cover of “Dead Pool’… makes me want to cry. I will read it anyway.

  2. Ostom’s work is applicable *if* it resolves the tragedy. Compact re-negotiations appear to be more like a rearguard action that takes years too long to implement. I say screwed.

  3. Not an ideal circumstance. Living with an agreement written in 1922. Based on higher than normal flows. More demands on the resource due to population growth and build out. Add the drought and it gets worse.

    Involve Lawyers and it gets a lot worse. Worst case scenario for the states is to scrap the Compact (and it’s legal framework) and have anyone/everyone come to the negotiation table with a legal team in tow.

    The bus may be old and rickety but it is the only ride in town.


  4. Pingback: Phoenix and water – what’s plan B? : jfleck at inkstain

Comments are closed.