a Colorado River hypothetical and an attention-getting cuss word

Lake Mead, October 2022. Photo by John Fleck

Colorado River political and policy discourse is tangled right now around an increasingly unhelpful set of questions. They involve process: Should the federal government step in and impose cuts? Should the Lower Basin states, especially Arizona and California, do more to save themselves? Should we pay farmers to fallow? How much? Should the Upper Basin contribute more cuts? What about environmental flows – will the cuts we need to make endanger our ESA coverage under the MSCP?

What about my water?

These are all worthy questions, but our entanglement with them avoids the largest and most important question: In a future with less water, what will this engineered hydraulic landscape of irrigated farms and cities look like? What do we want it to look like?

That was the point of my attention-getting quote to Grist’s Jake Bittle:

“Whether those cuts are imposed by a federal government action, or voluntary action by the states, or the fact that the reservoirs are fucking empty, they will happen,” (Fleck) told Grist.

If you’re in Las Vegas or Phoenix or Los Angeles or San Diego (or Albuquerque!), the details of which path we’re on matter, but the larger question is unchanged. You’ll have to learn to live with less Colorado River water, and you’ll succeed at that. Your city will be less green, but you’ll have enough for cooking and cleaning and brewing your morning coffee.

If you’re in Yuma or Imperial or Palo Verde, the details of which path we’re on matter, but the larger question is unchanged. We’ll still get all the yummy melons and lettuce we love (and are willing to pay for), and there will be a lot less alfalfa grown in the deserts of the Lower Colorado River.

I’ve got a far longer blog post brewing on the hard drive, as I begin to work through the details of what a “Colorado River system crash” might look like, which is the seed for the project occupying my thinking right now. We need some sense of what the alternative is to the process the Department of the Interior has launched, the process that triggered Jake Bittle’s call and my flamboyant quote, the attempt to get things back on the rails and create an orderly approach to envisioning our desired future and acting on it.

I may never post it.

“Reservoirs fucking empty” is bait to folks’ limbic systems. It wasn’t a slip. I chose my words with care. But “fight or flight” may not be what we need right now. We need to understand that we can do this – that the key to our future is not winning a fight with Arizona/California/the Feds/the Upper Basin/the farmers/the cities over who gets what’s left, but rather envisioning a future in which we all figure out how to survive and even thrive with less water.


  1. When the Groundwater Management Act of 1980 was passed, Agriculture was always intended to be the sacrificial placeholder for more people. That’s been obvious since the beginning.

  2. John, have you ever talked with the folks at the ASU programs on scifi and the future (https://csi.asu.edu/)? Wonder if there’s a crash program on writing about the immediate future that might be an interesting project for them and you.

  3. The world is not in great peril. All living things today are in great peril. They will all change or die. But plantet earth will survive for another 5 billion years or so before drifting through space without its sun. All stars will eventually go dark and space time will become meaningless. We are beyond the tipping point on planet earth. For the time being, my advice is to move north to a a coastal city at least 200 feet above current sea level. Alaska may look good. Climate change has been with us for billions of years. It is pure naivete to think that it will stop or to try to manipulate it. Make the best with what you have and learn to adapt.

  4. After the election the Feds will pull the trigger to impose restrictions that states will never be able to negotiate. People will howl, but it’ change now or change a heck of a lot more later.

  5. I think the Feds are laying the groundwork to (finally) so what the states will never do (as Leading Edge Boomer pointed out above) and it is high time. Yes, SoCal will cut back even more, but until we deal with cargo ships (and sometimes jets) carrying COR water out of the country in the form of alfalfa and other forage crops we won’t get anywhere. We need to tear up the COR Compact and start over.

  6. I don’t see why you think, willy nilly, that everyone will adapt to less water and like it.

    Can the region support its current population, or not?

    It’s future population?

    The answers are incredibly important, and don’t need flippant answers.

  7. PS: Don’t say “fucking” to journalists. Or ever.

    It’s low class. And shows how limited your vocabulary is.

    Don’t be crude and contribute to the cruding of America.

  8. PS: Don’t say “fucking” to journalists. Ever.

    It’s low class. And shows how limited your vocabulary is. You look like an amateur.

    Don’t be crude and contribute to the cruding of America.

  9. David Appell- Using the argument that saying the word “fucking” is low class is, well, classist. The judicious use of expletives is not indicative of a limited vocabulary and, in my view, simply emphasize certain points that writers wish to make. It is also an accurate reflection of the way most of us use language in our everyday lives. And- I am pretty sure that “cruding” is not a word……

Comments are closed.