Almost 40 years after Roman Polanski’s classic noir film Chinatown captivated audiences, the resource conflict that inspired it is still raging. Ever since the Southwest was settled by Europeans, the question of water — where to find it, how to transport it, how to secure it and where to store it — has been both a pressing and limiting question. The glittering swimming pools of Los Angeles and endless fountains of Las Vegas hide something deep, dark and dirty: all that water in the desert has to come from somewhere.
Globally, conflicts over water rights are a growing issue, with some concerned advocates arguing that they’re only going to become more pressing with time and should be considered the next global conflict issue. Yet, most Americans think of water wars as an issue for the developing world, something found in places like Darfur and India. That couldn’t be further from the truth, with the American Southwest actually locked in a bitter battle across multiple states as well as Mexico, arguing over who deserves the biggest chunk of the precious Rio Grande and other critical water resources.
For many of us, water is the thing that flows out of the tap when you turn it. Domestic use of water is actually relatively low, even including dishwashers and washing machines, in comparison with other demands on water resources. Manufacturing and agriculture eat up vast amounts of water annually, and much of that water is lost to runoff and pollution, making it unrecoverable.
Critically, when water is taken or diverted from waterways for human use, it also has a profound effect on the environment. As riverbeds grow more shallow, many fish species cannot survive in the shallower, warmer water, which causes a decline in diversity (as well as forcing native people to adapt their way of life to changes in their food sources). Algae and invasive plant species may move in, while trees and plants along the banks of the river may die off or change in character due to fluctuations in the water supply.
A ripple effect occurs as gallons are taken out of the environment and moved, sometimes hundreds or thousands of miles, for different populations to use; Southern California, for instance, buys substantial water from Northern California, forcing that region of the state to modify its water use habits to support the southern half. And not all parties play nicely: the American West has a water use doctrine effectively based on “first come, first served” which hasn’t turned out well for anyone.
That’s what led to the infamous water wars that lay at the heart of Chinatown, as people struggled for control of a resource they realized was only going to become more valuable. Now, as states and nations compete for access to the limited water resources of the Southwest, it’s becoming a major sticking point in trade agreements and relations across borders, and it’s a huge presence in the courts, where lawsuits surrounding water rights, conservation plans and control of water resources abound.
Regulators are facing tough choices in the coming years not just in California, Arizona, Texas and New Mexico, four states where water issues are particularly acute, but also in Nevada, Oregon and neighboring states. They’re going to need to balance the interests of the environment, which many advocates as well as government agencies argue has an intrinsic right to water supplies, with demands of human industry as well as households. In states where people are already used to drought conditions and water use restrictions, those restrictions are likely to get tighter, and they’re going to spread.
For California in particular, where so much of the nation’s produce is grown, that could result in some drastic changes. If, as is threatened, water use in the agricultural sector is limited to protect the precious resources of the Central Valley, this may change the character of what farmers produce and where they produce it. Farmers may begin pasturing less cattle, for example, and could turn away from water-heavy crops like rice and lettuce.
As the human population grows and pressure increases, what kinds of changes will we see as government agencies attempt the juggling act of protecting the environment and people at the same time?
Photo credit: City of Albuquerque