New documentary offers a sharp look at the West’s water crisis

In ‘Killing the Colorado,’ people, not nature, are responsible for shortages.

 

In 1922, seven Western states agreed to divvy up the water in the Colorado River, paving the way for giant dams, reservoirs and aqueducts to move and store it. Over the next century, the arid region, prone to erratic storms and punishing droughts, saw farms and cities grow and grow — with the belief that the water they relied on so heavily was inexhaustible.

But the Colorado River Compact, as the agreement is known, contained a serious flaw: the states overestimated how much water flowed through the river, which begins high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, running southwest for 1,450 miles, before entering the Gulf of California in Mexico.  In nearly a century since then, roughly 40 million people have come to rely on an allocation of water that doesn’t actually exist. 

That miscalculation underpinning management of the West’s most important river is one of the many manmade errors that have contributed to the region’s current water crisis. That crisis and, more specifically, its human origins are the subject of a new documentary, Killing the Colorado, which premiered Aug. 4 on The Discovery Channel. Based on the award-winning series by ProPublica reporter Abrahm Lustgarten, the film examines the Colorado River’s growing inability to deliver the water that farmers, cities and entire ecosystems across the West rely on. While a prolonged long dry spell has exacerbated current shortages throughout the region, the film posits that most of the scarcities were not caused by nature but by short-sighted policies and poor planning. That leaves a harder question: if the real problems are manmade, can’t we find a way to fix them?

Drainage from farms in California's Imperial Valley keeps the Salton Sea full. But as drought cripples the region and farmers use less water, the sea shrinks, leaving the air choked with toxic dust that blows up from the dry lake bed. People in Imperial County suffer from among the highest asthma rates in the state.

The film begins in one of the country’s most productive agricultural areas, California’s Imperial Valley, where huge farms blanket what was once a desert. The transformation was made possible by water from the Colorado River, piped 80 miles across the desert through the All-American Canal. But in California, Imperial Valley farmers are coming under increasing scrutiny for using the vast majority of the state’s water — a pattern that repeats throughout the West, where roughly 80 percent of the available water goes to agriculture.

Blaming farmers for using so much water becomes suspect, however, if you’re sitting in New York in the middle of winter, eating an organic kale salad. The greens, as one farmer points out, probably came from the Imperial Valley. For audiences not accustomed to finger-pointing, such examples create an uncomfortable reckoning, as well as an iteration of the film’s central theme: that the water crisis is everyone’s doing.

The film offers plenty of painful moments, nowhere more so than in its discussion of the Salton Sea. Created by an accidental breach in an irrigation canal, the sea has been kept full for decades by drainage from Imperial Valley farms. But as farmers find ways to use less water, the Salton Sea shrinks, exposing dry beds of toxic dust. The result is an impossible dilemma: Conserve water and worsen the region’s sky-high asthma rates, or keep it full by using the region’s scarcest resource?

Elsewhere in the West, agonizing questions around scarcity play out over big water projects, such as one proposed for southern New Mexico’s Gila River. In early July, the state agency in charge of planning and operating the diversion finally disclosed its plans, setting in motion the environmental review process, which will inform the federal government’s final decision on whether to approve the project. Experts questioned the high cost and longterm viability of the project — and the risk of repeating last century’s mistakes. But in moving the diversion proposal this far, proponents have played on deeply held attitudes about water in the West: Get as much as you can, before someone else does.

That such fears continue to influence decisions about water management today is one of the film’s more pointed arguments. The proposal for the Gila, it notes, is just one of the many new dams and diversions currently planned for the Colorado as states throughout the Upper Basin scramble to claim every last drop they have a right to develop. 

As Lustgarten says in the film, “when faced with scarcity, the unfortunate reaction for many is to take a little more.”

Over 12 rudimentary diversions already exist on the Gila River in Southwest New Mexico. Rancher Vance Lee and others disagree with environmentalists' claim that the Gila is the last “wild” river in the West.
Discovery

If pinpointing the problems associated with the water crisis is challenging, the solutions appear even more so. In recent years, for instance, city water providers have been buying up farmers’ water rights, addressing the imbalance between urban and agricultural water rights. But the water trading also creates a whole new set of problems.

Those costs are evident in towns like Crowley, Colorado, a community built around irrigation canals and a once vibrant agricultural economy. But beginning in the 1970s, farmers sold off most of their water rights to growing cities like Pueblo and Colorado Springs. Fields and orchards turned to weeds and as one current resident describes, "Crowley became a ghost town." Today, prisons are the biggest employer in the county.  The filmmakers avoid judgment on the issue on water trading, instead offering a cautionary tale about the massive consequences — largely unforeseen — surrounding those decisions.

Meanwhile, as water’s scarcity drives up its value, Wall Street investors are entering what is now a multi-billion dollar business in water trading. One of those players is Water Asset Management. The $500 million hedge fund has invested in everything from Imperial Valley farms with prime water rights to desert cities like Prescott, Arizona, in need of new water supplies to support its growth. In many ways it’s a win-win; the hedge fund money is helping farmers and cities find ways to save water and develop, while also securing huge profits for themselves by selling the water saved. The film suggests that markets are going to play an increasingly important role in allocating water in the West, but leaves open the thornier questions of whether, for instance, the growth fueling demand for new water supplies should be revisited, or whether water should be treated solely as a commodity, rather than, say, a basic human right.

If there’s a central lesson the film wants to convey, it’s that there are no easy fixes when it comes to the West’s water crisis. Who, for instance, should bear the cost of using less water? The answer, at least, seems obvious: everyone. 

Sarah Tory is a correspondent for HCN.