In today’s NY Times “Sunday Review” cover story by Abraham Lustgarten, an environmental reporter for ProPublica, he reviews the dramatic effect of climate change on the stunning loss of water in the Colorado River and what it means in the not-too-distant future for the Western United States, agricultural production for the entire country, and meat sales in the Middle East and Asia.

Lustgarten’s article is long (2300 words) and I usually resist reading anything so hefty. But the photographs are stunning and the story is so disturbing that I read through to the end. I encourage you to do the same, but for those faint-of-heart and, like me, disinclined to read very long articles, here are Lustgarten’s salient points with suggested solutions that will take a massive reordering of society in order to address climate change on the one hand and water consumption on the other.

As we move into the High Holiday season beginning on Monday evening, September 6th, with Rosh Hashanah, we will celebrate the created world as we look inward, become more self-critical, and strive to evolve into more conscientious moral beings.

A Midrash to the Book of Ecclesiastes (8:28) clarifies our directive vis a vis the created world:

“In the hour when the Holy One, blessed be God, created the first human being, God took the person and let him/her pass before all the trees of the Garden of Eden, and said to the person: See my works, how fine and excellent they are! Now all that I have created, for you have I created it. Think upon this, and do not corrupt and desolate my world; for if you corrupt it, there is no one to set it right after you.”

What follows are Lustgarten’s most important points:

  • Lake Mead, a reservoir formed by the construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s, is one of the most important pieces of infrastructure on the Colorado River, supplying fresh water to Nevada, California, Arizona and Mexico. The reservoir hasn’t been full since 1983. In 2000, it began a steady decline caused by epochal drought. In 2015, the lake was just about 40 percent full.
  • For years, experts in the American West have predicted that, unless the steady overuse of water was brought under control, the Colorado River would no longer be able to support all of the 40 million people who depend on it.
  • Like the record-breaking heat waves and the ceaseless mega-fires, the decline of the Colorado River has been faster than expected. This year, even though rainfall and snowpack high up in the Rocky Mountains were at near-normal levels, the parched soils and plants stricken by intense heat absorbed much of the water, and inflows to Lake Powell were around one-fourth of their usual amount. The Colorado’s flow has already declined by nearly 20 percent, on average, from its flow throughout the 1900s, and if the current rate of warming continues, the loss could well be 50 percent by the end of this century.
  • Earlier this month, federal officials declared an emergency water shortage on the Colorado River for the first time.
  • The Colorado River provides water for the people of seven states, 29 federally recognized tribes and northern Mexico, and its water is used to grow everything from the carrots stacked on supermarket shelves in New Jersey to the beef in a hamburger served at a Massachusetts diner. The power generated by its two biggest dams — the Hoover and Glen Canyon — is marketed across an electricity grid that reaches from Arizona to Wyoming.
  • The Census Bureau released numbers showing that, even as the drought worsened over recent decades, hundreds of thousands more people have moved to the regions that depend on the Colorado.
  • Phoenix expanded more over the past 10 years than any other large American city, while smaller urban areas across Arizona, Nevada, Utah and California each ranked among the fastest-growing places in the country. The river’s water supports roughly 15 million more people today than it did when Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992.
  • Since about 70 percent of water delivered from the Colorado River goes to growing crops, not to people in cities, the next step will likely be to demand large-scale reductions for farmers and ranchers across millions of acres of land.
  • California’s enormous share of the river, which it uses to irrigate crops across the Imperial Valley and for Los Angeles and other cities, will be in the cross hairs when negotiations over a diminished Colorado begin again.
  • New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming will most likely also face pressure to use less water.
  • With the building of the Hoover Dam to collect and store river water, and the development of the Colorado’s plumbing system of canals and pipelines to deliver it, the West was able to open a savings account to fund its extraordinary economic growth. Over the years since, those states have overdrawn the river’s average deposits.
  • Leaders in Western states have allowed wasteful practices to continue that add to the material threat facing the region. A majority of the water used by farms goes to growing nonessential crops like alfalfa and other grasses that feed cattle for meat production. Much of those grasses are also exported to feed animals in the Middle East and Asia.

Water usage data suggests that if Americans avoid meat one day each week they could save an amount of water equivalent to the entire flow of the Colorado each year, more than enough water to alleviate the region’s shortages.

  • Ranchers often take their maximum allocation of water each year, even if just to spill it on the ground, for fear that, if they don’t, they could lose the right to take that water in the future.
  • About 10 percent of the river’s recent total flow evaporates off the sprawling surfaces of large reservoirs as they bake in the sun. Last year, evaporative losses from Lake Mead and Lake Powell alone added up to almost a million acre feet of water — or nearly twice what Arizona will be forced to give up now as a result of this month’s shortage declaration. These losses are increasing as the climate warms.

What to do about this?

  • Over the years, Western states and tribes have agreed on voluntary cuts, which defused much of the political chaos that would otherwise have resulted from this month’s shortage declaration, but they remain disparate and self-interested parties hoping they can miraculously agree on a way to manage the river without truly changing their ways.
  • For all their wishful thinking, climate science suggests there is no future in the region that does not include serious disruptions to its economy, growth trajectory, and perhaps even quality of life.
  • The uncomfortable truth is that difficult and unpopular decisions are now unavoidable.
  • The laws that determine who gets water in the West, and how much of it, are based on the principle of “beneficial use” — generally the idea that resources should further economic advancement.
  • But whose economic advancement?
  • Do we support the farmers in Arizona who grow alfalfa to feed cows in the United Arab Emirates?
  • Or do we ensure the survival of the Colorado River, which supports some 8 percent of the nation’s G.D.P.?
  • Water levels in Lake Mead could drop by another 40 vertical feet by the middle 2023, ultimately reaching just 1,026 feet above sea level — an elevation that further threatens Lake Mead’s hydroelectric power generation for about 1.3 million people in Arizona, California and Nevada. At 895 feet, the reservoir would become what’s called a “dead pool”; water would no longer be able to flow downstream.
  • Fantastical and expensive solutions that have previously been dismissed by the federal government — like the desalinization of seawater, towing icebergs from the Arctic, or pumping water from the Mississippi River through a pipeline — are likely to be seriously considered.
  • None of this, however, will be enough to solve the problem unless it’s accompanied by serious efforts to lower carbon dioxide emissions, which are ultimately responsible for driving changes to the climate.