Climate crisis: Arizona may run out of water in 6 years

I want to couple two climate change–related points to make one point.

First, Bush-era Republican Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson came out recently on the side of climate and against the deniers. His op-ed in the New York Times starts with exactly the right logic (my emphasis throughout):

THERE is a time for weighing evidence and a time for acting. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned throughout my work in finance, government and conservation, it is to act before problems become too big to manage.

Or as I’ve been saying, “Hug the monster and act.” The time to stop a disaster is before you’re in it (duh).

Paulson’s piece makes a big deal of comparing the 2008 crash and recession with the coming climate “crash.” It’s an interesting hook, as writing techniques go. You should read the piece to see how well he executes it. But I’m going to just stick to his climate points.

Paulson writes:

We’re staring down a climate bubble that poses enormous risks to both our environment and economy. The warning signs are clear and growing more urgent as the risks go unchecked.

This is a crisis we can’t afford to ignore. I feel as if I’m watching as we fly in slow motion on a collision course toward a giant mountain. We can see the crash coming, and yet we’re sitting on our hands rather than altering course.

We need to act now, even though there is much disagreement, including from members of my own Republican Party, on how to address this issue while remaining economically competitive. They’re right to consider the economic implications. But we must not lose sight of the profound economic risks of doing nothing.

Of course, Paulson wants a “market-based solution.” The good news is, he’s pushing for a carbon tax, one of the stronger ones:

The solution can be a fundamentally conservative one that will empower the marketplace to find the most efficient response. We can do this by putting a price on emissions of carbon dioxide — a carbon tax. Few in the United States now pay to emit this potent greenhouse gas into the atmosphere we all share. Putting a price on emissions will create incentives to develop new, cleaner energy technologies.

Especially if the tax is a painful one; that’s incentivizing with purpose. (Our explanation of how a carbon tax works is here.)

Paulson deals with the “but we can’t stop other nations” argument:

It’s true that the United States can’t solve this problem alone. But we’re not going to be able to persuade other big carbon polluters to take the urgent action that’s needed if we’re not doing everything we can do to slow our carbon emissions and mitigate our risks.

True; you can’t ask others to stop until you stop your own self. The time to start stopping is now. Paulson also counters the “it’s too expensive” argument with something that should be painfully obvious — the cost of adapting to climate chaos will be astronomic. He figures the cost to protect New York City from rising seas starts at $20 billion and climbs from there. And as he says, “that’s just one coastal city.” We seem to have several.

Republican Hank Paulson thinks the time to act on climate change is now. What does Republican Arizona think? Let’s check.

Republican Arizona could run out of water in six years, making Paulson’s point

The water supply of the state of Arizona, it seems, is making Hank Paulson’s point, that we need to act now — actual-now, as in “this minute.” From the Smithsonian Magazine:

Arizona Could Be Out of Water in Six Years

Prolonged drought and a rapidly expanding population are pushing Arizona’s water system to its limit

Arizona is bone dry, desiccated by the worst drought ever seen in the state’s 110-year long observational record. The Grand Canyon State has been in drought conditions for a decade, and researchers think the dry spell could hold out for another 20 to 30 yearssays the City of Phoenix.

That people have not been fleeing Arizona in droves, as they did from the plains during the 1930s Dust Bowl, is a miracle of hydrological engineering. But the magic won’t last, and if things don’t start to change Arizona is going to be in trouble fast, says the New York Times.

A quarter of Arizona’s water comes from the Colorado River, and that river is running low. There’s not enough water in the basin to keep Arizona’s crucial Lake Mead reservoirs topped up. If changes aren’t made to the entire multi-state hydrological system, says the Times, things could get bad.

Here’s the New York Times on the same subject:

Lake Mead has begun a sharp decline; the principal upstream reservoir, Lake Powell, now holds only 42 percent of its capacity, and Lake Mead about 45 percent.

If upstream states continue to be unable to make up the shortage, Lake Mead, whose surface is now about 1,085 feet above sea level, will drop to 1,000 feet by 2020. Under present conditions, that would cut off most of Las Vegas’s water supply and much of Arizona’s. Phoenix gets about half its water from Lake Mead, and Tucson nearly all of its.

And here’s a graph of Lake Mead water levels from The lake will soon be too low to pump water from, though they’re building another “intake pipe” as fast as they can.

Lake Mead water levels, comparing the last three years

Lake Mead water levels, comparing the last three years (blue is 2014 to date).

Read through both pieces to see how bad things are in Republican Arizona. (Again, at less than 1000 feet of elevation, the lake level will be lower than the “pump limit.” Think that through. Building new “intake pipes” means digging through mountains. Not trivial; not cheap.)

When will Republicans get the word? When money becomes the issue?

Or maybe that heading should read, “When will Americans get the word?”

Obama is making noise like he cares (though he’s still selling coal off of federal land; shame on him). House Republicans, however, are Denialist Central. That’s why it matters that Hank Paulson, who represents Money and its interests, is a Republican.

And that’s why it helps that Arizona, and especially Phoenix, is (a) seriously right-of-center; and (b) loaded with the wealthy, those who could afford to flee the snows and mosquitos of the East and Midwest. Can the wealthy of Phoenix afford to let themselves run out of water? Can Arizona afford to lose all of its wealthy?

We may soon find out.


Twitter: @Gaius_Publius
Gaius Publi

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Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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51 Responses to “Climate crisis: Arizona may run out of water in 6 years”

  1. basiliusydx493 says:

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  2. eggroll_jr says:

    Let’s say a golf course in Arizona uses an average of 250 acre-feet of water a year. Moreover, much of that water can be “gray” water, or reused water from the sewage treatment plant. Thus, one golf course is about the same as a 3- or 4-well fracking operation, and results in toxic “produced water” that can’t be put anywhere but reinjected. Kern County in California, which has rainfall averages in the western part of the county matching that of Tucson, has over 40,000 fracking wells, consuming the equivalent of 10,000 golf courses per year. In other words, while the golf-course issue is serious, it comes nowhere close to fracking water abuses, or even other bad ag decisions to grow such crops as cotton and alfalfa in dry climates.

  3. eggroll_jr says:

    Groundwater is the hidden crisis. Only a small part of our fresh water comes from surface waters, and the laws in the west are pretty loose about what constitutes “reasonable” water use. As a result, e.g. about 20% of all water use in California goes to growing alfalfa, a low-value crop that is used as animal feed. More important, small operators can buy desert land and pump the water table for several years, deplete the soil and move on, before the local water districts react. Water, the commodification of water, and the constant theft of the resource by agriculture, and more recently, the oil & gas industry, deserves a much more prominent position in the public discourse. Even low-tech countries like Vietnam have far more sophisticated groundwater protections in place than the US.

  4. Ford Prefect says:

    Yeah, it’s super expensive (which is going to dramatically increase the water bill), but justified as the “wave of the future,” so it’s all okay I guess. It’s going to pollute local waters and the fishery will be damaged, but it’s all okay because connected corporate interests trump the food supply. It’s a trade-off and not much thought seems to have gone into it.

  5. Ford Prefect says:

    Having lived in Arizona (went to university there) I can tell you most Arizonans could care less about climate change and running out of water. Most of them won’t believe it until it’s right in their face and no, recent events don’t count yet–they’re still at the stage of blaming “greenies” for everything under the sun (funnily, this includes forest fires). And while it’s convenient to talk about AZ Republicans, one quick scan of the state’s Democratic Party will show a feckless, weak and corrupt party that’s only barely less Right-Wing than their erstwhile opponents, save a couple exceptions like Raul Grijalva.

    Perhaps someday we can manage to save AZ from itself. But I doubt it. They’ll keep growing and building more golf courses. Take a good look at Phoenix and you’ll see housing developments with standing water so they’ll somehow resemble Venice or something. Think they’re going to just fill that in with dirt to save themselves? Ha!

    On the “good” side of things there, they have “conservationists” whose main job seems to be telling Arizonans that their inadequate conservation programs are going to save them. So instead of rational thinking about the future, they have optimism to shut down the majority of their critical faculties a la Hal in 2001.

    “Daisy…. Daisy…….”

    At some point, AZ will have to battle California for more water. Guess who’s the odds-on favorite in that fight?

  6. lynchie says:

    Send it East for our use on roads in the winter. I see a new pipeline for salt slurry.

  7. lynchie says:

    We can use he resultant salt to rub into the wounds on our backs from supporting the 1%

  8. lynchie says:

    America the beautiful. Nice, lush green grass its huddled masses waiting for a pint of water from a hose being held by today’s new pioneer of industry. I guess we can always hoard empty water bottles just in case.

  9. Mike_in_the_Tundra says:

    Get out your abacus sweetie. Add together the populations of the Great Lake states – Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York.

  10. runfastandwin says:

    Canada? HA!

  11. runfastandwin says:

    Considering between California, Oregon, and Washington we have almost half the GDP in America, I’d say plenty.

  12. runfastandwin says:

    A treaty is only valid as long as both parties agree to keep it that way.

  13. Drew2U says:

    …Everything is available at a cost. The question is how much extra will you be willing to pay?

  14. Reasor says:

    Republicans don’t care because oil tycoons like T. Boone Pickens are paying them not to care while he invests heavily in buying underground water aquifers. That’s right, now that they’ve wreaked havoc by lobbying against solar power for decades, they’re positioning themselves to profit even from the damage done by the artificially prolonged hydrocarbon age.

    This is the problem that we have when trying to level with people who sincerely don’t believe in man-made climate change: the imagination recoils at the idea that such cartoonish, moustache-twirling villainy could exist in real life.

  15. Hue-Man says:

    I understand completely but it seems to parallel the U.S. response to human-generated climate change. “A lot of people want to drive their SUVs in America.”

    In the Colorado River water story, there are villains to be found everywhere. I fear that the players involved will ignore the problem until the only thing coming out of their water taps is hot air.

  16. Dave of the Jungle says:

    A lot of people retire here in Arizona. That explains it, but doesn’t make it wise, of course.

  17. Hue-Man says:

    Crisis? What crisis?

    “Arizona has 421 golf courses to choose from. This directory lists the courses by city.

    The cities with the most golf courses like Scottsdale, Tucson, and Phoenix are listed first under the Top 10.”

    I’m sure some course are frugal with scarce water resources but the first picture I found of the Arizona Country Club in Phoenix was at

  18. Dave of the Jungle says:

    “Study the birds, lad, they know when to fly.”
    – Mordecai Jones, The Flim Flam Man

  19. BeccaM says:

    Where will they go? Well, the wealthy will go wherever they want to and continue to live in ever increasing luxury. The prescient who have the means will move to better locales before things go completely to hell. Quite a few will simply die. And if history is any indicator, the rest will end up in ghettos and refugee camps.

  20. Elijah Shalis says:

    Yeah sorry there is a treaty in place. No water for you. Maybe you could try moving to where the water is.

  21. BeccaM says:

    As soon as the oligarchs decide they want that water, it will cease being ‘yours.’

    Consider the thousands of people who would have liked to have kept their water — and keep it clean and pure — only to have it seized and poisoned by the frackers.

  22. Dave of the Jungle says:

    Las Vegas is a city that was founded on the business ambitions of organized crime, come to think of it.

    Strange to contemplate that we may be following a story that ends in the displacement of millions of people in several states. Where will they all go?

  23. Dave of the Jungle says:

    San Diego County is building a big desalination plant at Carlsbad. You can read about it at:

  24. discus_sucks_ass says:

    I recall a pilot plant in Marin county, Ca a few years ago, there simply was no plan to deal with it, and it tons of it every day. You need to have a lot of space put aside for it all. Of course if the drought goes on here much longer all the reservoirs will be available for storage…

  25. BeccaM says:

    People are xeriscaping more here in NM, too.

    Vegas — and Nevada as a state — has always been lax on rules on the use of resources. Which is probably among the reasons why nearly-forgotten bigot and seditionist, Cliven Bundy, felt it was just fine to graze his cattle for free on federal lands.

    Bill’s photos in his comment below are quite telling, especially that one showing Vegas and Mead in ’72 versus what they look like now. Even if the entire quadrant of the country wasn’t experiencing an extreme drought, one river the size of the Colorado just isn’t big enough to support all the demands we’ve put on it.

  26. Mike_in_the_Tundra says:

    Of course, you did factor Canada into your plans?

  27. Dave of the Jungle says:

    At least here in Arizona people are learning to xeriscape their businesses and residences. It’s inexcusable that Las Vegas allowed the real estate boom without requiring adequate regulation on entirely water-wasteful installations.

  28. emjayay says:

    Never thought of that. Good point. I guess that’s a lot cheaper than sending it somewhere to dry into sea salt.

  29. BeccaM says:

    Me, too. On one of those Vegas trips, heading out on I-15, I remembered seeing a newly built water park. Towers with slides and so on. And I further remember thinking at the time, “This is f*cking nuts.”

    I mean, I know it’s just someone trying to run a business, and they probably thought they’d have something unique to offer in the area. But a water park? In the desert?

    But even before that, there were the golf courses, and when I counted ’em on Google it’s 19 total right now. Every one of them lush & green — and gobbling down water like there’s no tomorrow.

    You’re likely right, one day the city and its sprawling suburbs will run out of water entirely — and other than Lake Mead, there is no other significant source of water for hundreds of miles.

  30. runfastandwin says:

    Unfortunately for you, there are millions and millions more people that live in the Southwest, than live in the Great Lakes states. We’re going to take the water we need, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

  31. Dave of the Jungle says:

    I find the over development of the Las Vegas valley utterly irresponsible and appalling. They are currently drilling a lower elevation intake system that will allow them to continue tapping Lake Mead for a time but one day they will be cut off. Southern California has priority. This will be fine with me as I see no rational reason why Las Vegas should exist.

  32. Indigo says:

    I wonder . . . maybe so but our government has made some mighty strange decisions over the past two centuries or so. Some would say the Louisiana Purchase was the first bad decision . . . but that’s the sands of time for you. Oh, yeah, about the sands of time, why couldn’t Phoenix go ahead and embrace its desert soul? You could be like Bedouins or something down there.

  33. BeccaM says:

    We have a decent well here, and in fact access to reliable water was one of our top decision points on moving to where we are. Fortunately, it’s on a decent east-of-Sandias aquifer that isn’t being drawn down like crazy by unsustainable farm irrigation. And the water we do get is hard, but good quality.

    Sometimes I pull up those Google satellite maps and marvel (with more than a little head shaking) at the sheer number of those irrigation circles in the middle of otherwise dry lands.

  34. pappyvet says:

    Where I live , the purity of what we do get is highly questionable

  35. The one major reason I would not want to live in a desert is precisely the problem of enough water. I also have dry skin, which would be worse than the prickly heat I have now. Ultimately, the problem is that we simply have too many people, which is why I am happy to live in the Northeast.

  36. BeccaM says:

    I live in the southwest, too, and have had cause on many occasions to visit and work in the Las Vegas area, dating back to the late 1990s, although there wasn’t much going on in the middle part of the last decade.

    I for one was shocked the last time we drove by Hoover Dam to see how low Lake Mead’s water level had dropped. It used to be those funky intake towers would be submerged almost to their walkways.

    The dismay became anger though when I saw just how much water was being wasted in Vegas. Not just those iconic fountains at the casinos, but golf courses and suburban-style lawns. The entire southwest from California over to Texas is in a severe drought and it’s getting worse, not better. There’s been some hope recently that a strong El Niño cycle this year could help, but I don’t know if it’ll be enough.

    Pretty clearly we need to start thinking about large-scale solar powered desalinization.

  37. discus_sucks_ass says:

    the real problem with desalinization is the slurry fed back into the ocean, saltier then the Dead Sea and even more toxic

  38. emjayay says:

    It’s OK, because with everything air conditioned it’s nice inside. Just have to burn a lot of coal all the time for the electricity. AC has also enabled the Southeast to be what it is today.

  39. Dave of the Jungle says:

    Quite right, but, I think we all know that the government won’t let places like San Diego or Phoenix become ghost towns.

  40. emjayay says:

    Of course desalination plants use a lot of energy and would result in water bills that are multiples of what they are now, and contribute to more global warming.

  41. Dave of the Jungle says:

    Here in Southern Arizona, we’re the end user of Central Arizona Project water from the Colorado River. We’d be cut off first, because, by old legal agreements, Southern California gets user rights priority. The Lake Mead water level has been in a historic recession since the year 2,000 and some climate scientists have said that it’s likely that the system will fail to meet demands for the first time in its history by 2020. Desalination plants might be the only salvation for the affected metro areas.

  42. Indigo says:

    Not only does the “weather go in cycles” but “God will provide.” Imagine that . . .
    As for the one about “environmentalism is the secular humanist religion,” I can’t figure out what that’s even supposed to mean. It’s crazy talk, I guess.

  43. Houndentenor says:

    I realize that local weather is not sufficient evidence for global climate changes, but here in Texas it is not raining. Okay it did yesterday, but it’s so rare now that I have to remember where I last had my umbrella. Even the coastal areas are dry. Reservoir water levels are constant news because they are often at historic lows. This is a problem but my right wing relatives still refuse to acknowledge that it is part of the global warming crisis. “Weather goes in cycles” is their most common response. I’ve learned not to even bring up the topic. “Environmentalism is the secular humanist religion” is another one I often hear.

  44. pappyvet says:

    Climate change deniers in their reckless arrogance remind me so much of a story Mark Twain used to tell about mankind.

    A fellow and his dog were walking down the street when a scaffold overhead broke and a load of bricks came crashing down and killed the man. People passing by were outraged. ” Why was not the dog called forth instead of the man?” Well , the dog would have moved.

  45. therling says:

    Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to build cities where there isn’t a whole of a lot of water?

  46. LosGatosCA says:



  47. lynchie says:

    These former Bush people who sat by and let him, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, etc rape the country, sent our young men and women to fight in a country that will never be tamed sat by and did nothing about Climate Change. This asshole who ran Goldman Sachs and is worth over $700 million claimed in 2007 the economy was strong and robust and that the mortgage crisis was contained. A year later stated that to lessen the problems we should throw money at the banks and wall street so they provide credit for the economy. Are we now having the media recycle the Neocons and the crooks who stole trillions on wall street so they can rewrite history. I don’t give a sweet flying shit was Hank as to say on any subject. Agreeing there is a problem with climate change means nothing to me because he does not have the power to change a thing but can simply come down on the side of all the science and all the studies. Hank take your millions and drop off the face of the earth along with the whole Bush cabal.

  48. Bill_Perdue says:

    They’ll end up being forced to emigrate to Mexico.

  49. Elijah Shalis says:

    They can’t have any of our great lakes water. They can start drinking their own waste for all I care.

  50. Bill_Perdue says:

    Lake Mead feeds southern Nevada, Arizona and Southern California. For now.

  51. jomicur says:

    The captain of the Titanic, even after his ship hit the iceberg, continued to insist it was unsinkable. When someone’s paycheck depends on not admitting something, he won’t admit it, and that’s that. Republican political leaders, even the ones in Arizona, will continue to try to bluff climate change out of existence. We’ll hear “It’s just a local problem,” etc., etc.–any spin the corporate PR departments can come up with. If all else fails, they’ll scream “Benghazi!” even louder than they do now (assuming they can’t manufacture some newer “scandal” to distract people with).

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