‘Adapt or We’ll Break’: A Water Expert Lays Out the U.S.’ Risky Future in the Megadrought Era

‘Adapt or We’ll Break’: A Water Expert Lays Out the U.S.’ Risky Future in the Megadrought Era
Photo: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

The U.S. West’s megadrought has produced no shortage of terrible stories. Drought conditions have enveloped 90% of the region, leading to record low water levels at Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two largest reservoirs in the U.S., as well as countless other smaller water systems throughout the region.

The impacts have extended beyond manmade bodies of water, though. Rivers and other lakes in the region have run hot and dry, endangering wildlife. And forests have been charred by wildfires, running the risk of befouling lakes and streams.

All of these are indicators that the West’s water supplies and burgeoning population are on a collision course. Factoring in climate change, which is expected to make the region’s precipitation more erratic and lead to heat that will further strain water resources, and it’s clear the situation is pretty dire. But these are huge forces, and it can be hard to understand what all this actually means.

Will water taps run dry as Lake Mead and other reservoirs shrink further? Can the West’s precarious water system be rebalanced? If so, where do policymakers and communities even begin?

In order to get a little insight into how we got here and what lies ahead, I reached out to Newsha Ajami, the director of Urban Water Policy at Stanford University’s Water in the West program and a research associate at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Molly Taft, Earther: I know this is a big question, but, as succinctly as possible — how did we get here? How did we get to this modern water management system in the West, that basically allowed it to get so big and have such huge problems?

Newsha Ajami: It depends on where you are, but if we think about it conventionally, humans used to settle around water sources. Romans and Persians figured out a way to move water from location to location, but the reality is, the majority of human populations gathered around water. What we see in the last century is that we started actually figuring out how to overcome that limit and move water around where we wanted to go. That’s what you see in California and the West. People are living in places that don’t really have the capacity to meet water demand, but they’re all there, and we’ve built all this infrastructure that moves water thousands and thousands of miles in all directions to make that happen. A lot of these communities have expanded beyond their capacity. That transition was partly fed by federal money — the federal government invested heavily in some of this western water infrastructure over the past century to sort of make the West happen.

As the population grew and as people came, the people who arrived first had more access to water. But then we have cities and communities that have power, they ventured out to see where they could get their water from, and they started moving water. Las Vegas is a great example of that. They basically put straws into Lake Mead to enable some of the growth we’re seeing. [Editor’s note: The “third straw” is the term literally used by policymakers for a pipe that sucks water out of from the bottom of Lake Mead.]

We also had no clue about the consequences of the decisions we were making. It was very much blind engineering power projects, very much focused on how we can do this. We have all these engineering skills and tools and resources, why wouldn’t we build this? Nobody anticipated these things would be so disastrous environmentally over time. And then you have all this manmade infrastructure, they can’t last forever, and they gradually lose their efficiency. And then you have climate change. As time went on, things started falling apart, because of climate change, ageing infrastructure, and the reality that we realised the environment is vulnerable to the decisions we’re making. It’s all come to a head now.

Earther: You mentioned a lot of the way the West’s infrastructure was developed was very in the moment without a lot of thought to the future. Can you give an example?

Ajami: Lake Mead is a good example. Lake Mead basically stores snowmelt water and redistributes it during the late spring and summer. It created this transition time that we didn’t have before — we had snow, it would melt, the Colorado River would flow and go all the way to Mexico and the delta in Baja, and it would go back out into the ocean. With Lake Mead, we basically created this storage system that keeps that water. You can release it gradually, use the water at different times. On top of that, these dams were able to generate electricity — which was great, because it generated electricity that was much needed.

But at the same time, this is a living river, with an ecosystem that depended on that river. Species depended on that water, and the flow and the temperature of the water were impacted by the decision. It started impacting the ecosystem, and then this water, by the time it gets to Mexico, it basically doesn’t exist for those people either.

Earther: I’ve read that a lot of experts in the West started to worry about water resources even before climate change started becoming more obvious. It was clear we were overtaxing the system. Was there, like, an “oh, shit” moment, and, if so, why didn’t people start fixing it before now?

Ajami: We really just did not think about the long-term consequences of those decisions. It kept coming back to us during different droughts and times when we didn’t have enough snow. There’s also the fact that there are so many people up and down these rivers. The craziest thing with water and water allocation is we don’t do a good job of monitoring. It depends on the state you’re in, but some don’t monitor their groundwater, sometimes they have data, sometimes they don’t. You can over-allocate your water because you expected to have more than what’s in the system. You have all these people that are depending on this water, and if you build this management system on top of this, it is problematic.

The climate didn’t used to be like this. We were in drought in 2009, got out of it, back in it in 2012, got out of it in 2017, and now we’re back in it in 2021. This isn’t how it used to be, we used to go decades before we’d go back to these extreme dry periods. Now, you don’t even have that any more. It’s just here, the whole time, a constant problem. That’s what climate change is actually doing — it’s a constant reminder that the system was a badly designed system and the management we have on top of it was not very well thought through.

We built this system as a system of abundance. We thought that whenever we ran out of water, we could just tap another river, another lake, another place, or the system would produce enough water to meet our needs. The reality is that we’re realising there’s no such thing as abundance. Climate change is exacerbating the problems that the system has.

Earther: So what are some of the steps that we need to take to go about fixing this? I know living in New York, when I turn on my tap, I don’t think about water scarcity or droughts, or where my water comes from. Do people in the West need to start thinking about that, though?

Ajami: People all over the country have no clue where their water comes from. They pay their water bill, or the building pays their water bill, their water is cheap. It doesn’t matter what area of the country you live in. This is a problem because people don’t value water. If they don’t value it, they don’t want to be part of the discussion. And if they don’t value the discussion, the biggest lobbying group is going to take over the discussion. The conversation becomes a fight between people with power and money, and not a logical discussion. People have a really hard time wrapping their head around water, what it means, where it comes from, where it goes, what we’re paying for.

Earther: Do you see a future in the short- or medium-term where we’re monetarily going to have to pay more for water?

Ajami: I mean, we should. What everyone in the U.S. is paying for, nobody pays for their water, we pay for the services we receive. We are not paying for the footprint we’re creating or the environmental impacts we’re causing by using water. You may have heard that farmers pay less than we do, which is not true — they’re paying for the same services as you and I, they just don’t need drinkable water. Their water either doesn’t need infrastructure or doesn’t need to be treated.

Nobody’s paying for water. The discussion needs to be — is that how we value the resource that we all depend on, what is basically the essential resource our livelihood, that our socioeconomic realities depend on? Ultimately, I think we should pay more for our water.

Think about our houses — we flush down drinkable water in our toilets. Whose idea was that? We take water, treat it to the best quality, and flush it down the toilet. That’s crazy. And the saddest part of this whole thing, right now, today, we are building the cities of the future, and we’re still building them based on these same ideas.

Earther: That’s wild.

Ajami: It’s abundance. It’s a result of the centralised system, which was driven by the fact that they could manage quality, take water to a central filtration system, clean it up, take it to people’s homes. At the time, nobody was thinking, you know what, there will be a day that there will be so many people and so many different dry and hot years that we will need this water for so many other purposes so we shouldn’t be flushing that water.

Another interesting thing — the biggest crop we grow in the U.S. is grass. Not the grass the cows are munching on, but the grass that you or I might have in our backyard, that we’re watering, we’re not eating. It’s crazy that we are using this much water to grow something that we don’t even need.

Earther: I remember the last time California was in a drought, there were water restrictions in Los Angeles that came with fines, but the rich people who wanted to keep their lawns just went ahead and did it, and some of them were able to pay the high fines for it. It does seem like in the system as it stands, there are a whole lot of possibilities for water to be something that people who can pay for it can still access water in abundance.

Ajami: Yeah, and that’s a great point. We have to talk about equity and justice and access — should people who can pay for grass be allowed to have grass? At the end of the day, that’s sort of how we’re paying for electricity — people who can afford to have 50 different TVs in their homes, they’re paying the bill, but not everybody needs to or wants to do that. The reality is, just because we don’t want to promote extreme use doesn’t mean we shouldn’t charge people more. Right now, what we’re doing with the cost of water is that not only are we not charging people properly, but we’re not helping low-income communities either because we don’t have the resources to invest in systems that they need.

Earther: What sort of changes do you foresee in folks’s everyday life as the drought gets worse?

Ajami: There’s a wish list and actual trends. People who are building a lot of new tech campuses are doing a lot to recycle water. There are discussions around the price of water, there are discussions around doing more with drain water systems, there are a lot of efforts around conservation efficiency, lots of efforts to clean up polluted groundwater basins. That’s another crazy thing — we never used to care about our groundwater. Industrial activities have polluted groundwater supplies because we never thought we would need them. California and some of the Western states that didn’t used to have groundwater laws are making groundwater laws. Quality is becoming more and more of an issue. There’s a lot of effort to maintain the quality of water, making sure we can preserve the quality of lakes and bays and water bodies.

Some of these actions are actually happening, but one thing on my wish list, I would love to see people thinking about how development today is impacting our water footprint of the future. You can rethink the not-very-efficient system we have and start building for the future, rather than doing the same thing over and over and complaining about the results.

Earther: It sounds like our water system is incredibly inefficient and wasteful. But even if we tighten up the system, make sure we’re using everything and really reusing water as much as possible, can the West as a region support the amount of pressure we put on it, once you add in climate change? Is that something you think about?

Ajami: Yes, I do think about that.

Earther: Sorry, grim thoughts are my specialty.

Ajami: No, it’s a great question. Eventually, we’ll either have to adapt, or we’ll break. If you talk about drought, drought is our new normal. It’s not a drought anymore. We have to shift that mindset and say, drought is a normal thing, it’s our reality. If we have a wet year, we have to think about how we can protect and cache as much water as we can, store as much water as we can to help our system recover.

The West can survive if it shifts its mindset, changes the way we manage water, changes the way we approach drought, changes wildfire management and flood season, changes how we manage between the environment and built systems, how much we charge for water. If we really can embrace all these things in a systematic way, we might be able to survive. If we continue on in treating groundwater as an endless system we can just tap into and use, arguing over “oh should we monitor or not monitor, people really want to have freedom of choice” — that’s never going to survive. We’re never going to survive. A bunch of people are going to keep using and abusing the system.

We have a path in front of us and we know the things we need to fix. If we don’t, I don’t know if we can survive.