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Swimming in the desert

Scott Patterson
By Scott Patterson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Monday, September 26, 2005
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"Well, I hope you like the taste of your own piss, because that's what you'll be drinking in 10 years." - Angelica Hancock, "No TV After 11"

Attention ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, students of all disciplines, in case you haven't noticed, Arizona is a desert! And believe it or not, water is a scarce resource. It should therefore be no surprise that soaring demand for the substance has caused a statewide threat of water shortage. The culprit? Why, us, of course, and I'll explain why.

Water issues of the southwestern United States can be summed up in three words: Colorado River System. Spanning 1,440 miles, the Colorado River System is the principal water resource in the arid Pacific Southwest, taking water from the Colorado River and supplying four Upper Basin states - Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico - three Lower Basin states - Arizona, California, Nevada - and Mexico with much-needed H2O.

Since its inception with the signing of the Colorado River Compact in 1922, the system has effectively supplied plenty of Colorado River water to the Basin states. In fact, many states, including Arizona, have run surpluses. A few years ago, however, the system began to falter. Rapid population growth amongst the Basin states, combined with several years of severe drought conditions, has led to a grave shortage threat.

According to, between 1990 and 2000, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado and Utah (all four Basin states) have had the four largest population growth rates in the country. New Mexico (also a Basin state) was ranked 12th.

In the past decade, Basin state population grew by 11 million, a 26 percent increase. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2020, Lower Basin populations are expected to increase by 25 percent. Additionally, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Southern California have been among the nation's fastest-growing regions for years.

For Arizona, which is expected to grow by 33 percent by 2020, the consequence of such growth was huge pressure on groundwater supply, which had been depleting steadily for years. In response, in 1996 the state established the Arizona Water Bank Authority, which was able to take unused water and store it underground for future use and alleviate pressure on groundwater supply.

As a result, within five years Arizona's average annual surplus of 0.3 to 1.0 million acre-feet essentially disappeared, leaving California, who had been relying on this surplus for years, to more or less fend for itself (an acre-foot is 325,851 gallons, enough to serve an average household of four or five for one year). Other Basin states face similar problems.

Furthermore, devastating drought conditions have been plaguing the region for the past five years. Despite claims that increased precipitation over the past year proves the drought is ending, its toll on the Colorado River System hasn't gone unnoticed.

The system's current state is not too encouraging. As Dustin Garrick, a graduate research associate for the UA Water Resources Research Center, writes, "the Colorado River storage system decreased from 55.7 (95 percent capacity) to 29.7 (52 percent) maf from Oct. 1, 1999 to Oct. 1, 2004."

Unfortunately, the future holds one certainty: Demand for water will continue to soar. So even assuming the drought is over, the Colorado River simply won't be able to keep up with demand, as its supply remains relatively constant.

Now as much as I would love to advocate conserving more, I just can't. Conservation is something people should do anyway, not only when times of crisis come around. Furthermore, conservation during crises leads to a false belief that conserving is solving the problem, when in reality all it is doing is delaying the onset of negative consequences.

Finding more water isn't very reliable either. Since virtually all other sources are used, reclamation processes such as desalination would have to be advanced. With highly advanced desalination technology, we could have oceans at our disposal. The process, however, is imperfect and extremely expensive.

Additionally, discouraging settlement in Arizona during the real estate boom will get you nowhere, and implementing laws like those in China that place limits on the number of children allowed per household would bring condemnation from liberals and conservatives alike.

Despite this, population growth limits is the way to go. Unless people begin understanding that development has its limits and take steps to curtail population growth, water shortages will be only the first of many problems.

Scott PatteDrson is an international studies senior. He can be reached at

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