For more than ten years the American West has suffered from an unprecedented drought. With an exponential population growth and the temperatures on the rise due to climate change, water levels in the reservoirs of the Colorado River are going down at an alarming rate. Politicians and water managers fear water shortages in the near future; conflicts seem unavoidable. Patricia Mulroy of the Southern Nevada Water Authority: ‘I am worried.’

Las Vegas – ‘This is a make-you town, or a break-you town’, is what Frank Sinatra sang about Las Vegas. That was in the fifties, and the song was about money. If Sinatra were still alive, he could revamp his song about Las Vegas. Using the same lyrics it would have a completely different connotation. Nowadays, one of the main issues in the gambling capital of the U.S.A. is its water use. Kevin Perry knows all about it. He is a water cop, although he prefers to be referred to as a water waste investigator, working for the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) in Las Vegas. ‘Meet me at six o’clock tomorrow morning, when the heat is still tolerable’, Perry warned us over the phone.

In his air-conditioned jeep, he points at his laptop screen that lists data indicating where in the city water is wasted. ‘This is a school I visited two weeks ago,’ says Perry, while he locates the school on Google maps. ‘The sprinkler system should have been repaired by now, but schools are sometimes slow because of its unclear who is responsible.’

You can imagine many things for which one would need a policeman in Las Vegas, but few people would think of a water cop. Still, this is exactly what Kevin Perry does: patrolling the Las Vegas streets for possible water waste. ‘First I inspect the problem. Then I file a report, I videotape the situation, plant a small flag to alert the owners. The owners will automatically receive a letter with a warning. They’re given two weeks to repair the damage. Otherwise they will get an eighty-dollar fine on top of their next water bill. If the people responsible fail to repair the water leak, the fine is doubled to 160 Dollar. And we keep doubling it with every failure to pay. Ultimately, everyone pays.’

Illegal Mexicans
Although Perry has no problem with being called a water cop, he sees himself more as an teacher. He is given a chance to demonstrate this a little later in the typical run of the mill comfortable suburb, Los Prados, where the garages seem larger than the one-storey houses behind them. While Perry films some houses where the lawn sprinklers are broken and water runs off into the street unused, a large white four-wheel drive SUV pulls over. The window slides down and an annoyed woman screams out: ‘I don’t understand why you waste your time on a small water leak, while at the same time illegal Mexicans are offering to wash your car on every street corner! Can’t you do something about that?’

The educational part of his work is not easy, Perry confesses. The citizens of Las Vegas are immigrants from all over the U.S.A. Many people from the East coast, where rainfall is abundant, are used to a green lawn. So they want to continue that lifestyle here as well. Perry: ‘Many of these people are not really interested in my recommendations about desert gardens. With some of them, you’ll have to pry the lawn mower out of their dead hands,’ he grins. ‘But slowly, the attitude of most of them is changing.’

Water cop Kevin Perry explains his duties to passer by.

Such a change of attitude is absolutely necessary, emphasises Patricia Mulroy later that day. The charismatic director of the powerful Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) continues: ‘I am worried about the availability of water in the western U.S.A., particularly in the short term.’ When asked for a guarantee of a constant water supply for the metropolis of Las Vegas in the coming years, she hesitates: ‘A guarantee is a big word,’ she starts carefully, looking out of the window of her spacious office on the fifth floor, at the sprawling desert city below. ‘We are building a third water intake in Lake Mead as we speak, in order to be continue a steady water supply for Las Vegas even if the water level keeps sinking the way it has done in recent years. We need to for soon we may not be able to use the other two water intakes anymore, they will surface.’

The big drought
The American Southwest has suffered from a massive drought for more than a decade now. The Americans started calling it simply the big drought. For years already, the U.S. has been consuming more water from the Colorado River than the river receives from melting mountain snow. The Colorado is fed by snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains, but because of climate change, there is less and less precipitation. Snow is melting earlier and earlier each spring. The southwestern part of the United States can only afford this over-consumption of river water, because in the fifties and sixties several huge dams were built in the Colorado, creating large reservoirs. The largest of them are Lake Powell just upstream of the Grand Canyon and Lake Mead on the outskirts of Las Vegas. Both lakes are in the middle of the desert and have to cope with roughly ten percent surface evaporation. Lake Powell is now at about one-third empty, the water level in Lake Mead is at less than 50%. Never before since the construction of this reservoir has the water level been so low. It is easy to observe the receding water levels because of the so-called bathtub rings along the banks of the lake. Calcium deposits have left a bright white ring on the rocky shores indicating the maximum level ten years ago. Old jetties and marinas now lie unused dozens of meters higher and hundreds of meters inland from the lake shore.

‘If we don’t take action now, the water reservoirs will dry up completely,’ warns Bradley Udall, a scientist at the University of Boulder, a friendly university town west of Denver on the edge of the Rocky Mountains. Udall, a lean guy in his forties. With his bicycle helmet, office shirt, shorts and laptop he is a textbook example of the organic food consuming highly educated American in a progressive university town. According to Udall, there are clear signs that climate change is actually taking place. ‘The dry areas become drier. The four major droughts in the western U.S.A. all took place after 1998. Currently we use approximately 1.3 million acre-feet of water (approx. one cubic kilometre of water – JK) more per year than we actually receive from the Colorado River. Because of population growth and climate change, this number will increase even further. Lake Mead and Lake Powell are emptying at a high pace. It would take decades for the reservoirs to refill, just like it did when the dams were built. Some say they may never fill again.’

According to Udall, rapid action is required. ‘Domestic and industrial users will have to start saving on their water consumption. We also must counteract the evaporation of water. And we will have to shift our water use from certain economic activities to others.’ More than 80 percent of all the water in the Colorado River is used for agriculture. Udall: ‘Here in the State of Colorado much of the water goes to ranching, but farther south it is used for low-value crops such as alfalfa, cow fodder. That’s economically not sensible. But the farmers there say, ‘Why should we use less? The water is still here!‘

Fighting over water
A farmer who follows the whole climate change debate with scepticism is Bob Munson. He lives on the outskirts of Boulder, CO and owns a mixed farm. ‘I do not believe in climate change,’ he says defiantly in his roadside vegetable stall in front of his 50 hectare farm, where he sells corn, zucchinis, melons and many other kinds of vegetables. ‘And even if it does exist it would actually be pretty good for us. As temperatures rise, it would mean that more water evaporates. This would then come back to us as rain. In this respect I do not see the problem.’
Munson knows how important water is for his farm. Because of the enormous population growth in the region, there is a growing competition for water resources. ‘Fortunately, my farm has very senior water rights. They go back to 1859. My farm has just about the oldest water rights in the entire region.’ That means that Munson usually has enough water to irrigate his crops. Yet for farmers the pressure on the water is not easy, ‘Cities have an increasing need for water and try to buy water rights from farmers. This causes a growing number of people to give up farming, which is bad for agriculture and the countryside as a whole. Buy them and dry them, that is what the metropolitan water managers say.
Munson has seen his own share of water conflict. ‘In 2003, during the big drought, we only had about a quarter of the average water flow in the Colorado River. In that year, people were fighting over water. One day I caught my neighbour secretly opening one of the irrigation canals on my land, to divert the water to her own land. When I said something about it to her, she came after me screaming with to large Mexicans who worked for her.  appeared with big guns. She started screaming at me: ‘You’re only thinking of yourself, you just want your plants green!’ Well, I paid for the water! It is mine. There is nothing better than owning your own land. And there is nothing better than owning your own water.’

Water Transport
In order to counter the threatening water shortage, there should be no taboos when it comes to possible solutions, according to Pat Mulroy of the SNWA. One option that environmental organizations generally find appalling is the idea to transport water from other parts of the U.S.A. to the western part of the country. Mulroy does not want to rule this option out. ‘We have more than 100 years of experience with water transfers in the American West. We’re pumping Colorado water under the Rockies eastward. The Central Arizona Project brings water across 500 kilometres from the Colorado River to Phoenix and Tucson in Arizona. If we had not done this, the western part of our country would not have been, as we know it today. Therefore we cannot automatically exclude the option of moving water from the Mississippi to the Rockies through westward water canals or tunnels. It is technically possible.’

Water is pumped from the Colorado River on the west side of the Continental Divide to the east side to supply Denver and Boulder with extra water. the Moffat Tunnel is one of the many water tunnels under the Rockies.

This may be true, but it would also be a mammoth project. Water tunnels would have to cross the more than 4000 meters high Rocky Mountains. Even still crazier ideas exist, according to Jennifer Pitt of the Environmental Defense Fund. ‘There are plans to bring water from the Mississippi to the west, plans to desalinate seawater, plans to take water from the Great Lakes southward and there are even plans to transport icebergs to the coast of California in order to have them melted there.’

According to Michael Cohen of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, CA, one should not forget about the symbolism of these water plans. ‘You must remember that here we are in the western part U.S.A. Not so long ago this was still really the Wild West where anything was possible. The Federal Bureau of Reclamation and the Bureau of Land Management wanted to develop this part of the U.S.A. Big Dollars had to be invested here.’

Cash for grass
One way to reduce water consumption is through changing your garden vegetation, according to Pat Mulroy. ‘Las Vegas is located in the desert, but many people do not realise that. About half of all domestic water use goes to watering lawns. Therefore we initiated the cash-for-grass program. Residents who change their lawns into a desert garden receive twenty Dollars per square meter from us. With the cash-for-grass program we have saved millions of litters of water since 1999. We also have a program for saving pool water. People receive 50 Dollars for special foils to cover their swimming pools in order to prevent evaporation. We also encourage people to go the car wash, instead of washing their cars themselves. They get two Dollar coupons for the professional car washes. Car wash facilities nowadays are quite water efficient and recycle their water. That’s better than everyone washing their own cars.’

We don’t focus uniquely on domestic users. Heavy users should be more efficient too. Mulroy: ‘Several years ago I talked to Steve Wynn, one of the big casino tycoons in Las Vegas. After one hour I left his office with a check for 100,000 Dollar. ‘Go up and down the strip [the main street of Las Vegas with all the famous casinos , JK] and have them match me’, he told me. Nowadays the casinos are the city’s most conscious water conservers, they only use three percent of all the water in Las Vegas.’

Mulroy expects that her town will change in the next decades because of the looming water shortages. ‘I think in 2050 we will be a more compact city; we will be more European. Construction will go vertical instead of horizontal. That already happens, just look outside,’ she says pointing at a residential high-rise that is going up next to the SNWA building in central Las Vegas. ‘There will be more public swimming pools, there will be more park-like places; more people will share facilities.’

Michael Cohen of the Pacific Institute believes that climate change will make parts of the western U.S. uninhabitable. ‘Many people dream of living in Phoenix; that city has been growing with 500 inhabitants a day for a long time now. Phoenix might however become unliveable in the near future. In the summer already temperatures often sore above forty degrees. People can only survive because of air-conditioning, which is usually switched on 24/7. Many families have an electricity bill of 500 Dollars a month. Some people cannot afford this anymore.’


Phoenix is now a city of nearly two million inhabitants; mostly pensioners. They entertain themselves at the 150 golf courses in and around the city, all located in the desert. Meanwhile the cattle on the outskirts of the city are dying from the heat.

Overuse of the Colorado River water has led to the sad fact that since 1960, the river almost never reached its delta in the Gulf of California. Before the water even reaches the Mexican border it has already been used several times by cities, factories and farms. The 1.5 million acre-feet that make it to the border are saline and polluted. There all the water is diverted by the Mexicans that use it one last time to irrigate the agricultural Mexicali Valley and to supply cities like Tijuana and Tecate. Not a drop makes it to the ocean. Most Americans that hear about this cannot believe it, according to Michael Cohen. ‘What, there’s no water arriving at the mouth of the Colorado?’ they ask. They are shocked, because every American knows the Colorado. It is the river that created the Grand Canyon, the lifeline of the west and that plays a major role in tourism in the U.S.A. Nowadays, only in years with a lot of snowfall in the Rockies, or in case of a sudden freak storm water will fill the river bed in Mexico for a few days.

The drying up of the river is an insult against Mother Nature. The American Southwest needs a different lifestyle. And that will be a huge challenge.’
Seven states and Mexico
The 14 million acre feet of water flowing through the Colorado each year are divided through a complicated system between seven U.S. states. The foundation for this water sharing was created in 1922, when the Colorado River compact was signed. Since 1948 Mexico is also included in the distribution of the Colorado water. According to scientist Bradley Udall, the 1922 Colorado River compact was decided upon at a time when precipitation in the U.S.A. was at a cyclical peak. ‘This complicates the situation nowadays.’
Moreover, the 1922 Colorado River Compact was negotiated in a time when nobody could predict the population boom of the western U.S.A. About 30 million Americans in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona and California depend on water of the Colorado watershed. The area includes major cities like Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix and San Diego.

Text: Jeroen Kuiper.
Photos: Johannes Abeling / Ronald de Hommel