Transforming an arid Southwest

Facing the prospects of more drought, the region’s water users learn new ways to steward a shared resource more efficiently.

Charles Clark drinks water after exercising during a heat advisory in Dallas, Texas, July 12.

If it continues another year, a 22-year-long drought in America’s Southwest could lead to, among other things, the end of hydropower on the Colorado River. Yet such predictions also have an upside. Many desert cities built on distant water sources are learning to harness their resources more efficiently even as their population grows.

The parching of the Southwest is “not all doom and gloom,” Andrew Erdmann, New Mexico’s chief water planner, told the Albuquerque Journal. The state’s new 50-year water plan due to be released this month, he said, reflects “optimism and reason to be hopeful that we’re adapting effectively to the changes expected.”

The crisis in water security is tapping new reservoirs of human cooperation and innovation. Last year, for example, federal officials cut water allocations from the Colorado River to users across seven states; that might once have been disastrous, but several cities that have long depended on the watershed hardly flinched. In June, Los Angeles posted its lowest water consumption ever recorded during the first month of summer. In San Diego, where water use per resident has dropped 43% from 1990 levels, water officials say the city has enough water capacity to grow comfortably at 1% a year through 2045. In Las Vegas; Phoenix; and Albuquerque, New Mexico, water planners express similar confidence.

These cities are embracing a mix of conservation strategies, including recycling, desalination, new technologies to detect leaks, and stormwater catchment. Los Angeles and San Diego pay their residents to replace thirsty front lawns with rock and cactus gardens. So does Las Vegas, which draws 90% of its water from the Colorado River. The city has seen daily water consumption per resident drop from 314 gallons to 222 gallons in recent years. All indoor water is recycled throughout the city.

One important element in changing water-use habits among urban residents may be encouragement rather than punishment. In California, for example, Gov. Gavin Newsom has urged residents voluntarily to cut their water use 15% below what they consumed in 2020. Statewide, Californians have yet to meet that goal. But as the state has shown in the past, mandatory rationing tends not to produce long-term change.

“If I have the opportunity to educate, that’s always the first option for me, always,” Damon Ayala, a Los Angeles water controller, told the LA Times. “We obviously can issue a warning citation or a monetary citation, but what we’re really looking for is behavior change.”

In her groundbreaking studies on how people work through resource problems, the late political economist Elinor Ostrom noted that sustainable outcomes result from “innovativeness, learning, adapting, trustworthiness, and levels of cooperation.” In the Southwest, city residents may be showing how those qualities can often turn scarcities into shared security.

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