Has the Current Drought Pushed the U.S. to a Tipping Point?

23 Aug 2021  |  Reese Tisdale

Federal officials have mandated the first-ever water cuts on the Colorado River system amidst a drought that is poised to devastate farms, power stations, and communities. Amazingly, the river sustains 40 million people, or almost 13% of the U.S. population. It also irrigates more than 5 million acres in the region. So, it comes as no secret that the current drought—now referred to as a “megadrought”—in the western U.S. is a problem that is not going away. 

The linchpin to the recent supply cuts can be put into context with the following facts..
  • Lake Powell now stands at 3,551 feet above sea level, or just 32% of capacity. Glen Canyon Dam, which provides enough power for millions of people, would be unable to generate electricity once the water level falls below 3,491 feet.
  • Forecasts show Lake Mead water levels falling to 1,066 feet above sea level, or 35% of capacity, which it hasn’t reached since the 1030s.
  • Las Vegas, Tucson, and San Diego rely on the river for 90%, 82%, and 66% of their water supplies, respectively.

So far, some states will feel the pain more than others, per the contingency plan negotiated in 2019 by seven stakeholder states—California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado Wyoming— American Indian Tribes, and Mexican authorities. The Bureau of Reclamation’s cuts only affect lower basin states at this point, which means Arizona assumes the role as the biggest loser.

There are two sides to solving the increasingly difficult question..

One, execute on the portfolio of recommendations to address the underlying challenge of reducing carbon emissions in the U.S., let alone globally. Unfortunately, this will take decades, if not the better part of this century, to respond through an energy transition to lower carbon fuel supplies for the transportation and electric power sectors. Electric vehicle sales, are up 1700% from 2011 to 2019, and this is only the beginning, given the queue of automakers lining up behind Tesla. The associated new build across the supply chain do present a parallel opportunity to transform water management with new technology, business models, and approaches. As we have said here, greenfield + water = bluefield.

vertical farming

Secondly, deploy alternative approaches that enable society to live with the looming devastation (e.g., drought, wildfires, flooding, winter freezes) that now seemingly await us around every corner. In this context, the role for water reuse, desalination, and more efficient water management (e.g., digital water, vertical farming) will take on greater priority.

There are already more than 700 municipal water reuse systems and a handful of desalination plants in various stages of planning that will increasingly become necessary, irrespective of cost, to mitigate water supply risks for cities. At the same time, rising investments in more innovative irrigation and farming practices, which are on the rise, are poised to scale.

The reality now is that it is going to take a mix of both, addressing the underlying problem (e.g., carbon emissions) and adapting to a new normal. For this reason, Bluefield has been tackling the myriad of challenges confronting corporate stakeholders and solutions providers regarding water.

The reality now is that it is going to take a mix of both, addressing the underlying problem and adapting to a new normal.

The upside to all of this, to be optimistic, is that the technology and wherewithal is not the issue. In fact, the answer to the puzzle is before us. The fact that water, or lack thereof, is rising in priority among key stakeholders, (e.g., policymakers, corporate leaders) represents a positive signal. Better, more advanced water management is one answer to addressing the transformational impacts extending well beyond just the western states.