Too Little Water…Or Too Many People?

Published on December 9th, 2010

By Joe Guzzardi
November 29, 2010

As a California native who has lived most of his life in the Golden State, I can never remember a time when water shortages were not a major worry in the Southwestern United States. Anyone who wants an easy-to-digest primer on California’s water supply and the consequences of having too little should watch the 1974 Academy Award nominated movie, Chinatown.

Today concerns are heightened. A 12-year drought has slowly drained the Colorado River to an alarmingly low level. Without record precipitation this winter, drastic water redistribution may be recommended next year for the most fundamental reason: too many people have moved into the Southwest. At work is the basic rule of supply and demand; too many residents and not enough product (water). The situation is especially acute in the highest population growth areas like Phoenix and Las Vegas.

In recent years, Lake Mead has consistently had more water withdrawn than deposited, resulting in an average annual decline of 1.6 million acre-feet. Therefore, according to federal estimates issued in August, Lake Mead’s water level could soon drop below the crucial 1,075 feet demarcation line. If that happens, Arizonans and Nevadans would be the most immediately affected.

Anticipating the worst, Phoenix and Las Vegas have undertaken extensive and badly needed conservation programs. Consequently, between 2000 and 2009 Phoenix’s average per-capita daily household usage dropped almost 20 percent; Las Vegas’ fell 21.3 percent.

While more prudent use of limited water supplies is a positive thing, it cannot sustain relentless population increases. Regardless of alternate days for watering and restrictions on how often cars are washed, eventually population expansion will overwhelm conservation efforts.

In Las Vegas, for example, between 2002 and 2009, the population exploded 40 percent from 1.37 million to 1.9 million. Since Las Vegas relies on Lake Mead for 90 percent of its water supply, the city will eventually need either more water or fewer residents.

For decades, the federal government has engaged in an extended debate about immigration policy. But very little has been said by either those who favor more or those who want less immigration about the role of the immigrant as a consumer.

Obviously, every immigrant who comes to America will use water daily. In fact, the greatest likelihood is that since a newly arrived immigrant will not be aware of America’s natural resources shortages, he may consume more than is either necessary or practical.

Even enlightened conservationists often tiptoe around the relationship between overpopulation and resource depletion.

Here’s what John A. Zebre, a Wyoming lawyer and the president of the Colorado River Water Users Association, recently said: “We have a very finite resource and demand which increases and enlarges every day. The problem is always going to be there. Everything is driven by that problem.”

Zebre’s statement is fine as far as it goes. But it’s incomplete and not nearly forceful enough.

Here’s how I would rephrase it: “We don’t have enough water to go around. Every day, because of shortsighted immigration policies and a public under-informed about sensible family planning, more people make demands on a diminishing water supply. Until the federal government wakes up to the long-term effects of more immigration and the consequences of above replacement-level size families, our water crisis will grow worse.”

Despite extensive media coverage about the water emergency, citizens throughout the Southwest remain largely unaware and unconcerned. In 2007, for example, the Association of California Water Agencies developed a program entitled “California’s Water: A Crisis We Can’t Ignore.” While it is difficult to gauge how wide an audience the program reached, what’s certain is that California’s population increased by approximately 1.5 million people during the three years since it was initiated. All are water users.

Education, no matter how far reaching, cannot offset unceasing population growth.

Joe Guzzardi has written editorial columns—mostly about immigration and related social issues – since 1990. He is a senior writing fellow for Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS) and his columns have frequently been syndicated in various U.S. newspapers and websites. He can be reached at [email protected]

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