Andres Lopez Gonzalez sits in a dusty plastic lawn chair in back of his tarpaper-covered home in El Mayor, south of Mexicali. Nearby, his wife patiently makes beaded jewelry and his daughter does schoolwork.
Gonzalez holds his hands close to himself in the cold morning air, but dirt beneath his nails is still visible, revealing the life of a workingman struggling in a land with little water. His house has a single kitchen faucet that delivers water too polluted to drink. The yard has no lawn, shrubbery or flower beds. Just an outhouse.
If only a little more fresh water flowed down the Colorado River Delta, he says, it would help restore the population of prized corvina, which he fishes on the sun-drenched sparkling waters of the nearby Gulf of California. Lack of fresh water has caused the corvina population to collapse. To help put groceries on the table and pay for the bottled water the family must drink, Gonzalez supplements his fishing income with assorted odd jobs.
In his aspirations for a better future, Gonzalez is just like Southern Californians. But he and others across the Colorado Delta and Mexicali Valley cannot take water for granted like us, because they live at the brunt end of a salty river that no longer reaches the sea on a regular basis. White patches of salt cover some farm fields on the delta, and in some places, the remains of burned vegetation line the barely flowing river.
Gesturing with his hands under the bright sun, Gonzalez says he’s not sure if people in the U.S. use too much Colorado River water. “I just see we don’t get much water.”
Now, however, the U.S. is crushing the hopes of Gonzalez and his neighbors for a little more water and the better future it could bring. The U.S. is beginning projects that will further cut the already diminished flow of fresh water to Mexico from the Colorado River. With minimal international consultation, the U.S. — along with the Metropolitan Water District and other water agencies — is turning down the spigot to Mexico to divert more water for new housing developments in Los Angeles and cities across Southern California. In so doing, water managers not only will starve Mexico for water, but likely will set up Los Angeles and urban Southern California for water shortages by enabling more growth than the river ultimately can support.
Each new development approved by local city councils flush with builder cash in Southern California — from Playa Vista in Los Angeles to teeming subdivisions in the Inland Empire and San Diego County — represents death by a thousand cuts for the many cultures, economies and nature itself along the 1,450-mile-long Colorado River, which slakes the thirst and waters the crops of 30 million people in seven Western states and Mexico. It’s a case of history be damned to the people on both sides of the border and all along the river who have staked their lives on farming, fishing, ranching and recreation.
Here, along the Southern California coast, the transfers are creating the illusion that Los Angeles and other cities have plenty of water and their residents need not fear shortages. Scientists warn that the development proceeding courtesy of water transfers, which are designed to fuel growth and guard urban areas against only short-term droughts, is but a house of cards. The water empire has overreached in taking water from the Colorado, putting the people of Los Angeles and cities across the Southwest at peril in the face of an inevitable mega-drought.
“We essentially have over-allocated the river,” says Glen MacDonald, a professor of geography at UCLA who has been studying historical water flows on the river. “We have to plan something for significantly longer droughts.”
Persistent shortages already have appeared. Las Vegas is on drought alert, and areas of the Inland Empire, east of Los Angeles, experience water-pressure drops during the summer. Shortages will grow if the region does not come to grips with its desert heritage. The region, say many scientists and engineers, will have to spend untold billions to better use local water to support the huge populations that have come to the area in the last 50 years. Otherwise, it will wither in the coming decades just as surely as it blossomed after thousands toiled and scores died to build the Hoover Dam during the depths of the Great Depression.
Shortsighted water agencies have been taking the cheap approach to meeting the needs of the region’s growing population by purchasing water from farmers and ranchers to forestall costly investments in desalination and treatment of urban runoff, which respectively cost from four to 14 times more than transfers. They have given short shrift to outdoor water conservation, too, compared to other areas along the river. Moreover, because these other measures take many years to finance and put in place, they are leaving the region increasingly vulnerable to drought. Just as serious, the transfers are inflicting environmental and economic destruction along the river that is invisible in the city halls of metropolitan Southern California, but increasingly painful to Gonzalez and untold others. Farmers are taking land out of production to accommodate the transfers, leaving farm workers jobless.