A brutal drought in the U.S. southwest has triggered a bitter fight over water

A brutal drought has triggered a water war in the U.S. southwest. A wealthy suburb of Phoenix was cut off its water access. Residents here warn: This is not a local story. You, too, Canada, are connected to this region.

The mega-drought is pitting neighbour against neighbour, and the repercussions are international

A man in Arizona sees a glimpse of a potentially frightening future. A future where the planet is hotter, the soil is drier, and our most precious resource is more scarce.

His job is delivering water. And his job is getting harder.

John Hornewer is now having to drive hours farther each day to fill his truck, which, in turn, fills the subterranean tanks at homes in an area outside Phoenix.

His normal supplier cut him off; more precisely, on Jan. 1, the city of Scottsdale, Ariz., cut off transfers to the exurban community he serves in a desire to conserve water for its own residents.

He found new suppliers, farther away. Then another supplier cut him off.

And now he's had to go farther, spending more time in his truck, making fewer deliveries, and having to double the price he charges hundreds of his customers in Rio Verde Foothills, an unincorporated community that has lost its water supplier.

"It's brutal," Hornewer said in an interview. "The water haulers simply cannot keep up."

Hornewer refers to Rio Verde Foothills as a warning sign, as the Colorado River shrinks and climate change is forecast to make things worse: "We're the first domino to fall."

'One neighbour started peeing outside'

Ingenious and borderline-desperate water-saving tactics are being deployed.

People are now showering at nearby gyms. Some eat on paper plates. They collect rainwater in outdoor buckets and use them to flush toilets.

They flush toilets less often and promote their water-saving ways with not-entirely-tongue-in-cheek slogans like: Don't blush, share a flush.

"One neighbour started peeing outside," said one resident, Linda Vincent. "We haven't gotten to that point yet."

This county, Maricopa, is a fast-growing growing area in a fast-growing state.

A visitor can see why so many people want to live here: It's a gorgeous place. It has suburban Phoenix on one side, horse ranches on the other, and in the middle, golden sunsets illuminating terra-cotta-coloured mansions adorned in cactus landscaping.

This arid paradise, however, risks being a cautionary tale.

The entire U.S. southwest is suffering a once-in-a-millennium drought since 2000 that has forced successive cuts in water usage.

The goal of these cuts: to save the Colorado River, the lifeblood of the U.S. southwest, a key source of drinking water, power production, and crop irrigation.

It's about to get even harder. The U.S. federal government will, any day, announce additional cutbacks, after states missed a deadline to come to a voluntary agreement on Jan. 31.

There's an old saying in the West, a cliché by this point attributed, perhaps inaccurately, to the author Mark Twain: Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over.

And in these parts, lately, it's fighting time.

Feuds over water: 'It's getting mean'

The competition over water allocation is pitting state versus state — Arizona versus California, primarily, have clashing views on what would be a fair allocation.

Even within states, it's pitting city-dwellers against farmers, and neighbour versus neighbour.

"It's getting mean," said local horse-breeder Mike Miola.

"People are angry."

A main flashpoint: What body to entrust with the responsibility previously handled by Scottsdale, which supplied the local water-hauling trucks.

Some want to create a new public agency; others want to hire a private company, Epcor USA, a subsidiary of Canada's Edmonton-based Epcor.

It recently got so heated Karen Nabity filed a police report.

This, remember, is land without local government. It was mostly just ranchers here until a few years ago, before people started building dream homes.

Now it's got about 2,100 houses which get water in one of two ways: delivered by truck, or from personal wells that draw from increasingly strained groundwater sources.

Some residents want to preserve that libertarian culture and fumed at Nabity for pushing to create a public body, a so-called water district.

Some threatened to show up at her house with torches and pitchforks. Friends gathered on her front porch to help her keep watch just in case an angry mob arrived. It did not.

"Unfortunately, there were some threats," she said, while expressing hope things may be calming down.

"Luckily, I've got great neighbours."

A permanent plan could take years to set up.

In the meantime, residents are hopeful for an interim solution: that Scottsdale might agree to buy extra water and sell it to them. The plan would have to be approved by the city, then the county, and Scottsdale will start by considering it at a Tuesday council meeting.

Canada, this affects you too

It's totally unclear where the water will come from in the longer-term solution but here's one place it won't come from: Canada.

The Canadian-headquartered company, Epcor, told CBC News that if it's selected as a supplier it would not be shipping water across the border.

There is an international component, however, to this struggle.

Canadians have a direct personal stake in the health of the Colorado River. The vast majority of certain winter greens Canada consumes, notably lettuce, are harvested in the southwest sunbelt reliant on its water.

A pricey reminder of Canada's connection to the region came just this winter: Canadian grocery stores saw astronomical hikes in the price of lettuce last fall when another valley in California was hit by a pest infestation.

"A lot of people throughout the world … need to start paying attention to this," Nabity said.

"Farms are going to be left fallow."

The brutal math of the Colorado River

There are two major problems with the Colorado River: It produces way less water than expected, about 30 per cent less; and people use too much.

The problem starts with a long-ago math error.

When a treaty now involving seven states and Mexico was designed in 1922, it had been an abnormally rainy few years. The river was never going to provide the expected volumes, the 16.5 million acre-feet (about 20 billion cubic metres) allocated per year.

Then came the population explosion. Metropolises like Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego and Phoenix sprouted in what was originally a farming region, blowing past the 16.5-million-acre-foot target.

So take that demographic growth, add it to the original math error, throw in climate change and an epochal drought, and you've got a potential nightmare scenario: Dead pool.

Dead pool is what happens if water levels drop so low that nothing flows past the Hoover Dam, collapsing the distribution system, leaving farms and homes parched in the southwest.

And it's trending that way, if the post-2019 pace continues. Hence the feds' urgent effort to reduce water usage 20-40 per cent below past levels.

It's a recipe for conflict.

Every precious litre of water allocation is being jealously guarded. Exhibit A: Scottsdale cutting off its neighbour, Rio Verde Foothills.

It's also fuelling pre-existing tensions in a country already notorious for its political rift between urban and rural areas.

Farmers versus cities

Farmers hear the complaints about them. It's true farms use 70 per cent of the Colorado River's water. Farmers' defence is: We were here first, cities came later. We feed the whole continent.

Nancy Caywood is in the third generation on a five-generation farm south of Phoenix. Her parents, who tended this land, had a first date at a highway bar where country legend Waylon Jennings got his start.

She's had to let land fallow. Dozens of acres that could be growing wheat and barley, now dusty. All because she's had her water curtailed and is now farming on less land.

She said it stings when she hears newcomers to her state blaming farmers.

"People who move into this area – they call us things … 'podunk farmers,' and 'inbreds," she said.

She was at a store recently and heard two ladies talking, one having just moved here from California, who Caywood recalled saying: "''I hate farmers. … They trash our air. They pollute our soil. They use our water.'

"I didn't claw her eyes out."

Under a 1968 legislative deal, Caywood's area faces the heaviest cuts in times of drought, after California lawmakers agreed to a new canal for Arizona.

She says it's time for California and cities to shoulder their share.

Solutions: What they look like

Barring an end to the drought, the monumental scope of the challenge will require contributions on multiple fronts.

This includes technological innovation: automated meter inspections; recycling dishwater for use in toilets; a shift to desert landscaping, already well underway here, with grass lawns rare or illegal in parts of the southwest.

Farmers are lining irrigation canals with concrete to limit seepage. They're installing drip technology. Rows of solar panels now cover fields, providing shade, and reducing water reliance.

There's a pile of manure on a truck at Miola's horse ranch.

He points to it: "That's gonna turn into water. Believe it or not."

(He says a contraption is supposed to get installed at his ranch within a few weeks to extract H20 for industrial use.)

Maybe the city of Scottsdale, the county of Maricopa, and the unincorporated community of Rio Verde Foothills, will manage to cooperate and find a temporary solution.

Meanwhile, we should be watching, residents say.

And not just because they fear for themselves: Miola says he'd have to relocate if his well runs dry, and Hornewer said something has to change for the town to survive.

But because this isn't just a story about Rio Verde Foothills, in the view of several residents interviewed. It's a story we'll be hearing more often, in more places, said Jennifer Simpson.

"It's a bigger story. This is just the beginning," said Simpson, who manages property for snowbirds.

"I think we're just the guinea pig of what could happen. … This is not a poor community. If it could happen to us, it could happen to everybody."


Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

    Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

    Check Also

    Meet Taiwan’s resistance. If China invades, civil defence groups stand ready

    The Taiwan Hemlock Civil Defence group, which conducts regular training, is one of many organizations …