A few years ago I started the process of buying a second home in a warm part of the United States. Living in Chicago, I wanted to find a place that, through the years would be where I would spend an increasing amount of time during the winter months. The first step in this process was looking at the various real estate web sites that displayed listings in the Southwest and in Florida, where the weather usually stays above freezing.
The first thing I experienced of course was sticker shock. In the few years since I had last looked at second home prices in places like Arizona and Florida the prices seemed to have doubled. This of course made me accelerate the process. I came into this process with a bias toward Florida because of a life long history of visiting the state for a number of reasons, mainly vacations and family. That being said, I have always liked the stark spiritual aspect of the desert, so I carefully looked at Arizona in particular, and also Nevada.
There was however, one thing that kept nagging at me about the Southwest: water. During the 1990s and early part of this decade I started to see that there was a developing scarcity of water in Southern California, Nevada and Arizona. Water rationing and contentious relationships between states regarding water from the Colorado River all grew dramatically during those years. The first reason of course was that unchecked real estate development and sprawl was covering what was essentially desert. The second reason was the stated belief by government officials and of course real estate developers that the region was suffering from an unusual number of droughts and that all would return to normal in a few years. So the general sense was that there was increasing usage during a time of droughts.
Convenient, but not accurate as it turns out. Last week, the research arm of the National Academy of Science released a study that basically said that what had been characterized as droughts were, in fact, the norm based on historical analysis. The water allocation agreement negotiated in 1922, called the Colorado River Compact, was based on river flow records dating back to the 1890s. That agreement assumed that the annual river flow was 16.4 million acre feet – enough to cover 16.4 million acres with a foot of water. Well, as it turns out, the early part of the 20th century was unusually wet, and it had been assumed in recent decades that the actual river flow was 15 million acres. This new study suggests that a more realistic number is 13 million acre feet, the level boosters had categorized as ‘droughts’. The ‘droughts’ therefore are the norm.
The National Academy report notes that the river basin is 240,000 square miles in the states of Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico. This has obviously been a region that has seen rapid population growth in the past few decades. The report said that this growth has been sustainable because of the building of dams and reservoirs but that this activity is basically over. The Academy stated that global warming would only make matters worse. The report goes on to say that “there is going to have to be some kind of reallocation of who gets the water.” Now that phrase raises all kinds of issues. Who will have the power to decide? Will the Federal Government have to step in to keep the states from warring with each other? Will there be laws against lawns, fountains, and daily showers? How much will water cost in ten years, and will it be available? Will large desalination plants have to be built so the oceans can keep humanity alive?
We all have heard the line about survival that “ you can live for weeks without food, days without water and minutes without oxygen”. Water is about human survival. The Mad Max movies portrayed a post apocalyptic world where gasoline was scarce, but if you didn’t have it you could survive. Can you imagine the movie about scarcity of water?
I certainly don’t mean to be apocalyptic here. I just clearly see that the Southwestern U.S. has a developing problem that is real and is not being addressed. It probably won’t be until there is prolonged rationing and states get ugly with one another about water. This is all going to happen during the next ten years. Since I intend on living longer than that, I bought a place in Florida.