In 1964, US President Lyndon B. Johnson made a historic request: he wanted a large-scale, nuclear-powered desalination programme to address the growing need for potable water in the American Southwest. Members of the federal government were dispatched to Israel for conversations with the world’s leading experts on desalination technology. Four years later, the Secretary of the Interior and the Chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission submitted a report endorsing nuclear-powered desalination as a “solution to the Southwest region water supply” and outlining locations for the relevant facilities.
These plans never came to fruition. Disputes over the salinity of the Colorado River soured America’s diplomatic relations with Mexico, especially on water issues. Negotiations ultimately resulted in the construction of just one desert-bound desalination facility: the Yuma Desalting Plant (YDP), designed to reduce the brackishness of the Colorado River as it left the United States. But for a number of reasons the $250 million YDP has been idling for more than three decades. In particular, the brackish water that was initially diverted during construction of the YDP transformed thousands of acres of desert into an unintended wetland, which the Mexican government then declared a biosphere reserve. The current consensus is that operating the YDP would adversely impact this ecosystem, and so the facility remains mothballed.
While the deserts of North America are not the most expansive in the world, proximity to Hollywood renders them larger than life in the popular imagination. From California’s Death Valley to the sagebrush of Santa Fe, from Utah’s Salt Flats to the mighty saguaro cacti of the Sonoran Desert, icons of American aridity abound. Nevada is not the Sahara, but Las Vegas is seen as a paradigmatic oasis. Defying the legendary heat of central Arizona is viewed as the definition of hubris. The problem is well understood. In times of turmoil, academics, advocates, politicians and pundits are quick to resort to panic and blame—only to abandon the issue at the first hint of rain.
The most recent round of recriminations involved an Arizona suburb that made international headlines when its water deliveries were cut off to protect a neighbouring community’s dwindling supply. The City of Phoenix ultimately adopted construction restrictions in response to the ongoing drought. Further north, the Navajo Nation sought, and was denied, assurances from the federal government concerning its share of the Colorado River. In Nevada, federal officials contemplated modifications to the Hoover Dam to prevent a “dead pool,” a situation in which dwindling liquid reserves could strip the grid of 1.3 million households’ worth of hydroelectric power. In Utah, the possible disappearance of the Great Salt Lake was not only a threat to the local environment and economy, but threatened to scatter arsenic dust into the state’s already polluted air. This was regarded as especially bad news given Utah’s ongoing population boom, which has proven so challenging to local governments that Governor Spencer Cox implored would-be Californian migrants to stay away. The tens of thousands of Californians who do relocate to Utah, Arizona and Nevada every year are not bringing water with them. While recent precipitation has substantially eased drought conditions in the Golden State, California still hasn’t much water to spare.
Or rather, California hasn’t much potable water to spare. With over 800 miles of Pacific coastline, there is no plausible risk of California actually running dry in the foreseeable future. The ocean would not be measurably diminished were it tapped to refill every lake, river, stream and aquifer in the Intermountain West. So it is unsurprising that government officials in Arizona, Utah and Nevada, who have for decades been embroiled in legal disputes over distribution of water from the Colorado River, have expressed renewed interest in pipeline projects connecting the ocean to their own landlocked infrastructure.
Their interest has mostly been met by refusals and ridicule. While recent drought conditions may be shifting attitudes in California, officials still routinely reject the idea of desalination plants. The editorial board of the Salt Lake Tribune declared plans to replenish its namesake from the ocean “loony.” When Arizona officials (again) proposed a desalination facility on the Gulf of Mexico, Mexican authorities responded with ambivalence.
Instead, activists and policy wonks advocate conservation, xeriscaping and paying farmers to cut agricultural use, all while emphasizing the role of anthropogenic climate change in the Southwest’s water woes. Of these, cutting agricultural use has, by far, the greatest impact, but is locally unsustainable. Either desert cities will become increasingly reliant on distantly-produced food—thereby exacerbating climate concerns—or rural desert communities must shift away from profitable export production, which will contribute to rural depopulation. Xeriscaping and household conservation do not offer plausible long-term solutions, either, particularly in states with growing populations. And whatever the impact of global climate on local drought conditions, the Southwest was arid long before carbon emissions arrived on the scene. Making drought just one more bullet point on a list of larger climate concerns makes it seem like an intractable issue—and diverts attention away from the actual solutions we have.
And we do have solutions to the water problem. On a planetary scale, there is no water shortage. In response to local shortages, we can either depopulate the area in question or we can treat or transport existing water. Treatment and transportation are the humane alternatives, and can be implemented with resources and technology we already have. As one commentator recently noted, “desalination was a big technological success story of the 2010s. An Israeli firm managed to make it dramatically cheaper and Israel is now a large exporter of water.” The United States could easily follow suit.
The problem is not—and never has been—how much water we have, or even how much water we use. Edge cases aside, the water we “consume” is not destroyed, only dirtied and displaced. The problem is the water’s location and condition. Changing either of these things requires time, space and energy, all of which cost money. But everything costs money—and doing nothing whatsoever often imposes the greatest costs of all.
Nuclear power can service both desalination facilities and elevation pumps to enable water to be piped into America’s landlocked desert states. Unfortunately, power plants and pipelines are large-scale public works of the kind that America doesn’t much do anymore. This is at least partly down to environmental regulations and a seemingly endless parade of profit-obsessed “stakeholders.” But such projects also get neglected because they don’t seem urgent: as of right now, almost no one in the United States is in desperate need of potable water. The Great Salt Lake may be disappearing, but it has not yet disappeared. The Hoover Dam might eventually reach “dead pool,” but the lights have not yet gone out in Las Vegas. It may yet become economically unfeasible to drill Arizona’s aquifers—but for now, aquifers and canals from the Colorado mostly provide enough water for the state. Why pursue solutions to problems we might—with luck and a few years of unusually generous rainfall—never have?
Of course, not all problems are easy to predict. Some arise out of the blue and we have to improvise solutions to them on the fly. But many problems are predictable—as predictable as dryness in a desert—and some of those problems already have solutions. The water shortage is one such problem. It will cost money to engineer and manage our environment to prevent drought, but if we don’t, in the long run it will cause widespread human suffering.
We know how to solve this problem—but unfortunately, that’s only half the battle. To implement the solutions, we’ll have to overcome fiscal and diplomatic hurdles and widespread ridicule from detractors. We should not let that deter us. We can’t afford to indulge shallow, short-term thinking on this issue if we want a viable future as a developed nation.