Barrett Rainey: As water battle intensifies, Southwest's future looking bleak

For many a decade, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Washington have stood solidly united to protect Northwest water. “Nary a drop,” they’ve said repeatedly as the Southwest states pounded on the door.

Well, now the issue in some of those thirsty states has turned to a battle within — a battle of who gets what as demand for water exceeds supply — and it’s getting a bit nasty.

Southern California is a vista of farmland — farmland irrigated for decades, underwritten by very old water rights. But now, as cities in Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada continue amazing growth, many of those water rights are being sold. Sold to investors who are building pipelines to where the people are congregating. Sold to support growth that will return rich rewards to those investors as they sell or lease water to municipalities, or just hold onto it as the value continues to rise ever higher.

While this new supply of “liquid gold” serves that growing population demand presently, those farmlands of cotton, alfalfa, hay, potatoes and other needed crops are beginning to look like the desert from which they came. And farmers are getting out of the business.

The water that formerly grew those crops is now going into municipal reservoirs, many of which have been losing capacity, given the new and ever-increasing demands.

One investment group is Greenstone, which recently bought 485 acres of Arizona farmland just for the water rights. The water will be diverted, and the land, which historically had been verdant, will now become useless.

Greenstone and similar ventures have already bought up nearly 9,000 acres in three Arizona counties. Yuma County residents on Arizona’s southwest corner are becoming worried about getting enough of what remains.

The state’s largest newspaper, the Arizona Republic, did some document-searching that showed two major investment outfits had taken title to about 6,000 acres by themselves. The accompanying water rights are being diverted to where the people are, feeding a thirsty population instead of the thirsty and potentially fertile Arizona desert.

It’s doubtful this new source of diverted water will continue to indefinitely fill the ever-growing need in Southwest states. That means pressure for an even greater supply will continue to be felt in the Northwest.

Water tables in the Southwest are dropping to new lows at record rates.

Most cities and counties are trying to make people aware of the situation in flashy media campaigns. They’re also cracking down on large, wasteful users when they can.

The community in which I used to live boasts of its “award-wining” system of re-injecting excess water into the vast, declining underground source from whence most of it came originally.

Fine. Great, even. Except that underground supply is dwindling month after month anyway.

Wells are being drilled deeper than ever before. Despite being re-supplied through wise use practices, the source is diminishing in the face of persistent growth pressures.

That poses a problem for the vast network of retirement communities in Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico.

The big selling point for newly minted retirees is golf, provided through literally thousands of lush 18-hole courses. All are kept a beautiful green by golf professionals and their crews and all are watered from various sources — sources that are slowly running out.

According to a golf pro I talked to, an 18-hole course in superheated Arizona can consume up to 1 billion gallons a year. Yes, billion — even with re-injection.

Now consider a retirement community with no fewer than eight courses by itself. Then multiply it by the hundred.

If you take a golfing community with nine 18-hole courses, and start cutting back on either the number of courses or the number of holes, what’s left to draw newcomers?

Where will the next generation of buyers come from? And what will happen to the property values of those who bought into the golf lure before it burst?

Farmlands are being lost. Lifestyles are being changed.

New and often harsher penalties for wasting water are likely. Recreation availabilities are already being limited. I’m seeing water shortages extending into our foreseeable future.

I never thought I’d say this, but large portions of this country may not be habitable in the distant future.

Direct sources of water may determine how many of us can be sustained, and where. It sure looks that way.

Guest writer Barrett Rainey is an Air Force veteran, longtime pilot and former reporter for radio and TV stations from Cheyenne, Wyoming to Washington, D.C. After previous stints in Idaho, Oregon and Arizona, he and his wife, Barbara, have retired to McMinnville. He volunteers at the Evergreen Aviation Museum and writes a weekly column for the Carlton-based Ridenbaugh Press, where this piece originated.


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