Chu noted that even the most optimistic climate models for the second half of this century suggest that 30 to 70 percent of the snowpack will disappear. "There's a two-thirds chance there will be a disaster," Chu said, "and that's in the best scenario." ... A catastrophic reduction in the flow of the Colorado River—which mostly consists of snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains—has always served as a kind of thought experiment for water engineers, a risk situation from the outer edge of their practical imaginations.Gertner's piece is morbidly fascinating, especially his vignettes of the various Western water managers who have become Robert Moses-type figures with unmatched authority. Las Vegas has watched nearby Lake Mead drop to below 50 percent capacity, and Pat Mulroy, the head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, now has to figure out how to keep all her casinos quenched: Dig deeper? Lay multimillion-dollar pipelines out to the center of the state and search for groundwater? Ask California to trade some of its freshwater in exchange for a promise to build desalination plants on the coast? Questions, questions.
Some 30 million people depend on that water. A greatly reduced river would wreak chaos in seven states: Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California. An almost unfathomable legal morass might well result, with farmers suing the federal government; cities suing cities; states suing states; Indian nations suing state officials; and foreign nations (by treaty, Mexico has a small claim on the river) bringing international law to bear on the United States government.
In addition, a lesser Colorado River would almost certainly lead to a considerable amount of economic havoc, as the future water supplies for the West’s industries, agriculture and growing municipalities are threatened. As one prominent Western water official described the possible future to me, if some of the Southwest’s largest reservoirs empty out, the region would experience an apocalypse, "an Armageddon."