Bone-Dry Western States Can’t Cope with Population Surges
The grisly discovery of human remains at the bottom of Lake Mead is a grim reminder of the Southwest’s growing drought crisis. In early May, a family on a boating outing found, partially buried in Lake Mead National Recreation Area’s muddy banks, a four-decades-old skeleton of a man, a suspected homicide, stuffed into a rotted-out barrel. Skeletal remains were also discovered in May at nearby Callville Bay.
Asked if the victim might have been a mob hit, Geoff Schumacher, the vice president of exhibits and programs at Las Vegas’ Mob Museum, said: “I have a feeling that as this water continues to recede, we’re going to be finding more interesting things at the bottom of Lake Mead.” Schumacher may have been referring to the B-29 Superfortress wreckage found in 2015 in Lake Mead’s 130 feet of water; in 1948, when the bomber crashed, Lake Mead’s depth was 260 feet.
While Schumacher isn’t a climatologist, he like other Far West residents is aware of the inevitable and irreconcilable clash between too many people and dwindling natural resources, primarily water. Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the United States and part of a system that supplies water to at least 40 million people across seven states and northern Mexico. Today, it’s dropped to its lowest level since the Franklin Delano Roosevelt era.
As of August 22, 2021, Lake Mead was filled to just 35 percent of its capacity, and now is at 30 percent. The low water level comes at a time when 95 percent of nine Western states’ land is affected by some level of drought; 64 percent is considered extreme or worse. Shrinking capacity continues a 22-year megadrought that some experts consider the worst in 1,200 years. Megadroughts are defined as droughts that last two decades or longer, but they are not measured by their intensity.
Snowfall in the Rocky Mountains is Lake Mead’s primary water source. But Audubon Southwest’s policy director Haley Paul said, “Even when the Rocky Mountains get to near-normal levels of snowfall and overall precipitation, what we’ve seen in the last few years is below average river runoff.” Paul explained that drought and heat mean thirstier soils and plants that soak up more water before the precious commodity ever reaches rivers — a compounding domino effect that, because the West is on year 22 of an extended megadrought, will take 22 wet winters to climb out of the hole.
An underreported variable in Lake Mead’s water levels is the population explosion — not an exaggerated expression — in California, Arizona and Nevada. In 1950, the population of Arizona, California and Nevada were, respectively, 750,000, 10 million and 158,000. Today, Arizona, California and Nevada have 7.6 million, 39.7 million and 3.2 million residents. Their principal cities, Phoenix, Los Angeles and Las Vegas have, over the same 70-year period, grown from 221,000 to 4.7 million, from 2 million to 12.5 million and from 35,000 to 2.8 million. Taken alone, the three states in the aggregate have about 40 million more people since 1950 bathing in, cooking with and drinking water. Housing complexes, luxury hotels, golf courses and mega-mansions are major water devourers.
No end is in sight to irresponsible water usage. The best California Gov. Gavin Newsom has come up with is a tepid, ignored suggestion that his constituents voluntarily limit everyday water consumption. The State Water Resources Conservation Board said that per-capita urban water usage rose 7 percent in March compared to last year, and rose 18.9 percent when compared to March 2020.
Although political correctness forbids identifying immigration as population growth’s major driver, Census Bureau facts confirm the reality. In their Center for Immigration Studies analysis that drew exclusively from Census Bureau data, Steven Camarota and Karen Zeigler predicted that, by 2060, immigration will add 75 million people to the U.S. population. In 2017, the U.S. had 35.8 million legal and illegal immigrants. Those immigrants had 16.9 million U.S.-born children and grandchildren.
In sum, immigration added 52.7 million people to the U.S. population between 1982 and 2017, accounting for a little over 56 percent of overall population growth. A related Camarota-Zeigler study, which also drew from Current Population Survey’s monthly data, found that in November 2021, 46.2 million legal and illegal immigrants lived in the U.S., the largest number of immigrants ever recorded in a federal government survey or census dating back to 1850.
No one controls rainfall, but the federal government can help alleviate the worsening water crisis by managing immigration to levels consistent with the available natural resources. If officials continue to shirk their responsibility, then an increasing number of West Coast communities will eventually run dry, and civil disruption over water’s absence will likely ensue.