The Water Wars Are Coming

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by James E Miller via Mises Canada blog,

Does a warning mean anything if nobody listens?

With the precarious case of Lake Mead, doomsayers never seem to break the surface. For years, reports of the lake’s declining levels have popped up in the news. Yet residents of the surrounding area still refuse to listen. The latest report from the Interior Department is very troublesome: there is a 20% chance of water shortages for Nevada and Arizona in 2016 if the lake maintains current levels.

Lake Mead, if you are unaware, provides 90% of the water to Las Vegas. It is also a crucial water source for Los Angeles and major cities in Arizona. Thus, it’s easy to see why residents of Nevada and surrounding states have an interest in the viability of the lake to sustain itself. News of drought or weakening levels should be cause for alarm. Often times, attention is roused with reports that water may become scarce in the immediate future. But that scare usually dissipates when rain comes, essentially washing away the fear of future paucity.

There is an assumption by people living in the southwestern United States that water shortages are a naturally-caused phenomenon. A coworker of mine who hails from the region recently informed me that most Nevada citizens don’t understand the underlying forces driving the water crisis. They ignore the fact that the present situation is unsustainable. Worse yet, they don’t see the real culprit behind a continual lack of H2O: the government.

Contrary to popular belief, the current state of the American southwest isn’t the norm. Rather, it’s an artificial creation that likely wouldn’t exist without government planning. What do I mean?

Without Lake Mead, Las Vegas wouldn’t have enough of a water supply to be the country’s leading tourist trap. The same goes for cities such as Los Angeles, San Diego, and Austin. An artificial lake created by the construction of the Hoover Dam, Lake Mead has the government’s fingertips all over it. And that means its filled with the hubris of a thousand engineers who thought they could thwart nature.

Lake Mead was created almost a century ago with the creation of the Hoover Dam. The dam was originally a make-work program pushed by President Hoover and later completed by Franklin Roosevelt. It was part of many economic recovery programs meant to mitigate the spike in unemployment brought on by the Great Depression. At the time of its completion, F.D.R. called the structure (then named the Boulder Dam) a “great feat of mankind” and “the greatest dam in the world.”

Little did he anticipate. Like all government projects, the unintended consequences wrought by the Hoover Dam are legion. According to historian Michael Hiltzik, the population of the southwest swelled upon completion of the dam. “Since that dedication year, the population of the seven states of the basin has swelled by about 45 million. Much of this growth has been fueled by the dam and its precious bounties of water and electrical power.”

The promise of water attracted farmers and developers from across the nation. The phony supply of water created an insatiable demand that was never viable over the long term. As Doug French writes, “government’s damming of the Colorado River attempted to cheat Mother Nature by bringing water to the desert southwest — water that just isn’t and never was there.”

The Hoover Dam boondoggle sprung to mind when I recently watched the classic film noir Chinatown. Starring a young Jack Nicholson, Chinatown is based on the seedy dealings of water rights in Los Angeles during the 1970s. Access to water, it turns out, has always been a topic of contention in the southern California area.

The film begins with private investigator J.J. Gittes being hired to investigate the husband of Evelyn Mulwray. Said husband is the owner of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. During his investigation, Gittes stumbles upon a nefarious scheme to rob the city of much-needed water and transfer it to a newly-cultivated valley. Mulwray ends up dead for discovering the plan. Gittes struggles to put the pieces together while protecting Mulwray’s widow from danger.

Chinatown is considered a classic of American cinema because it portrays the unsavory underbelly of black market activity. Government corruption is a prominent theme, but the state is also portrayed as a positive mechanism for distributing water rights. Mulwray is regarded as a hero for transferring the responsibility of water allocation “to the people” rather than keep it in private hands. The idea that government arrogance is to blame for water misappropriation is not an explored theme of the film.

Gittes finds out the hard way that passing the ownership of water from private to public doesn’t weed out the tendency for corruption of the former. Rather, it incentivizes misuse of the public trust by putting bureaucrats in charge of one of life’s necessity. A shady deal is hatched to annex a neighboring valley into Los Angeles, while using this insider knowledge to scoop up the land at discount prices.

This scheme, while fictional, is loosely based on the California water wars of the early 20th century. A century of government meddling has turned the issue of water rights on its head, and further centralized control of waterways in local, state, and federal governments. Just as the residents of Los Angeles fought over water with local farmers, the residents of Las Vegas will soon find themselves fighting with surrounding states over what’s left of Lake Mead. None of the power players seem to care that the current population settlements of the southwestern United States cannot last. One day the water will run out. The sooner this reality is confronted, the better.

Admittedly, the ownership of water and its various bodies is a difficult topic. Rivers and tributaries don’t flow by man’s commands. They can be directed, but never fully controlled. Privatization of water rights would be a good start for restoring sane usage of natural resources. Don’t expect as much to happen though. Government control is far too entrenched in the process to be removed easily.

Forget it Jake, it’s socialism.

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LawsofPhysics's picture

Coming?  Again, what the fuck is this shit?  Way behind the curve ZH.

What a bullshit post.  As far as the water "being there" or not.  Look you dumb fuck, when the reservior is full, the water is most certainly there, when the reservior is empty, it isn't.


CHX's picture

Agreed, I've been reading about the water situation in the south west for a long while... Vegas has it coming good, and the emptied aquifers that will take 1000s of years to refill (if we just stopped pulling more water out...)... The water disaster has been in the making for many DECADES. But just like the guy that jumped out of a sky scraper... 100th floor ... aok, 80th floor... aok, .... Water, crumbling economy, out of control debt... Nope, nothing to see here, move along.

TeamDepends's picture

It will, of course, come down to the elements (things that exist): H, O, Na, Cl, Au, Ag,....

Stuck on Zero's picture

The earth's surface is 70% water.  Governments are now involved in controlling it and there are shortages everywhere.

kaiserhoff's picture

Another good reason to kick out the illegals and close the border.

ACP's picture

If there's no more water, would they be called "drybacks"?

ZerOhead's picture

Nope... "dust devils"

jbvtme's picture

not sure this made it into the piece:  "cadillac desert" by reisner. read it 25 years ago.  gives new meaning to the phrase "we're toast"...

waterwitch's picture

The primary beneficiary of water in the West is the cow.   90% of water in Nevada goes to raising cattle.  One quarter pou nd of beef requires 1000 gallons of water to produce.  And best of all: it's heavily heavily subsidized by the government thanks to the all powerful cattle industry.  Yay!

Stuck on Zero's picture

Dirt cheap crops like alfalfa get 40% of the water.  Really high-value crops like avocados and almonds are losing their water.  Go figure.

cigarEngineer's picture

That presupposes that the current immigration system is fair and effective. It's a poor assumption to make. You only own what's in your name (in theory) and have no right to stop others from moving to where they want to live. Free movement of people is the core of freedom.

kaiserhoff's picture

Free movement would overwhelm any welfare state rather quickly, as it has Europe, and it is in North America.

I have every right to prevent criminals from destroying my standard of living, and the future prospects of my children.  More than that, I have a constitional right and a duty to do so.  Maybe you should invite them all over to your house and feed and clothe them until "they" decide they want to leave.

That experience might clarify your thoughts.


Overfed's picture

Simple solution: get rid of the welfare state.

conscious being's picture

Simple solution. Get rid of the welfare state.

California Nightmares's picture

the other half of the solution:

Get rid of the warfare state

mkkby's picture

When the water runs out, it will be one helluva real estate crash in Arizona and Nevada.  You surely must have the brain of a chimp to own RE there.

americanreality's picture

"Water, water, water....There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount , a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand, insuring that wide free open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here unless you try to establish a city where no city should be."  Edward Abbey

conscious being's picture

EA was a courageous guy. He died from bleeding at the back of his throat, which could not be stopped?

Not Too Important's picture

Isn't Nestle the biggest corporate buyer of water rights?

'Nestle CEO: Water Is Not A Human Right, Should Be Privatized' You want water? "Fuck you, pay me."
conscious being's picture

Under these kroney fascist conditions we live under, its downright scary to talk about further privatizing water rights. I think Evo Morales came to power in Bolivia on the back of some globalist take over of La Plaz water. The best thing to do is to rry to find your own water.

Maxter's picture

Cheap energy = cheap water.  One day people will look at a map and figure it out.

LawsofPhysics's picture

Not quite, the oxidation state of the various elements is very important.

Good luck surviving if the only form of carbon you have access to is CO2.

Urban Roman's picture

H2CO is better, but preferably as the hexamer. Or moreamer.

Automatic Choke's picture


Rocky mts had a great year last year (2x normal snowpack).  Lake Powell level raised quite a bit.  Not the end of drought, but a good amount of relief.  Why are folks so worried that they didn't equally partition the extra water between Powell and the downstream Lake Mead?   It actually makes sense to keep as much of it in Powell while times are dry.....  cooler temps and deeper lake makes for less evaporative loss.


Everybody gets all excited over the city use, and there is certainly waste there...especially in downtown Vegas w/ all the fountains.  The big demand for southwest water, however, is not cities, but agriculture.  Massive political pull to keep the agribusiness going, no matter what the costs, are what drive these crises (plus bad management of the existing water). 

As for droughts, this is nothing.  We're barely at the level of the last "big drought", back in late '70s.  The geological record shows regular occurrences of droughts 10x as bad/long in the last few thousand years.  That would be trouble....the existing reservoir system was built as about 5-7 years of storage.


Tyler -- look up your facts, and don't get your knickers all twisted about problems that aren't problems.  There are plenty of real problems to worry about.  

And read "Cadillac Desert" by Reisner....a bit old, but still an excellent primer on the whole water/southwest setup.

Jack Burton's picture

California has it's warmest winter on record and 3 lowest snowfall total. Large rainfall and snow pack deficits remain. Feb. 2014

Feb. 2013. Snowpack below normal. January - February in the southern rockies the driest on record.

I'm not sure where the Rockies had a great year last year?

Lake Mead Levels change.


 March 2012 - unchanged

March 2013 - + 0.01

March 2014 -  negative  0.11

NOAA - I see no good year and nice rise in Lake Mead. Is there a source other than NOAA?

Automatic Choke's picture


agreed.  i didn't say the drought is over, but it is uneven.  the rockies did have a 2x snowpack on average last year (winter of 13-14), and what i said was that the rise was only seen in Lake Powell, not in Lake Mead, which really does make sense from a water management standpoint.


California Nightmares's picture

Forty years in S.F., I've never seen a winter like this. 60s pretty much every day in January. And not a drop of rain. 

Must say, I don't miss the chilly weather.  S.F. is the new LA.


DaveyJones's picture

Up here in the Northwest, I have never seen the Cascade mountains with this little snow. It looks like July March

THe Southwest's problems are multiplied exponentially by "modern" agriculture which, in addition to poisoning systems, inventing genetically modified frankenfood, and patenting food in violation of 120 years of legal principle, has utterly destroyed natural water delivery systems, destroyed farm ponds, placed water sucking monocrops in environments where they do not belong and a host of other idiotic, self destructive, suicidal systems.

permaculture methods can repair a great deal and restore water retention to the soil

but we need to get moving


amadeus39's picture

Last I looked we have plenty of H and O. So what's the problem? 2H+O= water. Energy you say. Well I can't think of everything.



max2205's picture

Last month gas was cheaper than water.......

Harbanger's picture

Believe it or not.  It wasn't too long ago in the US that you were not charged anything, Zero,  for your tap water usage.  Imagine that?  It was only when we became aware of potential water shortages that they could charge for water usage.  Now it costs just a much if not more than your energy usage.

cigarEngineer's picture

Tap water in Europe is ungoldy expensive, btw. Welcome to the American Soviet.

Harbanger's picture

Socialist centrally planned Govs fabricating fear in order to increase tax revenue from the plebs or to fabricate fears as justifaction for their need and reason for war is nothing new.  It is a sign of their desperation before a power shift.

rayduh4life's picture

It was free in Ireland, considereed a public common and a right.  Now those folks are to be charged/taxed for it as a way to pay for their banks disgressions.

Greenskeeper_Carl's picture

Seeing what happens with gubbermints call for rationing water during heavy use times and restricting it's use is like glimpsing into the future of the Internet. This net neutrality bullshit may not be a complete take over of the Internet just yet, but it is a step in that direction. Camels nose under the tent so to speak. Watch for the same calls for rationing bandwidth once the govt really gets ahold of it and runs it like a utility. You will be hearing pleas to reduce usage and not stream movies during 'peak usage' times, just like water and power ( govt owned or controlled, obviously) do now. Same shit everywhere the govt touches. Worse service for moar money.

conscious being's picture

Interesting because it represents greater self-reliance. What's the function to work out price per liter?

Abitdodgie's picture

Do you really think water is going to run out , hydrogen is the most common element in the universe and Oxygen is everywhere on earth so just combine the two at a ratio of two hydrogen to one oxygen and problem solved , just more doom porn.

Simplifiedfrisbee's picture

Foolisness. And earth is the only planet in our solar system with liquid water. This civilization is like those before it.

in4mayshun's picture

Brilliant plan. We'll provide water to the whole southwest of the country, one molecule at a time. You must of went to community college.

nuubee's picture

The Southwest isn't so much overpopulated vs it's water supply as it is wholly mismanaged.


For instance... California grows rice... yeah, one of the most water-intensive farming crops in the world is done in the some of the more arid places in North America. It makes no fucking sense.

And, California has been making electricity/energy more expensive, squelching off attempts at desalination (which would work just fine).

Combine all these factors and more with significant special interest groups that want to protect specific streams/lakes to protect "endangered" species.... and you get a f-ing messs

There's plenty of water to go around, it's just that the southwest is managed by idiots.

Not Too Important's picture

It's too bad desal doesn't remove radiation.

nuubee's picture

I hear Iran has a lot of centrifuges that would work well, perhaps they'll give us a discount.

Not Too Important's picture

They 'used' to work well.

I hate buying equipment that turns out to be horribly defective. It just stux . . .