The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

The Colorado River Crisis:
Drought Driven by Profit

Feb 20, 2023

The winter rains that fell on the Western part of the United States did little to alleviate the deep crisis that has hit the Colorado River, which feeds the two biggest reservoirs in the U.S., Lake Mead and Lake Powell. Both are now lower than they’ve ever been.

Over the last two decades, a record drought has reduced how much water flows through the Colorado River. But there was no significant reduction in how much water was taken out of Lake Powell and Lake Mead. For the first time in history, those two reservoirs could become too empty to run their massive hydroelectric turbines.

Generally, this crisis is blamed on the growing population in seven Western states who depend on the water from the Colorado River. But, in fact, agribusiness uses about 80% of the water from the Colorado River. That means a small handful of huge farms use about four times as much water as all 40 million people.

By far, the biggest user of Colorado River water—consuming more water from the Colorado River than all of Arizona and Nevada combined in 2022—is California’s Imperial Valley, which is located along the Mexican border.

A handful of extremely wealthy landowners, about 500 farms in all, control the rights to all this water—which they get practically for free! The Federal government charges nothing for the water. The Imperial Irrigation District, a public agency, maintains the canals and other infrastructure and charges these farms a nominal rate to cover costs. The real cost of the water is paid for by millions of households and other ratepayers in the big cities and towns.

The Imperial Valley is a desert. It rains less than three inches per year. Summer temperatures average 110 degrees. The extremely cheap and abundant water of the Colorado River has turned this desert into a rich farming region.

And what does all this water grow? More than half of the water is used to grow common alfalfa, hay and other grasses that are used for animal feed.

This is an amazing waste of resources. Look where that water comes from. The Colorado River that gathers its water in the Rocky Mountains flows over a thousand miles, where it is then dammed up by some of the most impressive and expensive public works in U.S. history, the Hoover Dam and the Glen Canyon dam. The water is then collected in two giant reservoirs until it is transported about 80 miles to the Imperial Valley by the All-American Canal, the highest-capacity irrigation canal in the world (and still full).

All that in order to mainly grow grass—which can grow almost anywhere in the world without irrigation, as long as it rains!

Yet, all that free water irrigating the desert has made the Imperial Valley land so profitable that giant U.S. financial companies, and also a couple based in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have bought up tens of thousands of acres, mainly in order to grow grass and hay. Much of that is then exported all over the world, including to Saudi Arabia, China, Japan, Korea and other countries. In reality, what they are exporting is the water from the Colorado River.

No wonder why there is no agreement on significantly cutting the use of Colorado River water. That water is too profitable to a few big companies and landowners to give up.

No, the drought and global climate change did not cause this crisis. They only exacerbated the ongoing crisis of how the water of the Colorado River is exploited merely for profit—and how much human and natural resources are wasted and destroyed in the process.