Water Crisis in the American West: The Dilemma of One

If you’ve paid attention to water issues in the western United States, you know the Colorado River is being drained dry; in fact by the time it gets to the Gulf of Mexico, it is dry. Water usage has been dictated by the Colorado River Compact, an arrangement forged in 1922 by the 7 states through which the river runs- Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, California. In fact, for years there has been more water allocated to each of the 7 states than is actually available. Combined with a 20+ year drought, it’s not too hard to imagine why its main two reservoirs are dangerously low. Lake Mead is around 25% capacity, more than 180 feet down. Lake Powell is within 30 feet of being too low to generate power at Glen Canyon Dam, something these states also depend on.

It should be easy to recognize that without a total turn around in climate or usage, there may well be no water for anyone. The 7 states have not been able to find an acceptable new compromise so far. The Federal government has told the states to figure it out, but have delayed that deadline again.

Is it that easy? Agriculture consumes 70-80% of the water used. The Imperial Valley in California, for example, produces most of the vegetables consumed in the US in the winter. Less water to these growers means less food. If we have to depend on foreign sources for food, is that not a national security issue? This seems akin to what Europe is experiencing with its dependence on foreign energy resources or to the lack of availability of PPE early in the pandemic because of our reliance on foreign production impacted by supply chain disruptions. Alfalfa is important feed for cattle, but it is a very water intensive crop. Farmers in Arizona, for instance, grow alfalfa in the desert. Some farmers feel forced to dump water they don’t use or need because otherwise they might lose future water rights. But it’s not just farmers. Communities in the West are growing fast and depend on water to sustain growth. And the complications and conflicts go on and on.

The word ‘alone’ contains the word ‘one.’ So does the word ‘atonement'- at-‘one’-ment. There’s a lot of alone-ness in our world - disconnection, polarization, isolation. But what about atonement - reconciliation. The dilemma of ‘one’ is that there are many ‘ones.’ Each ‘one’ alone has a legitimate concern and solution from its perspective. Which ‘one’ takes precedence? One farmer? One community? One state? One country? Which ‘one’ benefits; which ‘one’ not?

Our brain prefers to see every issue as a problem with a solution. Apply the solution and the problem goes away - off to the next problem…. the least energy invested. If there is one thing the brain wants, it’s to use as little energy as possible because you never know what’s coming next. And its choice of ‘solution’ is the one that best addresses its main concern at the moment. (

But tell me- what’s the one solution that makes this water issue sustainable for each and every ‘one’?

Rather, this is a dilemma- a never ending balancing act among valuable but competing factors. A dilemma has no ‘solution’; it can have a resolution. That requires embracing a mindset that believes the path to that best possible balance lies in considering all the factors at play given the situation at that time. But if we see an issue as a problem when it is really a dilemma, we miss the opportunity to find a concensus, a satisfactory resolution that might not be what each ‘one’ wants, but which each ‘one’ can live with and support.

And which ‘one’ is the best ‘one’? Which ‘one’ leads to the best balance? There will likely not be a resolution in which no one is negatively impacted. And those ‘ones’ should not be left alone; they should be included in the ‘one’ as best as possible. Truth is, everyone can get some water, or the way it’s going, no one will get any water.

The history of American culture has been a tension between ‘me’ and ‘we’- the public’s response to the pandemic, the individualistic cultural history of America, the response of communities coming together in natural disasters, the various political views of the role of government- we are a conflicted society. And so is our brain- constantly making value judgements, balancing me and we.

The brain has a built in mechanism, called mirror neurons, that enables each one of us to take the experience of others into consideration when we form an opinion or make a choice. These are specialized cells that fire in response to seeing someone else act. If you watch me raise my thumb, mirror neurons in your motor cortex that move your thumb are firing, even though you are not moving your thumb. It’s why you slow down driving by a car accident; you are ‘feeling’ the pain even if you are not involved. (Free the Brain, ‘Why, Then, Don’t You Value Credibility,’ page 148)

Every religion and philosophy has some version of the Golden Rule because our brain struggles with the balance between me and we. If I don’t survive, nothing else matters to me. But yet, I have a better chance to survive as part of a group. And groups are a ‘one’ too. Where that balance falls depends on the issue and the time. Ideology and world view give us a starting point, but too often, opinion is treated as the end point, getting in the way of finding that balance. (

Here are some interesting thoughts. If farmers did not have to dump unneeded or unused water because of concern about losing water rights by not using their allotment each year, 20-40% of current Colorado water would be put back into the drainage. Imagine if it worked for farmers to grow less water intensive crops? What if people in the southwest landscaped their property in native plants not requiring so much irrigation? What if we all employed water conserving practices? If everyone of us in the country ate red meat one less day a week, meaning less water use because of less need for raising as many cattle, that is estimated to return an amount of water to the Colorado drainage equal to the current amount of water in the drainage.

Problem or Dilemma?

Me vs We?

Which ‘one’ is the best one?

Which ‘one’ supports our brain to craft a balance toward ‘at-one-ment’?


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