The city of Scottsdale cut off water to the area to conserve it for its own residents, leaving families with a severe shortage of water. In response, some families are rationing their water usage, with some flushing toilets only once a day and showers being timed and limited.
Water scarcity is a problem across the western United States as climate change is intensifying droughts. Arizona is known for its golf courses, which can use up to 200 million gallons of water per year. However, the major user of water in the state is agriculture, with one study finding that 88 percent of water in 17 Western states was used for farming. This overuse is resulting in a megadrought that researchers say is the worst in at least 1,200 years.
While a wet winter and spring brought some relief, few politicians are willing to make the necessary but painful cuts on agriculture and other industries to develop a new water regime. The Colorado River, which supplies more than one-third of Arizona’s water along with substantial amounts for California, Nevada, and other states, is running low. The Biden administration has proposed cutting allotments to California, Arizona, and Nevada by up to one-quarter to save what’s left of the river.
The main problem is that water isn’t allocated by market price but by a muddled system of irrigation rights awarded mostly on a first-come, first-serve basis. This cheap water leads to little attempt to conserve or develop technical innovations to use less water. If water were rationed through market prices, like most goods in a market economy, many of the shortages would disappear. For example, farmers would not irrigate almond orchards if they had to buy 3.2 gallons of water at market rates to produce each almond.
The water shortage in Rio Verde Foothills is forcing families to pay more for water, with some families paying almost as much for water as their mortgage. Many homeowners are getting water from 5,000-gallon tanks that are filled by trucks about once a month, costing them 11 cents a gallon, whereas in most parts of the country, water bills are less than a penny a gallon.
The water crisis has led families to adopt drastic measures to save water. For instance, Karen Nabity, who lives outside Scottsdale with her husband, has to fill her water tank at three times the cost compared to six months ago. She now uses dry shampoo to clean her hair and has a red bucket in the family sink to save water used for handwashing and flush the toilet.
Water scarcity is like air; we take it for granted until it’s not there. Unless we change how we manage water, nature will force us to make difficult decisions about water rationing in the future.