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Population, Immigration, and the Drying of the American Southwest

November 1, 2010
By Kathleene Parker

In this Backgrounder & Report, the author offers an historical overview of the critical issue of water in the American Southwest, where the water situation is becoming increasingly dire during a prolonged — but not uncharacteristic — drought in the arid

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In this Backgrounder & Report, the author offers an historical overview of the critical issue of water in the American Southwest, where the water situation is becoming increasingly dire during a prolonged — but not uncharacteristic — drought in the arid region.  Also examined is the demographic trends that drive high rates of U.S. and, as a result, Southwest population growth. We present evidence that indicates there is insufficient water for the region’s current population, much less the larger future populations that will result if immigration continues at its present high rate.

The key findings of this report include:

  • The Southwest is the fastest growing region in the United States.

  • The United States is one of the world’s most populous nations.

  • Immigration is responsible for virtually all of the population growth in California. In other states of the Southwest, immigration has caused between 30 and 60 percent of population growth.

  • Immigration has been responsible for more than half the population growth in the American Southwest in this decade.

  • If current trends — especially immigration — continue, the U.S. population could approach 500 million by mid-century, and one billion by the end of this century or shortly thereafter.

  • This growth occurs despite the recommendations of two presidential commissions that the United States should move toward population stabilization; limiting immigration is key to their recommendations.

  • The nation’s high growth rate has continued despite a roughly replacement-level birth rate since 1972. 

  • The Southwest has been hit by a prolonged drought, although one of far less severity than others common to the region in the past. Global warming likely will increase the frequency and severity of droughts.

  • When the critical water lifeline to the Southwest, the Colorado River, was divided up among the region’s states under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, more water was apportioned than exists most years. These numbers have grown worse with drought, which could become the norm with global warming.

  • Reservoirs “bank” the region’s limited water supplies for use in drought. Lake Mead and Lake Powell — the Colorado River reservoirs that are the major water banking accounts on which most of the Southwest is dependent — are rapidly drawing down their water principal and could run dry early this century.

 


Kathleene Parker is a former journalist and editor specializing in environmental and water issues, and a fifth-generation native of the American Southwest, now living near Albuquerque.