Spoiler Alert: this review is part book review and part political rant about climate change!
I love a good dystopian story. We’re binge-watching The Man in the High Castle right now and we have “enjoyed” The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu. But the Allies didn’t lose WWII and while misogyny is experiencing a comeback in these highly charged political times, I really don’t see either of those scenarios taking place anytime soon. Dystopian stories are supposed to be warnings or lessons about what might have been or could be. Dystopia is fine as long as it’s a vision of an extreme and unlikely world. This is the reason The Water Knife is such a terrifying novel — not only is the nightmare scenario of the novel possible, but we’re also actually pretty close to it becoming a reality sooner rather than later. The world in The Water Knife is disturbing and it takes place in the city I call home. Yep, like it or not, Phoenix is ground zero in a world where water is scarce. Hey, it’s a desert after all and as many people have noted, it’s a monument to man’s arrogance.
The Water Knife is a 2015 novel by Paolo Bacigalupi. It takes place in the near future, where climate change has devastated the Southwestern United States. Phoenix has become a wasteland of abandoned suburban homes and a weigh station of sorts for climate refugees from Texas and other states who are hoping to find a new life in Los Angeles or San Diego or Las Vegas, where water rights have provided enough for American refugees to live more comfortably. But California and Southern Nevada have closed off their borders to stem the tide of climate refugees and Phoenix has in effect returned to its lawless, cowboy Western roots. Oh, and the American abandonment of Texas and Arizona along with other drought-ravaged states has enabled the region to become a haven for drug cartels who have long ago taken over Mexico and now moved in to run the former American territories and serve as “coyotes” that provide passage across the border. Add to this the “oasis” buildings built by the Chinese to house political and corporate bigwigs and workers which tower over the poor residents of Phoenix who now live in shanty towns built up around pay-for-water wells. Don’t worry though, Phoenicians can get some drinking water by peeing into a “ClearSac” which can provide a little “clean” water. So, it’s not all bad.
The Phoenix in The Water Knife is pretty awful. Think Mad Max meets Waterworld. But is it really far-fetched, or are we truly headed toward this future?
Let’s put aside climate change and its causes for argument’s sake. What do we know about water in Phoenix? The Colorado River typically accounts for nearly half of the city’s water supply. The water in the Colorado River comes from snowmelt in Colorado, and a huge portion of that water sits in Lake Mead on the Nevada/Arizona border and Lake Havasu on the California/Arizona border. More than 30 million Americans across seven states — California, Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico — rely on this water for survival. Yes, survival.
Now here’s something I learned in the novel. The water rights for the Colorado River are not equal. The Colorado River Compact divides the river basin into two areas, the upper division (comprising Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming) and the lower division (Nevada, Arizona, and California). The states in the upper basin have higher priority to this water than the states in the lower division. That’s not too bad as long as there’s enough water for everyone. Ah, but there’s the rub my parched friends.
In the past 13 years, Colorado’s snow has been melting at a faster rate, vanishing earlier and earlier each year. Lake Mead, which reached its highest point ever in 1983 at 1,225.44 feet, today — Saturday, October 27, 2018 — Lake Mead sits at 1,078.84 feet.
So what? If the lake levels dip too low, Arizona could lose about a seventh of its annual water allotment to the Central Arizona Project, which supplies much of the state’s water. What’s “too low”? If the water level falls to 1,075 feet above sea level, a shortage declaration would be issued and cuts would be scheduled. Wait, what? That’s like three feet from today’s levels. Yep, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said last month that there’s a 57 percent chance that Lake Mead’s water levels would be so dismal in 2020 that Arizona and Nevada would face cutoffs. If Lake Mead’s water level falls below 1,050 feet, Arizona would lose an additional 80,000 acre-feet of water.
The same U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reported in August 2018 that it predicts Lake Mead will dip just below the threshold to 1,075 feet as early as May 2019. At the beginning of 2020, Lake Mead levels are predicted to be at approximately 1,070 feet and then predicted to fall to as low as 1,053 feet in the summer of 2020.
The Environmental Defense Fund recently wrote: “Arizona is running out of time to figure out new ways of conserving and creatively sharing an increasingly scarce water supply. We need to collaborate now in order to avoid catastrophic and economically destabilizing impacts in the very near future.”
It’s not like nobody has been talking about this, or that the media has dropped the ball. Just last month Joanna Allhands of the Arizona Republic wrote an opinion piece with the headline: A Water Shortage is in Arizona’s Future, Like it or Not.
The Water Knife is a cautionary tale told with a big slice of reality. Which is why I think it’s terrifying. I’m an environmentalist, but I’m not Chicken Little. I mean, the sky may actually be falling. But will things get as bad as Bacigalupi would have us believe? Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re far off. You can choose to believe we’ll come up with some kind of magic pill to keep us from heading over the falls, but given the current political climate and our inability to agree on even the basic fundamentals of how a society should run, what makes you think we’ll be civil to each other when the water starts to dry up?
It’s a fact that Las Vegas has water rights over Arizona. And California, with the fifth largest economy in the world, has far more power than Arizona and its tap into the Colorado River is above Arizona’s. Somebody is going to lose this battle and Phoenix is not in a good position to win.
Bacigalupi’s vision is dark. In the novel, the powers that be in Southern Nevada and California do whatever it takes to keep their communities from drying up. They protect the water with troops and drones. They protect their borders. They make deals with shady characters from cartels to the Chinese. They cheat and steal. They kill. They ruthlessly cut off water from one community to save another. People a lot smarter than I believe future wars will be fought not over oil, but over water.
The Water Knife is fiction, but it leaves the reader with a lot to think about. Especially if the reader, like me, lives in a city of almost two million people in the middle of one of the hottest deserts on Earth in which most of its water gets delivered via a single canal that stretches 336 miles from Lake Havasu to Central Arizona.
In the novel, the Central Arizona Project canal has already been compromised. But it really wouldn’t even matter if there’s very little water in the lower division anyway. And say what you will about climate change, facts are facts and when it comes to the Colorado snowpack the proof is in the runoff. The shit is already hitting the fan and it’s probably only going to get worse — and there’s not much we can do about it.
Given all that, the Phoenix of The Water Knife may be inevitable. My son thinks we should get out of Dodge now before things start to get ugly. He makes a compelling argument. At best, we have a few years until by law we have to start rationing. After that, with no solution in sight, people and businesses will start to leave. Who is going to buy your house? Why would a company relocate to Phoenix? Seriously, before we run out of water to drink it’s more likely our economy will tank. Maybe we should sell our house now and move to a more climate change friendly environment (Portland anyone?).
With all that as the backdrop, I still have to say The Water Knife is a great novel. The characters are believable and several are downright relatable. Lucy is a tough journalist trying to tell the story of what Phoenix has become without getting herself killed by the cartels or the powerful people fighting over water rights. Angel is a former criminal turned “water knife” who does the heavy-handed bidding of the Southern Nevada Water Authority and its ruthless leader who will literally do anything to keep Las Vegas from going dry — including killing and stealing. Maria is a refugee from Texas trying to survive in the Valley of the Sun by doing whatever it takes, including selling her body for a hot shower and enough money for a little water to drink. The lives of these three characters, each with their own motivations, collide around a long-lost document that could change the water rights of the Southwest forever.
I admit, despite the overall theme of the novel, it was fun to see Phoenix woven into the story like a main character. Bacigalupi certainly did his homework about Phoenix and its water history. Central Arizona Project, Phoenix suburbs like Chandler, Tempe and Mesa, even the Target on Elliott Road just south of Guadalupe turns up in the story. It was easy to imagine several of the scenes taking place in Gilbert or Ahwatukee.
Another interesting “character” that shows up in the novel is Marc Reisner’s 1993 nonfiction book Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. Reisner’s book is read a lot in academic circles, and it takes a historical approach to understand how cities came to be built in the Arizona desert in the first place and why maybe, just maybe, they were doomed from the start because the water was never going to last forever. I haven’t read Cadillac Desert, and frankly, I’m afraid to now, but I will definitely get to it once I get over my anxiety after reading The Water Knife.
One thing I will say: I’m never going to take water for granted again!