Debate Over Water in Southwest Ignores Immigration

By Nathan Worcester
Nathan Worcester
Nathan Worcester
Nathan Worcester is an environmental reporter at The Epoch Times.
October 15, 2021 Updated: October 17, 2021

News Analysis

The Biden administration’s move to revisit a 2019 Bureau of Reclamation biological opinion that had relaxed restrictions on water access in California has drawn the ire of state and national Republicans, who have issued a statement claiming that “California Democrats and the Biden administration now want to deprive [Californians] of water supplies.”

Yet, as Republican and Democratic lawmakers do battle over environmental restrictions on water in the American west, the effect on water availability caused by one particular factor—mass immigration—has remained obscure.

“Even with improvements in water use, the water supply is going down,” Jeremy Beck, of NumbersUSA, a nonprofit that aims to lower immigration levels, told The Epoch Times. “That doesn’t mean the Southwest is going to run out of water. It means they’re going to have to make some tough choices.”

Those choices could include increased investments in seawater desalination plants and pipelines to pump the desalinated water across hundreds of miles of desert.

Those plants are expensive, with one proposed facility in Pima County, Arizona, projected to cost $4.1 billion. They can also take decades to build.

In a 2020 report on development in Arizona, NumbersUSA estimated that 44 percent of Arizona’s population growth between 2000 and 2015 was due to international migration.

Internal migration within the United States has been another factor, accounting for 56 percent of the state’s growth during that period.

NumbersUSA also projected that Arizona’s population will increase by another 3 million people by 2050, “joining Phoenix and Tucson together into a single mega-city.”

That growth is expected to place additional stress on groundwater and the Colorado River. In August, the federal-level Bureau of Reclamation declared a water shortage at Lake Mead along the Colorado River for the first time ever.

While population growth can stem from a natural increase, future population growth in the United States is likely to be fueled by immigration, both legal and illegal.

Beck cited projections from Pew Research, which suggest that 88 percent of U.S. population growth from 2015 through 2065 will result from new immigrants and their descendants.

Many of the counties with the highest share of immigrant adults—legal and illegal—are in the southwest on or near the southern border, according to maps from the Center for Immigration Studies.

Pew Research has shown a similar pattern for illegal aliens in a 2016 analysis, with 2.2 million illegal aliens living in California alone.

Of course, as NumbersUSA’s analysis of Arizona shows, internal migration within the United States has been another source of pressure on the Southwest’s resources.

In recent years, many parts of the Southwest, particularly Arizona, Utah, and Nevada, have experienced net in-migration. Yet, internal migration in the country has declined in recent decades, reaching a 73-year low prior to the pandemic.

The United Van Lines 2020 Mover Study identified just one Southwestern state, Arizona, among the top 10 states for net inbound migration in 2020, at No. 5 in the United States. Other Southwestern states, such as Utah (No. 17), Nevada (No. 22), and New Mexico (No. 20) were in the middle of the pack, while California (No. 44) ranked among the top 10 states for net outbound migration.

There are also some indications that immigration, and particularly illegal immigration, is picking up under the Biden administration.

During the past fiscal year, encounters between U.S. Border Patrol and illegal immigrants at the southern border have surged, reaching a 21-year monthly high in July 2021.

Senate Democrats sought to provide mass amnesty for 8 million illegal immigrants as part of the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package, though the provision was blocked by Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough.

“There’s no question that the added demand of population will put increased stress on the water system,” Beck said. “These decisions will not get any easier with another 3 million people in Arizona and another 30 million in the American Southwest.”

The Epoch Times reached out to multiple academic researchers who hold differing views on immigration and the natural environment, including Bennington College professor John Hultgren, who has criticized Tucker Carlson for what he has described as “absurd statements about needing to close up the border to prevent desert ecosystems from being trashed.”

Hultgren didn’t respond to requests for comment by press time.

On the ground, farmers are among those worst affected by water shortages.

Nancy Caywood told The Epoch Times that her family has owned their cotton farm in Pinal County, Arizona, since 1930.

They rely on water from San Carlos Lake. Known for its fluctuating water levels, the lake dried up extremely early in 2021, leading the San Carlos Irrigation District to cut off the Caywood family farm’s water in April (their water service has since been restored).

“We didn’t put any cotton in the ground, because we didn’t have any water,” she said.

According to Caywood, she has to pay for water as part of her county tax bill whether or not her farm gets any.

A spokesperson for the San Carlos Irrigation and Drainage District confirmed this.

“If we don’t make the payment, we could lose our farm,” Caywood said.

For her part, she doesn’t tie the drought to population growth. Yet, as development booms near her farm, she still worries that her new neighbors, who she said are moving in from other states, want to push out farmers such as her.

“They’re building houses like crazy,” she said, stating that homes near her have been the subject of bidding wars. “They want to put a waterpark in!

“They don’t even give it a second thought that we’re running dry. It’s very, very disheartening to know that we’re in such a serious drought, and yet, there’s this continued building and building and building.”

In California’s Central Valley, things aren’t much better.

Melon farmer Joe Del Bosque told The Epoch Times he has “seen that a lot of changes” in water access since his family arrived in the area during the 1950s.

During the 1990s, environmental regulations slashed water allocation to his farm.

“We adapted to that by using more efficient irrigation systems and changing crops,” Del Bosque said.

But a 2009 biological opinion on smelt and salmon from NOAA Fisheries pushed Del Bosque closer to the brink

“There were several years when we had no water,” he said, stating that he survived by purchasing water from farmers in other water districts.

He said the combination of drought conditions and environmental regulations has created uncertainty for him and other farmers. Cities, he noted, also vie for water resources.

Another California farmer, Don Cameron, agreed that population growth, alongside other factors, has strained the state’s capacity to store and utilize water.

“We know that the water system in California was built a long time ago, when there were under 20 million people in the state,” he told The Epoch Times. “Now you’ve got 40 million, and you’re stressing the system.”

While California stopped growing or possibly even shrank during 2020 as many long-time residents started to flee the state, it did add millions of new residents between 2010 and 2020, thanks in large part to international immigration and a natural increase from the descendants of recent immigrants.

Although immigration, as well as immigration-driven population growth, have become increasingly partisan issues, there was greater bipartisan consensus against unrestricted and high levels of immigration in the recent past.

Former Democratic Rep. Barbara Jordan, the first African American woman elected to the House of Representatives from the south, chaired the bipartisan, nine-member U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform in 1995.

The Jordan Commission recommended a reduction in legal immigrants from roughly 830,000 per year to 550,000 per year.

It also sought to limit the chain migration of family members by prioritizing spouses and children younger than 21 and doing away with family-based admission of adult children and siblings.

Today, however, aggressively pro-immigration rhetoric has become increasingly mainstream, including among liberal and left-wing commentators who simultaneously advocate strong action on environmental issues.

Vox co-founder Matthew Yglesias, who recently described climate change as “a really big problem,” has argued that the United States should loosen its restrictions on immigration in order to triple its population to 1 billion people.

Beck, of NumbersUSA, thinks this seeming disconnect may be an example of magical thinking.

“I would suspect that it’s a reflection of our increased polarization and partisan divide,” Beck said. “It makes it very difficult to have a robust and honest discussion.”

Nathan Worcester is an environmental reporter at The Epoch Times.