While floods inspire tent-pole news coverage, the American Southwest has been quietly struggling with the opposite problem: a near-crippling drought. For the first time, water in the Lake Mead Basin, which feeds much of the region, is in danger of falling into the “shortage” zone, according to recent federal estimates. And the National Weather Service is predicting the worst seasonal drought since the mid-1950s.
There is, however, one city that’s still all wet. Santa Fe has a water surplus large enough to support at least 160 new houses thanks in part to an innovative conservation program approved in 2007: for every new toilet installed, developers must pay for 12 low-flow toilets in existing homes (roving plumbers have literally gone knocking on doors in search of customers). Now, with virtually no commodes left to retrofit, the city has moved on to washing machines, showers, and urinals. Though environmentalists worry about desert sprawl, water experts say it may be only a matter of time—and thirst—before other cities follow Santa Fe.