PHOENIX – On the first morning of a water conference in downtown Phoenix on Friday, an academic expert spoke of aridification in the Colorado River basin due to the ill effects of humans burning fossil fuels.

After dinner, a writer of vivid predictive fiction spoke about his book “The Water Knife,” which describes Phoenix in a dusty and water-starved river basin, in the not-so-distant future.

“First of all, the climate is changing, it’s happening now, it’s happening extremely rapidly and, in fact, it is accelerating,” said Kathy Jacobs, the director of the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions at the University of Arizona. “Second, severe weather is becoming more intense, sea levels are rising and oceans are being affected dramatically — incredible changes in the oceans and in the Artic. It’s largely happening because of human activities, and there are so many different avenues now to show that that is true.”

Jacobs also described the current impacts on the Colorado River basin, which includes the Roaring Fork River watershed.

“The connection between heat and runoff has become incredibly clear,” Jacobs said, and the result is “a huge decline” in water supplies.

“We’re seeing record-setting flow reductions, lots of temperature-induced losses, snowpack loss faster than we really had anticipated and earlier runoff, which of course affects a lot, especially in the upper basin,” she said.

And, she warned, “We’ve got a lot to adjust to and need to be significantly prepared for a lot more change than we’ve already seen.”

Later that evening, Paolo Bacigalupi said he didn’t want to be right about the bleak future in “The Water Knife,” but also said people are still not “engaging with the issue” of climate change.

“I just want us to be reality-based,” Bacigalupi said. “I don’t think that’s asking too much.”

Speaking louder than Bacigalupi was “The Water Knife,” a 2015 novel that mixes senior water rights with chaos, torture, murder, drugs and sex in a tale where the only thing that’s not shocking is that the Colorado River is drying up.

“Weather anchors used the word drought, but drought implied that drought could end; it was a passing event, not the status quo,” the book says. “But maybe they were destined for a single continuous storm — a permanent blight of dust and wildfire smoke and drought, and the only records broken would be for days where anyone could even see the sun.”

The Phoenix water conference was organized and hosted by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy. (The conference was sponsored in part by the Walton Family Foundation, a supporter of Aspen Journalism.)

The attendees, many of them journalists, were offered a copy of “The Water Knife.

A water knife is someone who cuts off people’s junior water rights, by force if necessary.

Angel Velasquez, the water knife in the book, at one point remembers the early days of his job working for the fictional head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, “when he’d stood bodyguard behind Catherine Case as she went into meetings: bald bureaucrat guys, city water managers, Bureau of Reclamation, Department of the Interior. All of them talking acre-feet and reclamation guidelines and cooperation, wastewater efficiency, recycling, water banking, evaporation reduction and river covers, tamarisks and cottonwood and willow elimination. All of them trying to rearrange deck chairs on a big old Titanic. All of them playing the game by the rules, believing there was a way for everyone to get by, pretending they could cooperate and share their way out of the situation if they just got real clever about the problem.”

But the efforts of the water managers in the book didn’t work, and the seven states in the Colorado River basin harden their borders and stand behind their water rights, each fighting for what the law gave them, even if the river has stopped giving.

In the book, Case, the water manager, sits in her car with the water knife and ticks off a list of problems people didn’t see coming: “‘Snowpack up in the Rockies — that might as well be zero. No one planned for that.’ Tick. ‘Dust storms and forest fires are playing hell with our solar grid. No one planned for that.’ Tick. ‘All that dust is speeding snowmelt, so even when we get a good year, it melts too fast or else evaporates. No one planned for that.’ Tick. ‘Hydropower.’ She laughed. ‘That’s shot except in the spring because you can’t get a decent head in the reservoirs.’ Tick. ‘And then there’s California putting all these calls on the river.’”

That may be fiction, but it’s not far from what Jacobs, the climate expert, said Friday about what people can expect as the result of burning fossil fuels.

“It will be drier on average, but with more intense rainstorms, so we have to be prepared for both flooding and drought,” Jacobs said. “There is a likelihood, and I will say a certainty, of cascading effects increasing, including heat waves and resulting brownouts because of impacts on the electric system, or forest fires, air quality problems, health effects, a whole range of potential cascading effects on systems, because our systems are weak.”

Jacobs concluded her remarks by noting that “Many decision-makers really want a path to the future, they want to know what exactly the future is going to look like, and we cannot tell them.”

They might well consult “The Water Knife.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, the Vail Daily, the Summit Daily, the Steamboat Pilot and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story was published by The Aspen Times, and Coyote Gulch.

Brent Gardner-Smith, the founder of Aspen Journalism, and who served as AJ’s executive director until August 2021 and as editor from 2011-2020, is the news director at Aspen Public Radio. He's also been...