The Water Knife

As part of Climate Generation’s December #TeachClimate Network meeting, we read The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi. One of our regular attendees, Betsy Wilkening, an educator for Arizona Project WET, wrote a detailed review about this dystopian book.

As a fifth-generation Arizonan who educates teachers, students, and the public about water with Arizona Project WET, I’m excited to review The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi. The story takes place in a dystopian Phoenix, Arizona with depleted groundwater and no Colorado River water.

How did the book work as a story?

This was my second time reading this book. The first time I read it, I thought that there was no way we could ever get into this dire of a situation. The second time reading this book, I realize that it could be plausible. I’ll explain why I changed my mind and also provide examples and resources for teachers to demonstrate why I remain hopeful that the future portrayed in The Water Knife will not occur in Arizona.


In the story, water knives are enforcers who deploy guerilla tactics to ensure that the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) controls the Colorado River in the Lower Basin states of Nevada, Arizona, and California. They blow up the Central Arizona Project canal that supplies Colorado River water to Arizona, including the major population areas of Phoenix and Tucson.

I started thinking that this book could be plausible after reading a recent news feed from the LA Times. It spoke of a plan in Utah (an Upper Basin state) to build a 140-mile pipeline to deliver Colorado River water from Lake Powell to the residents in St. George, Utah – who currently use 289-325 gal/day. This shocked me since the estimated residential per capita water usage in Tucson is 80 gal/day, and Phoenix is 125 gal/day. It was at this point that I realized two things: 1) not everyone in the West has the same conservation ethic that most Arizonans hold tight, and 2) Arizona is downstream. If greed wins out and people in the West don’t work together, this book is entirely plausible.

Facts & Resources

The Colorado River system was over-allocated in the initial 1922 Compact and has experienced extensive drought conditions for the last 16 years. Climate change will exacerbate these conditions, and Arizona – with junior water rights – will receive a reduced amount of water from the river in the near future. Some great resources for understanding water in the West are:


I still remain hopeful about water in Tucson (my hometown) and in Arizona in the future because I have the opportunity to work with so many dedicated individuals in academia, industry, the government, and nonprofits that are committed to ensure a reliable water future. Here are many of the reasons I remain hopeful:

1980 Groundwater Management Act

Arizona enacted this legislation to regulate groundwater use in Active Management Areas (AMAs) containing 75% of the population. New developments in AMAs have to ensure a 100-year supply of water. Learn more and watch a short video chronicling this achievement that brought people of all sides together for the greater good. This collaboration was possible in 1980 and is still possible today.


Long-range planning including Drought Contingency Plans are critical. Organizations work internally and with each other to ensure a reliable supply of water now and in the future. Through water conservation and reclaimed water usage, Tucson Water has managed to keep potable water usage at 1985 levels despite a population increase of over 200,000 people. A Drought Contingency Plan is being developed among all of the lower basin states to share the burden of shortages on the Colorado River.


In The Water Knife, people live in enclosed systems called Archologies. The technology that they use to create a self-sustainable and energy independent environment was developed and built by the Chinese who run them. Today, we have a great deal of research that is being done in these areas at the University of Arizona and other universities across the country. The WEST Center is an example of many organizations working together to achieve water and energy sustainable technology.

Using Resources Wisely

Local non-profits such as Watershed Management Group and the Sonoran Institute work with the community to connect people with our watersheds and environment to utilize resources in a sustainable manner. They are transforming the way people think about life in Arizona and the West while providing ways to thrive.


It is not just the duty of teachers and programs like Arizona Project WET to educate people about water and our precious environment, it is everyone’s job. If we all commit to working together to educate people about our environment — in Arizona and beyond — we can avoid the dystopian future portrayed in The Water Knife.

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