A federal agency tries to hold on to what it's built

  • Allen Best


Western Colorado's Uncompahgre Valley is a garden artificially created. Corn and alfalfa grow plentifully around Montrose and other towns in this valley, about five hours southwest of Denver, as do apples, pears and cherries. A complicated web of dams, canals and river-depleting diversion projects created this produce bin of the agrarian West.

A key piece of this infrastructure is a tunnel that imports water from a different basin, financed and built exactly 100 years ago by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. But even as Montrose readied floats and local officials wrote speeches to commemorate the centennial of the tunnel this September, the federal agency announced a major study that speaks to a very different challenge for Colorado, as well as for other states in the Southwest.

The key challenge a century ago was to move rivers around to make the land bloom. Now, the Bureau of Reclamation is looking to see how well these water transfers will hold up in the face of what it calls "changing water realities." The primary reality is a climate expected to become much, much hotter with compressed winters and uncertain precipitation. At the same time, population is growing in the West.

The centuries are different, and so are the challenges. Looking back to when the water first began gushing into the Uncompaghre Valley from the 5.8-mile Gunnison Tunnel, it is amazing to think that only humans and horses were available to scrape those canals out from the hillsides. In a way, the achievement is only slightly less impressive than the building of the pyramids in Egypt.

In 1909, President William Howard Taft blessed the opening of the Gunnison Tunnel with his voluminous presence. The new water he caused to flow expanded the irrigated acreage of the valley by 160 percent, enabling the community's population to double in 10 years. This was among the first projects launched by the Bureau of Reclamation. The agency went on to build Hoover Dam -- producing both electricity and a reliable water supply for burgeoning Los Angeles -- as well as Grand Coulee on the Columbia River and then, in the 1960s, that sprawling reservoir on the Colorado River called "Lake" Powell.

In all, BuRec built 180 projects in the 17 Western states. Water delivered by all of that plumbing grows 60 percent of the nation's vegetables and 25 percent of its fruits and nuts.

But then, the dam building sputtered to a halt. President Jimmy Carter in 1977 issued what critics called a Hit List but what he contended were financially ridiculous projects. Indignant Westerners brayed that Carter, hailing from Georgia, couldn't possibly understand the West's problems. Yet Ronald Reagan, a Californian, did nothing to overturn Carter's action. The Age of Dams had come to an end.

The challenges of our new era seem biblical in nature. At issue is whether this massive hydraulic system to deliver water to semi-arid lands will continue to work. Evidence from a millennia ago describes droughts far more prolonged than anything we've experienced in the last century. Global climate models concur that increasing greenhouse gas emissions will cause sharply rising temperatures in the American Southwest.

We may still lack a national consensus about global warming, but lately, state governments and federal agencies have begun girding themselves aggressively for change. Colorado, for example, is spending $1 million to get a better handle on whether global warming will diminish the water it believes it still has available from the Colorado River for shipment to its still-growing cities.

The Bureau of Reclamation recently commissioned a $2 million study to more broadly calculate the potential impacts of climate change to the Colorado River Basin. Part of this work is to see if dams and irrigation systems can be operated more efficiently, given the scarcity of water. But the study also proposes to examine the prospects of augmenting water supplies through desalinization, cloud seeding and possibly even importing water from the Mississippi River Basin.

The future looks dire: One recent study by a university researcher predicted a 50-50 chance that the giant reservoirs of the Colorado will go dry by mid-century.

Seen in this light, the Bureau of Reclamation is now badly named. It no longer does what it did in the West starting 100 years ago -- reclaiming the desert soil and converting it into a garden. The federal agency seems to face an even more daunting task just trying to preserve what it has achieved.

Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes about environmental and energy issues in Denver.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Reclamation in the 21st Century West
Ian Bowen
Ian Bowen
Dec 01, 2009 12:43 PM
At some point in the next decade or two we're going to have to own up to the fact that the West we know cannot be sustained because of the realities of resource availability. Out here that's especially true with water resources, both for agricultural and municipal use. Though we have agencies like the EPA and countless environmental advocacy groups, we have yet to acknowledge that we can't appropriate 90% of the river to human use, and that importing water from the Columbia or Mississippi basins will be cost- and likely environment-prohibitive. I've just driven Interstate 5 through the Central Valley and notice that deliveries from the State Water Project to the west side of the valley have all but stopped due to concerns over salmon in the Sacramento and San Joaquin. Signs lining the freeway proclaim "Congress-created Dust Bowl", and I can't help but wonder, how can anybody seriously equate allowing water to flow downhill to the Dust Bowl? California is perhaps the worst offender in denying the environmental realities, but almost the entire West seems to believe that we can recklessly move rivers out of their ancient beds without any negative effects. Reclamation was key in promoting the pipe dream of irrigated agriculture, and it seems like ever since NISP, the EPA, and Carter's hit list they've been in limbo, only continuing to exist to operate existing projects. Perhaps now they will have a new purpose in helping the West adapt to the changing environmental and political climate, continuing to support agriculture but at the same time ushering in a new era of responsibility that will be essential to guaranteeing the future of the West.
Need to reexamine national agricultural policies.
Charles W. (Chuck) Howe
Charles W. (Chuck) Howe
Dec 01, 2009 04:23 PM
Much of the West's agriculture either moved from or should move to regions with more plentiful water supplies. Irrigated ag accounts for at least 80% of water consumption in the western states. While specialty crops like winter vegetables and fruits can be grown only in some western states, field and forage crops consume the greatest part of ag's huge consumptive use. Historically, these crops "moved" west under policies intended to develop the western regions. That objective has been accomplished( if not over-accomplished). The subsidy programs that continue to support the heavy water-using crops in the western states need to be reconsidered so that ag activities can gravitate to the regions best suited to them.