Two tales of one river


As Earth Day passed with little fanfare this week, news was mixed for the Colorado River.

American Rivers, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy organization, released its annual list of the nation’s most endangered waterways. Half of them are in the West, and the Colorado has the dubious distinction of landing the number one spot. The group points to the pressures drought and over-allocation have put on the fish, wildlife and humans that rely on the Colorado.

Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. Courtesy of the USGS.

It’s not exactly breaking news that there isn’t enough Colorado River water to meet current demand across the basin states, and that if we continue on our current course, meeting future increased demands will be impossible.

Map of Upper and Lower Basin states. Courtesy of the State of Arizona.

Yet this was also the message from a recent Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) report, prepared with the input of the seven Colorado River Basin states, which projects acute water supply and demand imbalances throughout the river basin and adjacent areas over the next 50 years. The river currently provides water to nearly 40 million people and the BOR study says that number could double by 2060. Stir in the expected climatic changes and the shortfall is projected to be greater than 3.2 million acre-feet per year (one AF is what an average household uses annually).

We’re not likely to have to wait that long before experiencing serious problems, however; the report says there’s potential for “critical imbalances” as early as 2025. Considering that several large cities, 5.5 million acres of farmland, and at least 22 federally-recognized tribes rely on Colorado River water for drinking, irrigation and power generation, as well as 11 national parks, seven national wildlife refuges and four national recreation areas, finding solutions should be of paramount importance.

So what are a bunch of water-hungry states to do if we want to keep the West habitable? Based on input from study participants, interested stakeholders and the general public, the BOR presents several options for meeting future demands, broken down into three major categories: increase supply, reduce demand and modify operations.

Supply would be increased by diverting water from the Columbia, Missouri, Mississippi, Bear, Snake or Yellowstone rivers and by importing it via icebergs, waterbags and tankers. Demand would be decreased with agricultural and municipal conservation and energy efficiency measures. Storage and diversion operations would be modified to limit evaporation with canal and reservoir covers; new reservoirs would be constructed; and water transfers, exchanges and banking would be allowed. Transfers move water—largely from farmers (with senior rights) to cities—that farmers have conserved with more efficient irrigation, or gained through land fallowing or by planting less water-intensive crops. Exchanges are agreements between parties in which water can be diverted or stored at one point, in exchange for an equivalent amount of water being released or bypassed at another point on a river system. Banking would help water users in the Upper Basin, for example, save water for use in extended droughts instead of sending the excess downstream.

Cut out those ideas that seem neither feasible nor reliable (towing icebergs to southern California, for example) and the greatest amount of water to be “gained” is through conservation. The ideas for reducing demand would also take the least time to implement. Conservation and efficiency efforts could infuse 1.8 million AFY of water into the system over the next five to 40 years.

Glen Canyon Dam, 1966. Courtesy of the State of Utah.

Some sustainable water initiatives that do this effectively are already in place. For example, the Department of the Interior’s WaterSMART (Sustain and Manage America's Resources for Tomorrow) Program focuses on using the best available science to assist communities in stretching water supplies and improving water management. The program supports the BOR’s Water and Energy Efficiency grants, Title XVI Reclamation and Recycling projects and the U.S. Geological Survey’s Water Availability and Use Initiative.

The problem is these programs face an anti-environmental Congress. While the BOR proposed $53.9 million in the FY 2013 budget, that request (in the interests of fiscal austerity) dropped to $35.4 million for FY 2014. The $33.4 million cut in the BOR's $1 billion budget was achieved in large part by slashing WaterSMART.

Despite the uncertain future of the northern 1,350 miles miles of the Colorado River, its dry final stretch seems poised to make a comeback. Both the New York Times and National Geographic have been talking about Minute 319, the bi-national agreement between the U.S. and Mexico which basically secures limited water rights for the Delta, for a limited time. It will need to be extended, and ideally expanded, in 2019.

The Delta. Courtesy of NASA.

The Colorado hasn’t truly flowed to the Gulf of Mexico for most of the past 50 years, since the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam. But the five-year pilot program called for in Minute 319 will supply 158,088 acre-feet of water to the lower river and its delta which, while only about one percent of the historic flow, should elicit a response from the parched landscape.

A portion of this water must be acquired by the Colorado River Delta Water Trust, created and managed in partnership by the Sonoran Institute, Pronatura Noroeste, and the Environmental Defense Fund. Their tireless, decades-long work alongside scientists and locals won’t restore one million of acres of barrenness, which used to be teeming with cattails, cottonwoods and willows, but it’s a remarkable step in the right direction.

Heather Hansen is a journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at CU Law School, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

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