The Colorado River and Big Daddy drought

 

It's not news to any of us that most of the West is in drought, that we're using more water each year than snowfall and rain replenish, that one of our biggest watersheds, the Colorado River Basin is overallocated and its reservoirs are slowly silting up.

Now, Utah's Deseret News has published a thorough, informative overview of the Basin's dwindling water supply. The three-part series, by Amy Joi O'Donoghue, starts here.

A few numbers give a sense of what we're facing:

  • More than 30 million people in the West depend on the Colorado River's water.
  • A U.S. Geological Survey study predicts that within 15 years, that number will increase by more than half.
  • By 2050, climate change will warm the Basin and dry out its soil to an extent not seen since the 1930s Dust Bowl.
  • By the end of this century, the Basin will see a 20 percent decrease in runoff, thanks to warming temperatures and earlier spring runoff.
  • Snowpack across the Basin was well below average this year, less than half of normal. Severe, even record-setting drought is foreseen for Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico.
  • Lake Mead was just over half full as of the end of April; it's expected to drop another 14 feet over the summer.
  • Lake Powell is also about half full. This year's runoff is the third lowest in the history of Glen Canyon Dam – in sharp contrast to last year, which was the third wettest recorded.

Circle of Blue has an assessment of the West's water situation this year: basically, many reservoirs are at or above their normal storage amounts, since last year brought above-average precipitation. But that's not true in New Mexico, where some reservoirs, like Elephant Butte, are getting close to empty. And another couple of abnormally dry years will create the same situation all over the Southwest.

The second story in the Deseret series explores one possible solution to slaking the West's thirst -- importing water all the way from the Mississippi. A grandiose plan indeed, comments HCN opinion writer Craig Rowe, and potentially extremely destructive.

The third part in the series describes plans to pipe water from Lake Powell to Utah (which just redistributes water from one part of the Colorado River Basin to another), but the Deseret News's Utah-centric coverage doesn't mention another grand pipeline plan that would suck water from eastern Nevada and deliver it to Las Vegas (potentially drying up groundwater, as described in our story Silenced Springs).

Over the years, we've written a lot about the Colorado and the epic fights over its supplies, including A tug of war on a tightrope, How low will it go?, and The Tamarisk Hunter, an unusual (sci-fi) look at what might what might happen if California made a call asserting its rights to Colorado River water during "Big Daddy Drought".

Dan McCool, political science professor at the University of Utah, summed up the situation in an HCN op-ed a couple of years ago. His conclusion is even more valid today.

The myriad problems of the Colorado River point to one inescapable conclusion: Western water policy is hopelessly, irrevocably unsustainable.  Policies that once created stability are now an albatross, preventing the West from making fundamental changes in the way it allocates and uses its water.

Jodi Peterson is the managing editor at High Country News

Image of Elephant Butte reservoir courtesy Flickr user J.N. Stuart.

High Country News Classifieds
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • SAGE GROUSE CCAA COORDINATOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, headquartered in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a full-time Sage Grouse CCAA Coordinator. This position is part of a collaborative effort...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST
    Executive Director, Okanogan Land Trust Position Announcement Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have...
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers
  • BEAUTIFUL, AUTHENTIC LIVE YULE LOG CENTERPIECE
    - beautiful 12" yule log made from holly wood, live fragrant firs, rich green and white holly, pinecones and red berries. $78 includes shipping. Our...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA
    Crazy Horse Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is currently accepting applications and nominations for the Director of Programs for The Indian University...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL® MANAGER OF RESIDENCE LIFE FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA®
    Crazy Horse Memorial is currently accepting applications for the Manager of Residence Life for The Indian University of North America. This position is responsible for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Are you an art lover who dreams of living in the mountains? Is fundraising second nature to you? Do you have experience managing creative people?...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Public Lands Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting the multiple-use management of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, seeks an experienced leader...
  • COLD WEATHER CRAFTS
    Unique handmade gifts from the Gunnison Valley. Soy lotion candles, jewelry, art, custom photo mandalas and more. Check out the website and buy Christmas locally...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    North Cascades Institute seeks their next Executive Director to lead the organization, manage $4 million operating budget, and oversee 60 staff. Send resume/cover letter to...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.