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
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    New Mexico Land Conservancy (Santa Fe, NM), Stewardship Coordinator - Seeking highly motivated individual with excellent interpersonal skills to coordinate stewardship activities and support conservation...
  • 40-ACRE LAMBORN MOUNTAIN RETREAT, PAONIA, CO
    One-of-a-kind gem borders public lands/West Elk Wilderness. Privacy, creek, spring, irrigation, access. $270,000. Info at https://hcne.ws/LambornMT or call 970-683-0588 or 970-261-5928.
  • RECRUITMENT & HIRING MANAGER WITH WRA
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a dynamic, organized, and creative person with great people skills to be our Recruitment & Hiring Manager to recruit...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ATTORNEY (NM) AND POLICY ASSOCIATE/ANALYST (AZ & NV)
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is looking for a variety of positions around the West with our Clean Energy Program. Currently we are hiring a Staff...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, HAWKWATCH INTERNATIONAL
    We are seeking an experienced dynamic leader for a growing conservation organization; $65,000-75,000 salary plus benefits; job description and apply at hawkwatch.org/executivedirector
  • FRIENDS OF THE INYO IS HIRING FOR THE SUMMER OF 2019
    Friends of the Inyo is excited to post our seasonal job offerings for the summer of 2019! We are hiring Trail Ambassadors, Stewardship Crew Members,...
  • DONOR RELATIONS MANAGER
    This position is responsible for the identification and qualification of major and planned gift prospects and assists in cultivating and soliciting donors through meetings, trips,...
  • STREAMFLOW RESTORATION IMPLEMENTATION LEAD (ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNER 4)
    Keeping Washington Clean and Evergreen Protecting Washington State's environment for current and future generations is what we do every day at Ecology. We are a...
  • SENIOR STORMWATER ENGINEER (ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEER 5)
    Keeping Washington Clean and Evergreen Our Water Quality Program is looking to hire a Senior Stormwater Engineer at our Headquarters building in Lacey, WA This...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have leadership abilities, experience with rural land protection,...
  • MAJOR GIFT OFFICER
    University of Wyoming Foundation Haub School of ENR, Biodiversity Institute, Environmental/Natural Resource Programs https://uwyo.taleo.net/careersection/00_ex/jobdetail.ftl?job=19001001&tz=GMT-06:00
  • MONTANA LAND STEWARD
    The Montana Land Steward develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans, and methods related to TNC's property interest portfolio in Montana. For more information and...
  • RAISER'S EDGE DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR
    POSITION DESCRIPTION: RAISER'S EDGE DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR The Raiser's Edge Database Administrator ensures the integrity and effectiveness of the member/donor database by developing systems and processes...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    We are hiring a Director of Development Full time, competitive pay and benefits. Location: Bozeman,MT Visit www.greateryellowstone.org/careers for details GYC is an equal opportunity employer
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, KANIKSU LAND TRUST
    Kaniksu Land Trust, a community-supported non-profit land trust serving north Idaho and northwest Montana, is in search of a new executive director. The ideal candidate...
  • MARKETING AND COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Arizona Wildlife Federation seeks an energetic Marketing and Communications Director. Please see the full job description at https://azwildlife.org/jobs
  • 3 POSITIONS: ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR, DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR, AND FOREST PROGRAMS ASSOCIATE
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) in Durango and Silverton, CO is hiring 3 staff: Please visit mountainstudies.org/careers for Assoc Director, Dev and Engagement Director, and Forest...
  • CENTER FOR COLLABORATIVE CONSERVATION DIRECTOR, COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY
    The Center for Collaborative Conservation is hiring a full-time, permanent Director. Applications are due on March 31. Description can be found at http://jobs.colostate.edu/postings/65118 No phone...
  • PROGRAM AND OUTREACH COORDINATOR
    Program and Outreach Coordinator - Dolores River Boating Advocates, a conservation and recreation minded non-profit based in Dolores, CO, is hiring a 20 hour/week Program...
  • CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER/DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Friends of Cedar Mesa seeks a skilled non-profit leader to play a crucial role in protecting the greater Bears Ears landscape. Experience working with government...