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Know the West

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.