How low will it go?

Colorado may face a dry and difficult future of fighting for water

  • Eric Kuhn of the Colorado River Water Conservation District has challenged the conventional wisdom about how much Colorado River water remains for Colorado to develop. He says it's not much.

    Jim Pokrandt, CRWCD
  • Kayaking in Reflection Canyon beneath the 140-foot-high "bathtub ring" of Lake Powell. When this photograph was taken in April 2005, the reservoir had lost nearly 70 percent of its total water volume. The reservoir was last full in 1999.

  • From "Medieval drought in the Upper Colorado River Basin," Geophysical Research Letters Vol. 34, L10705, 24 May 2007. David M. Meko, Connie A. Woodhouse, Christopher A. Baisan, Troy Knight, Jeffrey J. Lukas, Malcolm K. Hughes, and Matthew W. Salzer.
  • Transmountain diversion projects from Colorado’s Western Slope.

    Sources: CRWCD, Colorado Division Of Water Resources
  • A 2007 State of Colorado internal document showing Colorado doesn't have nearly enough water to accommodate future growth.

 

Page 3

Kuhn's office bookshelf holds several ink-stained, broken-spined old government publications, and, his report makes clear, they stand as a useful metaphor for the broader history of the river. They are essentially a series of warnings that came at the wrong time.

In 1924, just two years after the Colorado Compact was signed, a government hydrologist calculated that the actual flow of the river was 10 percent less than the Compact negotiators had assumed. In 1965, a water engineer named Royce Tipton estimated that the river's reliable flow was really about 14 percent less. "That was pretty shocking at the time," Kuhn says. It only got worse: Subsequent reports found that long-term flows were fully 22 percent less. "But then we just kind of put those reports on the table and went back to saying there's a lot of water.

"About the time the Tipton report was done, things turned wet. And they stayed wet through the late '90s," he says. "That wet period was the beginning of the Rocky Mountain boom days. That's when our growth exploded in the West."

The wet cycle meant there was more than enough water to accommodate the growth spurt, at least for the next 35 years. It also caused a weird psychological drift for water managers. Although severe droughts had left their mark hundreds of years back in the paleologic record, the 20th century was abnormally wet. Consequently, what we think of as normal is, in fact, unnaturally wet, compared to the much longer lifetime of the Colorado River.

Throw in climate change, which will almost certainly result in a decrease in average flows for the Colorado River (though to what extent is still hotly contested), and things really start looking grim. The desert Southwest is facing the slow decay of the water supply upon which the region has been built.

"An 80 percent year is not that bad. But if we had 20 years of 80 percent runoff on the Colorado River, we'd drain Lake Mead and Lake Powell," Kuhn says. "We're so close between supply and demand that a long period of 80- or 85-percent years will bankrupt the system."

Kuhn's quest to understand the river put him at the front of a sometimes lonely fight to challenge the conventional wisdom in Colorado. Some saw his argument as a self-interested effort to keep the Front Range from stealing the Western Slope's water, by arguing that there wasn't any water left to take. But during the summer of 2007, Kuhn's conclusions were validated in a surprising way.

Several Western Slope communities sued Denver to prevent the city from securing new rights to Colorado River water. They argued, basically, that there simply wasn't enough water in the river.

Glenn Porzak was the lawyer who argued against Denver in the case. And, as it happened, he had seen a copy of Kuhn's report. "(Kuhn) sent it out to a number of people, saying, ‘Give me your comments,' " says Porzak. "I read this thing and said, ‘I'll give you my comment: I want you as a witness in this case.' "

High Country News Classifieds
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • NEWS DIRECTOR
    Based in the state capitol, Boise State Public Radio is the premier NPR affiliate in Idaho. With 18 transmitters and translators, it reaches 2/3rds of...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details:
  • HAND CRAFTED LOG HOME IN TETON VALLEY
    on ten acres. Full view of the Grand Teton. 35 miles to Yellowstone and 20 minutes to Grand Targhee Ski Area.