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WATER LINES: Colorado River use exceeds supply, so now what?

On Sept. 13, as floods were washing away houses, roads and crops on the Front Range, about 200 people gathered in Grand Junction to discuss a water deficit: Demand for Colorado River water keeps growing, even as supplies may be shrinking.

I wasn’t actually at the meeting — I was held up near Denver by landslides — but I recently caught some of the presentations on video, and so can you. The Colorado River District, which organized the meeting, has made videos of the presentations available on the web at http://www.crwcd.org/. Slides shown by presenters are also posted there.

Colorado River District Manager Eric Kuhn set the stage for the day’s discussions with a few basic observations about the Colorado River Basin that are fundamental to understanding the challenges involved in trying to meet the needs of everyone who relies on the river:



35 million people (and growing) with 5.5 million acres of irrigated land in seven states

How this situation is resolved will be determined partly by what falls from the sky, and partly by people.

10 autonomous/sovereign Native American tribes



2 countries

And he didn’t even have to mention the fish, cottonwoods, ski resorts or rafters to make the challenge sound daunting.

Kuhn pointed out that between 2000-13, natural flow into the Colorado River system above Hoover Dam was 180 million acre-feet, while total water use from the basin was 210 million acre-feet, leading to a drawdown of 30 million acre-feet of water stored in reservoirs. And the Colorado River Basin Supply and Demand Study (Basin Study) released late last year forecast that demands are likely to keep growing.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that disaster lies around the next bend, but it might.

The 2000-13 period was drier than average, and it’s possible that we could have a string of wet years that would bump those storage levels back up in time for the next drought. It’s also possible that we could have a repeat of the numerous historical periods that were even drier. Climate change scenarios are not especially rosy, although the “reduced” average flows projected in the Basin Study are actually above what we’ve averaged over the last 13 years. Check out the slides to see which periods, and just how much drier it’s been.

How this situation is resolved will be determined partly by what falls from the sky, and partly by people. Most of the precipitation happens in the Upper Basin, above Lake Powell, while most of the people live in the Lower Basin. Within Colorado, we have a similar situation, with most of the state’s precipitation falling on the Western Slope of the Rockies, while most of our people live on the Eastern Slope.

Other seminar speakers elaborated on this overall theme of shrinking supplies and growing demands, with presentations on our shrinking Rocky Mountain snowpack, dropping water levels in Lake Powell, Las Vegas strategies to adapt to dropping water levels in Lake Mead, innovative urban water conservation strategies, and the challenges involved in planning to meet growing water needs within Colorado.

These issues show no signs of going away any time soon, and how they are resolved will have far-reaching implications for the whole region’s economy, environment and quality of life. Reviewing the presentations from the River District’s seminar will leave you well prepared to understand what’s going on and what’s at stake, and to add your voice to the conversation.

Water Lines is a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning, and to let the roundtables know what you think, go to http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter.

Hannah Holm is coordinator of the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University.


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