Right Angles column: Future of Colorado River — something must give
There’s lots of snow in the western Colorado high country, and projections for spring runoff are good. But the Colorado River Basin is about the size of France. Along the Colorado River’s 1,450-mile course from headwaters to delta, demands exceed the supply of water. Saving the river will require administrators and water users to cooperate, balancing existing laws, compacts and treaties with conservation and water sharing.
The Colorado River and its tributaries supply drinking water to more than 35 million people in seven states and irrigate over 4 million acres. Demand outstrips supply, especially in the lower basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada. Population growth over the next three decades may push the shortfall to 3.5 million acre-feet (MAF). Meanwhile, water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead have dropped to the lowest since construction, jeopardizing water supply and hydroelectric production.
Farther south, the river’s last 1.5 MAF are diverted each year by Mexico’s Morelos Dam for agriculture and urban use. This means the final 100 miles of the historic river channel is mostly dry, including the delta at the Sea of Cortez. That’s a sad testament for a symbol of the American West. And it’s a tragedy for riparian habitat, wildlife, fisheries and local communities.
Diminishing Colorado River flows and shrinking reservoir storage are pitting farmers, municipalities, recreationists and environmentalists against each other. Something has to give, but solutions to the dilemma must operate within the comprehensive “law of the river.” The cornerstone is the 1922 Colorado River Compact, which allocates 7.5 MAF to the upper basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah and an equal amount to the lower basin states.
Unfortunately, it’s become apparent that the compact amounts were based on wet-year flows that are about 1.5 MAF higher than the actual yearly average. The compact reads that the upper basin states cannot fail on deliveries to the lower basin states. That means the upper basin states will bear the burden of cutting back on consumption to comply with the compact.
Every state served by the Colorado River Basin will need to reduce water use. Municipalities could make a cumulative impact with restrictions on landscape irrigation and requirements for water-saving appliances in new construction. Municipal water can also be reused for industrial and agricultural purposes. It’s projected that these practices combined could ultimately save 2 MAF per year throughout the basin.
Concepts such as water banking and water sharing agreements could also play an important role as population grows. A water bank facilitates the free-market transfer (temporary or permanent) of water rights, typically allowing junior municipal water rights to divert while senior agriculture rights defer. Water sharing agreements allow cities to use agricultural rights during drought while fields remain fallow, but keep the water available to farms in normal years.
Changes in statutory law are likely required to make water banks and water sharing agreements practical in Colorado. The current “use it or lose it” stipulation is inconsistent with efforts to improve irrigation efficiency and reduce water diversions. Farmers and ranchers need assurance that they won’t lose their senior water rights. Under the right circumstances, water banks and sharing could accommodate a growing population while keeping Colorado flows environmentally sustainable and within compact compliance.
Water conservation in Colorado and other upper basin states doesn’t equate to flows in the Colorado River delta. The lower basin states already consume their full apportionment of the river. Their demands will keep rising and the “big bucket” reservoirs in the basin are thirsty for water. Of course, the last tenth of the river is allocated to Mexico pursuant to the Mexican-U.S. Treaty of 1944. Today, that entire amount is diverted from the channel.
The Colorado has been called the hardest-working river in the West. The pressures will only increase with time. A sustainable future for this iconic river combines adherence to existing law, improved conservation and widespread implementation of new water administration tools. Steady flows of Colorado River water to the Sea of Cortez are unlikely in the foreseeable future. But with the concerted effort of seven Western states and two nations, the river born of our Colorado snowpack won’t simply flow down the drain.
James D. Kellogg is an engineering consultant and the author of “Radical Action: A Colt Kelley Thriller.” Look for the novel on amazon.com and visit JamesDKellogg.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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