Federal study will be critical for use of the Colorado River

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John McPhee once wrote, “Anyone interested … in the study of water in the West will in the end concentrate on the Colorado, wildest of rivers ... incongruous in the desert ... all the other celebrated white torrents are not in the conversation if the topic is the Colorado.”

It is time, once again, to turn our attention to the study of the Colorado River.

Thirty million Americans, from Denver to Los Angeles, depend on the Colorado River Basin for drinking water. The river irrigates 15 percent of the nation’s crops and supports a multi-billion dollar recreation industry. It provides water for at least 15 Native American tribes and generates over 4,200 megawatts of power. Born in the Colorado Rockies and stretching through seven states and Mexico, the Colorado River is the economic backbone of the Southwest.

Yet we have a problem in the Colorado River Basin: More often than not in recent years, annual basin water use has exceeded available supplies.

As it turns out, deficits are not limited to federal budgets. Our water deficit problem will only be exacerbated in the future as we place more demands on the river.

For example, Colorado’s population is projected to double by 2050, creating new demands for municipal water deliveries. Also, basin water supplies will be stressed by a changing climate that will alter precipitation and snow melt patterns.

This deficit poses just as great a threat to the long-term success of Colorado and the Southwest as the federal budget deficit does to our long-term national security and prosperity, and it requires commensurate attention from all levels of government.

Fortunately, we have an opportunity now to tackle this problem on a basinwide scale. The Department of the Interior, through the Bureau of Reclamation, is conducting a basinwide planning study to assess water supplies and demands over the next 50 years and develop plans for resolving any imbalances between the two.

The Bureau is working with the seven Colorado River Basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California — to conduct the study. The final report is due this summer of 2012. Although the report won’t make recommendations or mandate specific courses of action, it will include suites of options for addressing our future water needs and inform the states and the federal government about possible strategies they can adopt.

As Colorado’s senior senator and member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, I am following the study’s progress closely. Water will be critical to preserving Colorado’s heritage and way of life, as well as enabling growth throughout the next century.

I am hopeful this report will bring much-needed perspective to the options and strategies available to state and federal lawmakers about how to address current and future water challenges. I am also happy that the study builds off the important work Colorado has done through the Statewide Water Supply Initiative to describe our state’s water needs.

When the report is finalized, I will be looking for strategies that balance the multiple uses of water in Colorado: agricultural, municipal and industrial, recreational and environmental. We must sustain the viability of agriculture and provide drinking water for a growing population while keeping enough water in the river to support a healthy ecosystem and the recreation and tourism industries that rely on it.  And we must protect Colorado’s ability to fully use its Colorado River Compact entitlements.

A tall order to be sure, but this balance is what keeps people coming to Colorado. It attracts tourists, businesses, entrepreneurs and investment from all over the globe. We must not forfeit one of Colorado’s greatest economic advantages.

I also want to ensure that the study process is transparent and inclusive for all Coloradans. To that end, until this Tuesday, the Bureau of Reclamation is collecting proposals from any interested individual or entity that will help address water supply and demand imbalances. The proposals will be evaluated and used to inform the recommendations in the final report.

The Bureau of Reclamation will also be taking public comment following the release of the draft report in June 2012. For more information on the study and to submit your proposals, visit http://www.usbr.gov/lc/region/programs/crbstudy.html.

Bringing supply and demand back into equilibrium means developing solutions that balance the needs of many different kinds of users throughout the basin. I am confident it can be done. We must take common sense steps to maximize every drop of water, our most precious natural resource, because Colorado’s future depends on it.

Mark Udall is Colorado’s senior U.S. senator.


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