Group declares Colorado River most endangered river in nation

Without the Colorado River, there would be no Mesa Park Vineyards in Palisade.

The 10-acre operation is totally reliant on the river’s water, Brooke Webb of the family-owned operation said Wednesday.

That’s part of the reason Webb joined in a news conference by American Rivers announcing that the Colorado River has been named the conservation group’s most endangered river for 2013.

Without the river, there would be no Palisade peaches, no area wine-making, she said. It likewise is responsible for 15 percent of the nation’s crops and $26 billion a year in recreation, she said.

“We want to preserve our way of life and for the river to be there for future generations,” said Webb, also part of the National Young Farmers Coalition.

The river, a lifeline to millions, also is sapped by such high demand. American Rivers said in a news release that the Colorado River tops its list for this year due to “outdated water management that is inadequate to respond to the pressures of over-allocation and persistent drought.”

The group said a recent U.S. Bureau of Reclamation study showed there isn’t enough water in the river to meet the river basin’s current water demands, much less support future increased demands. It said the river is threatened by the possibility of diversions of 300,000 additional acre-feet of water to the Front Range, and a possible 10 to 30 percent reduction in the river’s flow by 2050 due to climate change.

Coconino County, Ariz., Supervisor Liz Archuleta said the white-stained sandstone bathtub ring of Lake Powell, which currently has a water level 102 feet below capacity, “serves as a clear reminder of the overuse of the Colorado River.”

The river provides drinking water to 36 million people from Denver to Los Angeles.

“Today the river is so dammed, drained and diverted that it dries up to a trickle before reaching the sea,” American Rivers president Bob Irvin said.

“Now is the time to put the Colorado River on the path to recovery.”

The organization says one way to do that is to adequately fund “21st-century” water management practices that optimize existing infrastructure and emphasize efficiency and conservation.

Jim Lochhead, manager and chief executive officer of Denver Water, said he thinks American Rivers overstates the problem involving the river and doesn’t “really add to the conversation, frankly.”

“The situation is not as bleak as portrayed by this announcement,” he said.

He said he thinks the group overemphasizes the worst-case scenarios on climate change and isn’t realistic about the amount of Front Range water diversions that might actually occur. Denver Water spent roughly a decade seeking permits for a 15,000-acre diversion and has nearly reached a deal with Western Slope entities under which any further diversions only would occur in partnership with the Western Slope, he noted.

But he said obviously there are issues involving the river, including California’s overuse of water from it over the last two decades.

“I think that the states and the Department of Interior are clearly working together to address those issues in an incremental way,” he said.

Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, based in Glenwood Springs, said he hadn’t had a chance to look at the report. But he added, “Anything that brings more attention to the (Bureau of Reclamation) basin study is very positive.”

He said looking at possible future water shortages can lead to overstating the problem today, but he added that for the river to not reach the sea now already is a problem.

That said, Kuhn takes issue with the idea that the river suffers from antiquated management. Colorado water law has a long history but isn’t necessarily antiquated, and the river’s management also involves six other states grouped in upper and lower basins, and Mexico, he said. He said American Rivers probably has underestimated the importance of agreements in recent years that address matters such as water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, and the river situation in Mexico. Such agreements aren’t easy to reach, he said.

“The kind of progress that’s been made is maybe incremental but it’s significant,” Kuhn said.

The Colorado River has made American Rivers’ annual list of the 10 most endangered rivers six times, and was named the most endangered three of those times.

In coming up with its annual list, the group considers factors such as whether a river faces a serious threat. Last year, the Green River was ranked second due to proposals to pipe water from it to the Front Range, and the Crystal River south of Carbondale was ranked eighth because of a river district reservoir proposal there.


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