Report: Colorado River provides huge economic boost

The Colorado River would be the 19th-largest employer in the United States if it were a business, according to a new report.

But cutbacks could be imminent if actions are not taken to ensure enough water remains in the river, its authors said.

The study, commissioned by Protect the Flows, a coalition of recreation and tourism businesses, also found that the river produces $26 billion in economic output, generated primarily by the recreation and tourism industries. By far the largest share of that total, $9.6 billion, occurs in Colorado.

The 234,000 jobs that the study, through surveys and economic modelling, found the river supports would place it ahead of companies like General Motors, Boeing and Disney.

“That’s a pretty conservative number,” noted Protect the Flows’ Molly Mugglestone. “These are direct jobs we’re talking about.”

They do not include the less direct economic benefits the river provides to farmers, ranchers, cities and power companies, nor to river users in Mexico.

In order to ensure the river continues to be able to support those jobs, a summit of business and government leaders met Friday in Denver to discuss the report’s findings.

“You don’t have to spend much time around rivers to understand their importance,” said Sen. Mark Udall, D-Boulder.

“The cynics might scoff at nonconsumptive uses…but it’s tough to know the value of something until it’s gone,” he said, referring to water that is left in rivers rather than withdrawn for irrigation or other consumptive uses.

The current drought promises to put pressure on all those who depend on the river’s water, and Mugglestone said those who depend directly on the river could be among the most vulnerable.

“That’s going to affect our businesses for sure. They’re all really concerned about this year,” she said. “If the river were sucked up and we couldn’t keep enough water in the river, we would lose jobs.”

The businesses in the coalition range from rafting companies to bed and breakfasts to fishing guides.

That vulnerability is likely to only increase going forward as population pressure continues to grow and climate change impacts like decreased snowpack and higher temperatures become more pronounced.

The currently underway Bureau of Reclamation study examining Colorado River supply and demand over the next 50 years could play a major role in helping to manage and mitigate the impacts of those pressures on river users.

“We’re at a pivotal moment,” Udall said. “This (Bureau of Reclamation) study may represent as good a chance as we may get in terms of a water policy, in a basin that’s already stressed.”

Mugglestone hopes Protect the Flows’ study can help inform the agency’s conclusions, particularly by quantifying the enjoyment people derive from the river.

Her organization opposes massive-scale, technological solutions to maintaining the river such as the Flaming Gorge Pipeline and instead comes at the issue “more from a conservation and efficiency standpoint.”

“We want to keep the water in the river,” she said.

The Colorado is not the only river on which a large tourism and recreation sector depends, of course. In an annual study, the Colorado Rivers Outfitters Association found the economic impact of rafting in the state of Colorado to be $155 million in 2011, with the largest portion of that generated by the Arkansas River.

But studies analyzing the economic benefits of an entire river are rare.

“I don’t think anyone has looked at a whole river basin before, which is one of the things that makes this study neat,” said Rob Southwick of Southwick Associates, which conducted the study for Protect the Flows.


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