Trickle of hope for river in study

A landmark study released Wednesday attached a big number to the estimated future gap between supply and demand in the Colorado River basin. Federal officials suggested big water shipment projects aren’t the best approach to dealing with it.

The study, undertaken by the Bureau of Reclamation and the seven Colorado River Basin states, identified an average annual shortfall of more than 3.2 million acre feet by 2060. An acre-foot is nearly 326,000 gallons, and depending on estimates is about what’s used by one or two households in a year.

The study also notes that apportioned water in the basin already exceeds the roughly 100-year record of river flows, even though Upper Basin states including Colorado haven’t fully developed their apportionment. Despite the recent drought, the river system has been able to meet Lower Basin state obligations through water stored in reservoirs.

In announcing the study’s findings n a media teleconference, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar discounted the idea of pursuing proposals such as diversions from the Mississippi, Missouri or Columbia rivers or shipping of icebergs to California.

“In my view those solutions are impractical and technically not feasible,” he said.

Instead, he said, the focus needs to be on common-sense solutions such as reuse, conservation, transfers of agricultural water to municipal use, and watershed management measures including elimination of invasive, water-consumptive tamarisk plants.

The study includes more than 150 proposals from various entities. But Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Mike Connor told reporters some were simply cost-prohibitive and would require extensive planning.

Double the customers

Bart Miller, water program director for Western Resource Advocates, said in a prepared statement, “We agree with the Bureau of Reclamation’s message to focus on ‘practical’ solutions. Conservation and reuse gets to the heart of the problem in a manner that building pipelines cannot, and it saves taxpayers billions of dollars.”

The Colorado River Basin now provides water to about 40 million people. However, the study projects that under a rapid-growth scenario, that number could nearly double to 76.5 million people by 2060.

Even before its release, the study drew criticism for making such an assumption, saying it didn’t account for the effect of the recession on population numbers in the Southwest.

“States cooked the books to show higher demand for water consumption to set up a federal bailout on expensive water projects,” Molly Mugglestone, director of the business coalition Protect the Flows, said in a news release earlier this week.

However, federal officials indicated Wednesday that the study considers a range of population estimates, including one anticipating only a slight increase.

Officials say climate change also is a factor behind the projected water gap. The report says climate change could reduce river flows by 9 percent by 2060 at Lees Ferry, Ariz., at the same time resulting about 50 percent of the time in droughts lasting at least five years.

Digestion, skepticism

In a news release, Ted Kowalski, a section chief for the Colorado Water Conservation Board who served on the Basin Study Project team, said agencies such as the CWCB already have been addressing issues raised in the report.

“Now, with this basinwide, cooperative effort, we can get a glimpse of the bigger picture, and begin to work towards planning for the future, with a well-informed idea of where we’re headed,” he said.

Jim Lochhead, manager and chief executive officer of Denver Water and chair of the Front Range Water Council, said in a council release, “Although the report projects potentially significant shortages for the Colorado River Basin as a whole, it is important to understand more specifically when, where and to what extent those shortages may occur. This will require detailed analysis of the study results and the implementation of a variety of responses. While this is a critical issue for Colorado, we have time to approach solutions thoughtfully.”

Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which represents western Colorado interests, agreed that there’s no need to go into crisis mode, and said the first course of action is for parties to simply digest the thousand or so pages in the report.

The report was issued as Kuhn and others are attending a meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association in Las Vegas. He said the fact that it identified a shortage isn’t a surprise to water experts such as those at the meeting.

“The general conclusion that the river is fully used and things are going to get worse, that’s the reason they did the study to begin with,” he said.

However, he said the size of the projected shortage is a surprise to him, and probably a lot of people.

Like some conservation groups, Kuhn suspects states used the opportunity to be aggressive in their estimates of their future water needs.

“I think that’s as old as water projects,” he said.

“If you think you have this demand, then this is your opportunity to participate in a 20- to 30-year project that might put in place water banks and other things. You’re likely to estimate on the high side,” he said.

Water loans

Water banking, a concept Kuhn endorses, involve letting owners of agricultural water rights contract to loan the water in times of need, without permanently giving up those rights.

Kuhn thinks the actual shortage some 50 years from now might be 1.5 million to 2 million acre feet a year, but says that’s still a “very large” deficit that needs to be addressed.

Even setting aside the idea of climate change, it has become clear that the kind of droughts the region has seen in the last 25 years have occurred over the last 400 to 500 years, he said.

“Climate change may aggravate it but it doesn’t change the outcome, it doesn’t change the result. It doesn’t change the message. It simply puts an exclamation point on it,” he said.

He notes the question being faced is how to meet even bigger demand from a river that already runs dry before it reaches the sea.

Said Salazar, “We’re already dealing with a Colorado River system and a legal framework which is looking at significant shortages.

“… We are making headway on a number of fronts but this study should serve as a call to action.”


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