Quiet on water

As if the stakes weren’t high enough in this presidential election, Coloradans and their neighbors to the south and west will be deciding which administration will grapple with a looming water shortage for the millions of people in the American Southwest served by the Colorado River.

The race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton has been short on policy positions. Immigration, border security, international trade, Obamacare and national security are the hot-button issues, but the candidates rarely move beyond pointing out each other’s character defects to provide important details on major challenges.

Your guess is as good as ours as to how either candidate would view a federal role in firming up contingency plans or extending water-use agreements among the hundreds of water-rights holders abiding by the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

But one of them will have to. A survey of policy- and decision makers by the University of Colorado concluded that the president who takes office in 2017 could almost immediately face the prospect of Colorado River water supply cuts to Arizona and Nevada in January 2018.

As the Associated Press reported, the survey results acknowledge that more river water than is available is promised to interests in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming — and Mexico.

Mexico, of course, has been the focus of much of Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric. A water-use agreement that expires in December 2017 lets Mexico “store” water at Lake Mead — helping keep the water level above the point that would trigger cuts to Arizona’s and Nevada’s water allotment. A continuing 16-year drought offers little in the way of optimism that water will suddenly become more abundant.

As a headwaters state, Colorado controls its water destiny far more firmly than the downsteam states. Even so, it’s pressed to figure out how to serve nearly double today’s population by 2050 without drying up valuable farmland in the process.

Colorado has finalized a state water plan that calls for increased conservation and additional water storage. Two state lawmakers are pressing for consideration of a reservoir on the White River at Wolf Creek in Rio Blanco County. Water projects could require $20 billion in spending by 2050 — two-thirds of which will come from the rates that water service providers charge customers.

The point here is that water carries a cost in Colorado that could affect development, its economic profile and even population growth. And the most we’ve heard from either candidate on the topic is that Trump wants “crystal clear, crystal clean” water as a condition of his support for hydraulic fracturing. He’s spent more time expressing skepticism of Colorado’s all mail-ballot system than addressing our most important resource.

In the West, when you touch water, you touch everything. It’s a nonpartisan issue the rest of the country may not understand. But our presidential candidates certainly should.


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