Water rights and the Colorado River

We in western Colorado look east to the Front Range when we try to anticipate the next threat on Colorado water. As Sentinel reporter Dennis Webb made clear on Sunday, however, the West Slope is beset with the clamoring thirst to our west, as well as the east.

The seesaw management of Lake Powell and Lake Mead is intended to insulate Colorado, as well as the other Upper Colorado River Basin states of Utah and Wyoming against the demands of the population centers in Arizona, California and Nevada. The idea is that the upper basin fills Lake Powell, which then releases water into Lake Mead to be used as the lower-basin states see fit.

Not unexpectedly, those states have treated their shares of Colorado River water as though they simply had to turn on a spigot and allow it to run all day.

California, of course, has been especially profligate in that regard, routinely using more than its allotted water established in a 1922 agreement that established how the Colorado River should be managed.

It’s tempting to suggest that Colorado, Utah and Wyoming simply make sure that they collectively deliver the appropriate amount of water to Lee’s Ferry, where the measurements are taken, and watch as the downstream denizens do battle to take the hindmost.

That, however, is a fantasy never to be indulged.

It’s true that we upstream have our own designs on the water that flows out of the Rockies, through the high desert and into the narrow canyons of Utah, but the benefits from sustained economies in Arizona, Nevada and even California run uphill more than we might care to admit.

We all do like our fresh California oranges and grapefruit in January, after all, and few of us will deny the attractions of Las Vegas and Phoenix in the dank misery that so often is February on the Colorado Plateau.

It’s also true that the vast political weight of the nation lies downstream and we tangle with it at our peril.

So we can’t cut ‘em off and we shouldn’t.

But we can insist that the lower basin, California in particular, has yet to do all it can to reduce water demand and augment — yes, increase — its water supply.

While central California has sacrificed much to the thirst of southern California, the same cannot be said of northern California, where multiple efforts to divert water south have withered and died.

More ambitious efforts to desalinate ocean water could go a long way toward resolving the Golden State’s perennial water problems.

Anything that helps slake the thirst of the strip from Santa Barbara to San Diego without Colorado River water has to be good and the upper basin states should do all they can to encourage those measures.


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