By HANNAH HOLM
In recent weeks, various national and regional news outlets have taken a big interest in our little river. The New York Times, Politico, Arizona Republic and, last summer, the Washington Post, have run major stories on the Colorado River. They all have different angles, but the common thread is that more has been promised from the river than it can deliver, and what it can deliver keeps shrinking.
This is not exactly breaking news to people who live here and have been paying attention. The interesting questions are how the water situation will further evolve in the near future, and how people are responding to the chronic problem.
On the current water situation, the picture doesn’t look good. Last year’s decent snowpack was turned into a paltry runoff by parched soils and a hot, dry summer, and the water content of western Colorado’s mountain snowpack is currently at only about 70-80% of average for this time of year.
On how people are responding, the high-profile news stories highlight some interesting developments. The Jan. 3, 2021 New York Time article “Wall Street Eyes Billions in the Colorado’s Water,” opens with the jarring statement that there’s plenty of water in the West, but “It is just in the wrong places.” It’s jarring because the article makes it clear that agricultural valleys like ours are among the “wrong places,” the Phoenix suburbs are among the “right ones,” and private investors are eager to profit by moving water from one to the other.
The phenomenon of private investments in western water, including here in the Grand Valley, was covered with more nuance and detail for our area by KUNC and Aspen Journalism, in their jointly produced May 29 feature, “Western Colorado water purchases stir up worries about the future of farming.”
Both articles introduce the role that “demand management,” via paying irrigators to temporarily fallow land, could play in proactively balancing supply and demand on the Colorado River. How to accomplish this without overburdening rural communities, and whether it is even worth trying, has been the subject of extensive debate in Colorado over the past two years, as covered in the Nov. 30 Sentinel article, “Water officials working on draft of demand management concept.” The bottom line, in my view, is that paying irrigators for temporary reductions in water use could be an important tool to avoid a crisis on the river, but the details of how it is organized matter a lot, and letting the market rip is unlikely to lead to the best outcomes for places like the Grand Valley.
Politico took a more sympathetic view toward irrigated agriculture than the New York Times in an in-depth, Dec. 4 profile of Grand County rancher and fishing guide Paul Bruchez (“The Rancher Trying to Solve the West’s Water Crisis”), who has led collaborative river restoration projects to benefit both fish and ranchers. As was also reported by Water Education Colorado’s Fresh Water News on Oct. 7 (“These hayfields may know something we don’t: how to save the Colorado River”), Bruchez is currently working with researchers to study how demand management could work on high-altitude hay fields, where ranchers are concerned about impacts of fallowing on perennial grasses. The study will assess those impacts and fill data gaps on how much water is actually used by high-altitude hay crops, and therefor how much could be saved by fallowing or otherwise reducing irrigation.
Bruchez and many other prominent western Colorado voices were also featured in a sweeping Arizona Republic article on how “Climate change is hitting the Colorado River incredibly fast and incredibly hard.” Climate change impacts to the river were also the focus of “2°C: Beyond the Limit — the giant climate hot spot is robbing the West of its water” in the Washington Post, published Aug. 7, which quoted farmers and irrigation managers in the Delta and Grand Junction areas.
Basinwide, the states that share the river are about to initiate new negotiations on how to manage it, as touched on in the Arizona Republic and New York Times articles, as well as the Nov. 5 Sentinel article “River managers turn eye to new Powell-Mead deal.”
There’s a good reason our little river has drawn so much attention from far-away reporters. Nearly 40 million people rely on the Colorado River and its tributaries — many more if you count the consumers of crops grown with its waters. And it is getting hammered by warming temperatures. Additional attention to the problem brought by national news coverage will hopefully draw more resources to addressing it. And it’s kind of exciting to feel like we’re famous. However, the best resources for staying up-to-date on what’s happening on the river and what it means for us locally are the reporters who cover the river, and our part of it, as part of their regular beat. As noted above, they often provide the same information earlier, as well as more often and in greater depth, than the national outlets.
Hannah Holm directs the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University, which promotes research, education and dialogue to address the water issues facing the Upper Colorado River Basin. Support for Hutchins Water Center articles is provided by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. You can learn more about the center at http://www.coloradomesa.edu/water-center.