5 Actions Needed to Save the Colorado River
Co-authored with Bart Miller, water program director for Western Resource Advocates, and originally published on the Arizona Republic
The majestic Colorado River cuts a 1,450-mile path through the American West before drying up well short of the sea — its natural finish line at the Gulf of California.
Reservoirs once filled to the brim from the Colorado and its tributaries are at historic lows due to an unprecedented drought and growing human demands. Shrunken stream flows now pose serious challenges for wildlife and recreation, as well as cities, farms and others who rely upon the river.
Reports come out every week, pointing to the critical condition of the Colorado River — Lake Mead, the work-horse reservoir for the region, is at a historic low; groundwater supplies for the river’s basin are dramatically shrinking; and Lake Powell water levels are low enough that there is concern the generators that supply enough electricity to power 350,000 homes might be shut down.
Steps currently being taken to improve the situation are not up to the task of bringing the river system back into balance and providing a reliable water supply.
We need bold and powerful measures. Fortunately, we have practical, affordable, common-sense solutions that can be applied today to protect the flow of the river, ensure economic vitality and secure water resources for millions of Americans.
As we look at the specific solutions that can save the Colorado River and our water supply, it helps to know the facts: The demand for water from the Colorado River exceeds the supply.
That shortage could jeopardize the drinking water for 36 million people, our agricultural communities, future economic growth and the $26.4 billion river-based recreational economy, which supports more than 234,000 jobs.
In addition, the river’s imbalance is wreaking havoc on the West’s natural ecosystems, harming world-class fisheries and unique natural wonders.
There is no single solution — or magic infrastructure project — that will produce enough water to overcome the imbalance of supply and demand. Our research shows there are five common-sense solutions that can help improve the health of the Colorado River, grow the economies of the seven basin states and protect essential Western natural habitats:
- Municipal conservation, such as improved landscaping techniques, rebate programs that incentivize water-saving devices and standardized water audits.
- Municipal reuse through gray-water treatment and reuse for irrigation, industrial uses and other purposes.
- Agricultural efficiency and water banking, which are voluntary, compensated improvements in irrigation efficiency and technology, crop shifting and other measures that avoid permanently taking agricultural lands out of production.
- Renewable energy and energy efficiency, including wind, rooftop solar and geothermal energy solutions, and new water-efficient thermoelectric power plants.
- Innovative water opportunities, such as invasive-plant removal, dust-on-snow mitigation and targeted inland desalinization.
When used together, these five solutions can do more than ensure we have enough water; they can actually provide us with a surplus.