Securing Future Water For The Colorado River Requires Action Now

Lake Powell, AZ | © Wikipedia

Both Lake Powell and Lake Mead reservoirs are less than 50% full | © Wikipedia

A recent piece in the New York Times “Colorado River Drought Forces a Painful Reckoning for States” (January 6) paints a dire picture of water scarcity in the Colorado basin, a crisis of supply and demand on an almost continental scale. Last year, the federal government released a report concluding that the region is using more water from the Colorado than the river can sustainably supply; much of it exported out of the river basin. The study estimated that there is a looming gap of 3.4 million acre feet between what the region needs and what the Colorado can provide. That’s a shortfall of over 1 trillion gallons.

Increasing demands mean more water than the Colorado River can provide is pulled out of the region’s large storage reservoirs. Both Lake Mead and Lake Powell are less than 50% full. Due to these low water levels, the federal government announced last summer that it must cut deliveries from the upper river to states in the lower basin – the first time this has happened since Glen Canyon Dam was built in the 1960s. The extended drought lasting for more than a decade is compounding the interest on our water debt. In short, the water abundance that enabled this country to reclaim the dry West to grow food and build communities has hit its limits.

The good news is that this water supply challenge can be addressed. We still use water as if it is an abundant resource. In most areas of the basin, a water user risks negative consequences for using water efficiently. Many political, legal and technical roadblocks exist for sharing water in a flexible, proactive fashion. But pockets of efficient water use and flexible water distribution exist across the basin – models of effective solutions that can be disseminated throughout the region. Combining municipal and agricultural conservation, water recycling, and a water bank to increase flexibility in the river system can provide enough water to meet the future water supply gap.

A more efficient water future will result not only in a more secure water supply, but will also provide a boost to the economy. The region’s aging agricultural irrigation systems can be modernized, increasing agricultural productivity while using less water. Efficiency and recycling approaches will enable cities to secure future water supplies without relying on costly and uncertain water import schemes. And meeting the region’s water gap through efficiency and recycling avoids further draining the rivers of the region that support a valuable recreation and tourism industry.

The warnings are clear and the choice for the region’s political leaders and water users is at hand. The West was built by innovative pioneers finding ways to harness the region’s water resources. It is time to harness that pioneering spirit again to transform the West into an efficient water region and protect the Colorado River in the process. The knowledge and technology are available to accomplish this. And it will benefit both the region’s economy and its environmental resources. All that is needed is political will.

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