The Guessing Game
Could you guess which major American river basin irrigates nearly four million acres of land and waters fifteen percent of the nation’s crops? Here’s a clue: it buoys a recreation economy of up to $26 billion annually. It also provides water to somewhere between 35 and 40 million people. And its name has neither crooked letters nor humpbacks.
Another hint: if you live in Albuquerque or Santa Fe, you drink its water, but it’s not the Rio Grande. This river and its tributaries all told supply water to seven states and cities such as Denver, Colorado Springs, Boulder, Cheyenne, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Diego, even though few of these are in the river basin or near the river itself.
If you put your finger on the Colorado River, you’re right. The Colorado is, without hyperbole, the carotid artery of the Southwest—and it’s in trouble. Such far-flung use of the river’s water has put it atop the American Rivers organization’s 2013 Most Endangered Rivers list, released in April. (The Colorado also topped the list in 1991 and 2004, and made the cut four other times.) The non-profit highlights outdated water management as the number one threat to the Colorado, also noting that demand on the river’s water now exceeds supply.
That demand cannot be overstated—the Colorado is one of the most controlled and plumbed rivers in the world. Just to give a taste of the myriad projects that suckle from the river basin:
• Several enormous reservoirs hold dammed-up river water. America’s two largest man-made reservoirs by capacity—and two of the best-known—are on the Colorado itself: Lake Powell, in Utah and Arizona, and Lake Mead, further downriver in Arizona and Nevada.
• The Central Arizona Project, or CAP, diverts Colorado River water from Lake Mead toward Tucson and Phoenix. It consists of more than 300 miles of canals and underground pipelines to provide municipal and agricultural water to Arizona.
• Closer to home, we have the San Juan-Chama Project, which uses a series of diversions and tunnels to transfer water from the San Juan (a major tributary of the Colorado) to the Rio Grande basin. Albuquerque and Santa Fe are among the beneficiaries of this project.
• The Colorado-Big Thompson project is one of many that delivers water to Colorado’s eastern Front Range from its Western Slope. This one pulls directly from the headwaters of the Colorado River and sends it through a cross-Continental Divide tunnel. Fort Collins and several other communities rely on this project for drinking water.
Demand on the river’s water will only swell. The population dependent on the Colorado River is projected to double by 2060. As that happens, the disparity between demand and resources may widen to 3.2 million acre feet per year. (An acre-foot of water is roughly enough to flood a football field one foot deep. It can support anywhere from one to four families for a year, depending on use.)
For now, storage in Lake Powell, Lake Mead, and other reservoirs mitigates the gap in supply and demand. At capacity, canals and reservoirs on the river hold four years’ worth of flow. But Lake Powell is at its lowest point in years, and Lake Mead is currently sloshing at only half capacity. Even with average precipitation for the next year, levels in the lake will near the first shortage trigger in 2014.
Whether or not there’s enough water in the basin to divvy, the 1922 Colorado River Compact doles it out stateside. The Compact provides equal shares to the Upper Basin states (New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming) and the Lower Basin states (Arizona, California, Nevada). The Compact presumes a flow of 15 million acre feet per year at Lee’s Ferry, Arizona, the traditional border between the Upper and Lower Basins. But this division hits several snags.
For one, the Upper Basin does not regularly use its full entitlement. The Lower Basin has consequently capitalized on more than its allotted share as it continues to grow. Furthermore, the river’s actual flow is less than it once was. The last quarter century has seen an average flow of only 13.4 million acre feet per year. However you pour it, not all seven states in the river basin can claim their due.
Colorado River issues are further complicated because it isn’t just a United States river. Mexico must get its share of the water, too. Under a 1944 treaty, our neighbor is guaranteed about 10% of the annual river flow. A 2012 amendment to the treaty calls for, among other changes, more water-sharing between the U.S. and Mexico, which includes sharing the effects of both surpluses and shortages.
Mexico gets its portion of the water through developed channels because, for all practical purposes, the river ends when it reaches the Morelos Dam at the border. The river used to run through Mexico to the Gulf of California with enough water for dolphins to swim upstream. Now, unless a Rocky Mountain winter melts into more spring and summer runoff than the river system’s reservoirs and canals can handle, no water goes down the Mexican stretch of the riparian corridor. None has for the last fifteen years.
It all evaporates down to this: surging populations in seven western states and Mexico rely on a river basin with less water than ever. You can probably guess that, in order to thrive—let alone survive—we must improve our water management strategies.
The Long Game
In these low-flow times, Denver provides a relatively good-case scenario of contemporary urban and suburban water management. Denver Water has taken on ten percent more customers than it had before the drought in 2002, and yet it uses twenty percent less water. The water utility’s goal is to reduce per capita water use to 165 gallons per day by 2016—and that includes residential, commercial, industrial, and institutional use. It’s already down to 168. Current recycled water distribution frees up enough drinking water for approximately 15,000 households, and these systems are still in progress. Once complete, they’ll free up enough to serve three times as many. All these numbers are for regular use conditions; they do not even factor in Denver Water’s current drought conditions, with mandatory restrictions on the usual list of nonessential culprits.
Still, Denver Water projects a water shortfall by 2030, even after factoring in additional conservation. Current conservation efforts alone are not enough to keep Denver’s population watered. The city already supplements its sixteen inches of annual precipitation with plentiful reservoir use. To ensure greater supplies for the future, Denver Water hopes to undertake the so-called Moffat Project.
The project would triple the size of Gross Reservoir, which currently holds six percent of Denver Water’s total capacity. The reservoir gets its water via the existing Moffat Tunnel, which sips with a trans-mountain straw much like the Colorado-Big Thompson does. However, if approved, the Moffat Project could draw down native flows in the Fraser River and Williams Fork River basins as much as 75%, further taxing these Colorado-tributary ecosystems in order to provide water to a single metropolitan area. (Supposedly, the Moffat Project would only divert water in years with average or high runoff, in order to store the excess for later.)
Even when a city like Denver takes a more responsible and “diverse” approach to water management, the need for large-scale development like the Moffat Project should provoke serious questions, both philosophical and practical, for all citizens reliant on the Colorado River. Can a major metropolis possibly conserve and recycle enough water for its residents and businesses without resorting to additional development? For all the documented impact of reservoirs on an ecosystem, is their expansion throughout the basin misguided or appropriate? How can such reservoirs store excess water if the basin has no excess water to fill them?
Whether or not the Moffat Project is ideal, at least Denver is thinking ahead when it comes to water supply, which is more than can be said of certain other western and southwestern entities. The Central Arizona Project, for instance, has a better than 1-in-3 chance of having its first-ever water shortage in 2016, yet CAP officials blithely state that they don’t anticipate a water shortage until at least 2017—as if that’s not in the foreseeable future. Despite the chronic low flows of the Colorado River this century being the most severe pattern on record, CAP’s Colorado River programs manager says in a recent Arizona Daily Star article, “Our expectation is that it’s rare to have three really, really bad years in a row.” Sounds like the stance behind Arizona’s water management model is that bad things won’t happen in threes.
This flippant lack of concern embodies the sort of outdated water management approach that put the Colorado River on the endangered list. This drought has been getting comfortable for several years—and still, the same CAP manager voices a prevalent attitude when he says, “That’s how the system works. The system has historically been driven by extreme events.”
Events are still extreme, only our new and drier climate brings with it new realities. Dust storms have already mitigated what blessed snow fell this spring. An April 8 storm—the sixth of the year, and not even the longest of the month—dropped an uncommonly thick layer of dirt on the Colorado snowpack. The dust deposited by these winds darkens the snow, absorbs more solar energy, and quickens runoff. The water pours into the basin too quickly, and the river system loses the hope of a slow, steady, sustained release throughout the year.
Snowpack is the best reservoir in the Colorado River basin. When the snowpack is too thin or melts too quickly, the water levels plummet in Lake Mead and Lake Powell. When those reservoirs drop, Phoenix faces impending shortages. That type of scenario plays out wherever Colorado River water goes, and that’s how the new realities throughout the basin affect the water supplies of tens of millions of people.
Immediate water concerns must alter the long view, because there may never again be enough water to go around. Deviations like sub-par snowpack, dust storms hastening runoff of what snow does fall, and higher temperatures leading to more evaporative loss are the new standard.
The Game of Life
Our attitudes need to shift away from “this drought could end at any time.” We need to count on more dry years than ever. If it turns out we were wrong to do so, and somehow the Southwest ends up with more water than it can manage, then bully for us! Better to be overprepared than to be caught with our pants down and no water to flush with.
To accomplish such a shift, we need to develop new strategies for the new normal.
On that front, the December 2012 Colorado River Basin Water Supply & Demand Study projects twenty four outcomes based on different population growth and climate change scenarios. Unsurprisingly, every single projection forecasts more people and less water over the next half century.
This Bureau of Reclamation study is by no means a decision-making document. Rather, it presents an immense range of possible approaches to increase supply, reduce demand, and modify operations. It then calls on Congress to fund actions in all three of these approaches.
Some of the study’s solutions are downright wacky. How about building a pipeline from the Mississippi River to Colorado’s Front Range? If that’s too far, how about one from the Missouri? Or what about towing icebergs to Southern California? These propositions might sound as sure as offerings from an Acme Corporation catalog, but the study is not wrong to recognize the water shortfalls we face. And it’s not alone. At a cost north of eight hundred million dollars, Nevada is boring a new entrance into the bottom of Lake Mead, just in case the reservoir drops low enough to require it. For those kind of stakes, we should probably bet on the house.
As desperate as our water plight is, real and plausible solutions are within our grasp. That’s the flip side of the Most Endangered Rivers coin; a factor in making the list is whether recognition as an endangered river can influence action in the coming year. The time is ripe for Colorado River rejuvenation, if Congress really will follow the Bureau’s basin study with strong funding for water conservation programs, particularly to increase the efficiency of the water projects already built.
Conservation, recycling, and efficiency are more than just responsible and sustainable actions. They are within our power at all levels, from Congress down to our communities and our individual selves. Of course, limiting restaurant water and hotel laundry service helps. Yet we must also think outside the usual water preservation box. What about eating less water-dependent food? What about reducing beef consumption? Much of our agricultural water (which outstrips municipal water) supports growing grass or corn, and much of those crops goes to feed cattle. As our water diminishes, meat and corn may not be the most sustainable staples of our desert diets.
Water use issues implicate all aspects of American life. Increased awareness and understanding about our water sources, where our water goes, and how its use impacts our wider communities should steer our culture toward more considered stewardship.
Such stewardship does not come easily to us. Our species has evolved, biologically or culturally, to deny our own vulnerability. We find ways to discount the threat of demise, and to rationalize our own safety. We make statements like, “A shooting could never happen in my hometown” and “Next year is bound to be wetter” and “There will always be enough water” and “If we just store more, we’ll never run out.” Often enough, we convince ourselves so well that we fail to take proactive measures. Then tragedies like the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas force us to recognize that disaster can reach anyone, anywhere, anytime. We react, for a little while, until we can convince ourselves once again that such tragedy will never strike closer to home.
Well, guess what? In the entire American Southwest, the Colorado River is as close to home as it gets. For the sake of the Colorado River—which is to say, for the sake of human life in our corner of the world—let’s not wait until disaster really strikes to evaluate our options and make our moves.
(Creative Commons feature image via Flickr by: squeaks2569)