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May, 2013, Page 24
A new study warns of serious water shortages on the Colorado River. Will turning off the tap help, or are more extreme measures in store?
October 13, 1893.
One-armed explorer John Wesley Powell strides onto the stage at the National Irrigation Congress in Los Angeles, to the swelling sounds of a choir praising “plenty’s horn.” Years before, Powell had been asked to map the uncharted Colorado River Basin and assess the river’s capability of sustaining Western development – a perilous 1,000-mile paddle involving the first known passage through the Grand Canyon.
Everyone expects the national hero to add his ringing verse to the go-go jingoism of the Gay Nineties, like that of Irrigation Congress founder William E. Smythe, who famously declared, “When Uncle Sam puts his hand to a task, we know it will be done. When he waves his hand toward the desert and says, ‘Let there be water,’ we know that the stream will obey his command.”
Instead, the audience gets a splash of cold water. “Gentlemen,” Powell begins, “it may be unpleasant for me to give you these facts. I hesitated a good deal but finally concluded to do so. I tell you, gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation of water rights. For there is not sufficient water to supply the land.” He is booed off stage.
December 12, 2012.
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar holds a teleconference about the Bureau of Reclamation’s first-of-its-kind study of the Colorado River Basin. When he announces the findings, it is as if Powell is speaking from the grave: There will not be sufficient water in the Colorado River during the next 50 years to supply the land. By 2060, the water deficiency could be more than 3.2 million acre-feet annually – the amount of water 3.2 million households use every year.
“We are in a troubling trajectory in the Colorado River basin,” Salazar says. “We need to reduce our demand. We also need to look at increasing our water supply through practical, doable, common sense measures.”
This time, there is no booing. The country had already seen Powell’s predictions come true: the low-water marks on the lakes, the disappeared delta, the “heritage of conflict and litigation of water rights.” This time, the forecasting of water shortages is not an inconvenient truth but, as Salazar says, “a call to action.”
The Colorado River
springs to life from snowmelt in the Never Summer Mountains northwest of Denver, then races through the Rockies. Almost immediately, much of the water is yanked away by the man-made Grand Ditch and sent to quench the Front Range Urban Corridor of Colorado and Wyoming. The remainder moseys south through the Kawuneeche Valley to the Colorado Big Thompson Project, where it’s pumped and jostled through multiple reservoirs and aqueducts that carry away part of the flow to meet the needs of about 800,000 Coloradans. The rest of the river treks west, past tributaries like the Fraser and Roaring Fork rivers, which would contribute more water to the greater current were they not dammed themselves. When the river reaches the Grand Valley Diversion Dam, more of it is sent to work irrigating the farms of western Colorado’s fruitful Grand Valley.
The Colorado continues southwest, where it meets its first major tributary, the Gunnison, itself weakened by eight dams. The river then crosses into Utah, gets recharged a bit by the Dolores River (dammed thrice) and meanders through Canyonlands National Park. There, its ruddy rapids clash with the pea soup flows of the Green River, and it tosses kayakers as it tumbles through Cataract Canyon. It calms as it plunges into Lake Powell, created when Grand Canyon-lookalike Glen Canyon was flooded by Glen Canyon Dam. Here, the river begins to reveal signs of diminishing: The rusty rocks are striped with a tall, white “bathtub ring” – the ghost of liquid past. After plodding through the dam, which helps provide hydroelectricity to about 5.8 million people, the river dashes and drifts through its most famous offspring, the Grand Canyon. Then it enters Lake Mead – also white-striped, a bit cotton-mouthed – which stores water for Southern California, Arizona, and Mexico, and sends water to the shower heads and fountains of Las Vegas.
The river generates hydroelectric power at Hoover Dam, then journeys down bone-dry western Arizona before slamming into a series of dams – Davis Dam, Parker Dam, Headgate Rock Dam, Palo Verde Diversion Dam, Senator Wash Dam, Imperial Dam, Laguna Dam, Morelos Dam – each sucking it drier as it shambles southward.
Finally, after enduring a 1,450-mile journey and more than 100 dams in its basin, the Colorado River crawls across the puzzle-cracked mudflats of northern Mexico toward its rightful destination, the Sea of Cortez. Parched, emaciated and choked with dust, it stretches its withered hand toward the ocean, but, 90 miles short of it, dies.
The Colorado River hasn’t reached the sea since the late 1990s. “What once was probably one of the eight wonders of the world – the immense and diverse Colorado River Delta – is no more,” says Pat Graham, Arizona state director of the Nature Conservancy.
In 1922, environmentalist writer Aldo Leopold explored the Colorado River Delta by canoe. In those days, the estuary rippled and flowed across almost 3,000 square miles. Leopold describes the journey in an essay called The Green Lagoons: “On the map the Delta was bisected by the river, but in fact the river was nowhere and everywhere, for he could not decide which of a hundred green lagoons offered the most pleasant and least speedy path to the gulf... The still waters were of a deep emerald hue... A verdant wall of mesquite and willow separated the channel from the thorny desert beyond. At each bend we saw egrets standing in the pools ahead, each white statue matched by its white reflection.”
But 1922 was a life-altering year for the river. The Colorado River Compact was signed, sluicing its water between the seven basin states – Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California – plus Mexico. At the time, the Reclamation Service estimated the Colorado’s average annual flow to be 17.5 million acre-feet, so they divvied up the water accordingly. The so-called Upper Basin states would get 7.5 million acre-feet, the Lower Basin States would get 8.5 million, and Mexico would get 1.5 million. This might have worked out swimmingly (population booms, dam-mania, and global warming notwithstanding) if the average annual flows had actually been 17.5 million acre-feet. However, scientists have since discovered that 1922 was part of an unusually wet period and that the river now averages about 14.7 million acre-feet annually. “So when everybody is fully utilizing their allocation, there wouldn’t be enough water,” Graham says.
Fulfilling Powell’s prediction, over the decades the Colorado River became “the most dammed, dibbed and diverted river basin in the world,” according to the 2012 documentary
. The river provides water to about 33 million people for municipal use, and about 70 percent of it goes to irrigate 4 million acres of agricultural land. It’s the umbilical cord of 11 national parks, seven national wildlife refuges, and four national recreation areas. Hydropower facilities along its course produce more than 4,200 megawatts of generating capacity. Every year, more than 57 billion gallons of its water are tapped for fossil fuel extraction and processing, and that number is expected to double in the near future, according to
. In many ways, the river serves the entire country. During winter, Yuma-area farms furnish 90-plus percent of the nation’s leafy vegetables, meaning that a New Yorker who orders Cobb salad in January bites into iceberg lettuce that bursts with Colorado River water. If you drink California milk, sip Colorado beer, or wear U.S.-made cotton T-shirts, you probably have the Colorado River to thank.
So despite the fact that the Bureau of Reclamation’s 2012 study was the first of its kind – corralling a more diverse group of governmental, environmental, and private stakeholders than other studies, plus factoring in population growth and climate change estimates – the prognosis of water shortages was not unexpected. Powell had suggested the Colorado could sustain pockets of pioneers and frugal farmers. But according to the study, as many as 76.5 million people could be depending on the river by 2060. Climate change will raise temperatures, increasing evaporation and replacing some Rocky Mountain snow (which provides 75 percent of the river’s water) with rain, which doesn’t release water at the right time to adequately fill the reservoirs, Graham says. The study projects perhaps a 10 percent decline in river water. But there are numerous variables – not to mention rivers – within the basin, so pinpointing exactly how a water shortage of 3.2 million acre-feet (more than 1 trillion gallons) will impact Arizona is difficult to determine.
“One part of the system may be experiencing shortages where another has guaranteed legal rights to water,” Graham explains. “So the impacts will not be felt evenly... Basically what’s going to happen is the water supplies that we have appropriated now will over the next 20 to 30 years be used up. And if there’s a declining availability of water due to extended droughts and warming of the climate down here, then we’re going to have less water to work with. It sort of depends on how much we grow and how rapidly the climate changes… Based on the numbers I’ve seen, we’re probably out there 30 years or so in the Phoenix metro area, but there will be areas within the basin that will reach a stress point much, much sooner than that.”
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