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My view: Protect the Colorado River from drying up

By Sarah Sidwell

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 31 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

The Colorado River is drying up.

It first became noticeable in 1998, a high water year and three years before the start of the current drought, when the river no longer reached the sea. By last year, Lake Mead was at 42 percent capacity, Lake Powell's "bathtub ring" was all too familiar and despite the tremendous 2011 runoff, these two reservoirs are not showing signs of sustained recovery.

The problem is there are just too many straws in the river sucking it dry.

The main directive for distribution of Colorado River water is the 1922 Colorado River Compact, created to allocate water to everyone from energy production to agriculture to municipalities (the River sends water to the taps of 30 million Americans and irrigates 3 million acres of farmland).

In 1922, the abundance of river recreation and river related activities that bring revenue to businesses and towns today didn't exist. As a result, the measured flows which defined the Compact have proved to be unsustainable, and we currently have an over-allocation of the water in the Colorado River Basin — a scenario where the Colorado River is more rapidly receding up the river bed.

Now, in a first ever Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, the Bureau of Reclamation just released the first part outlining past flow versus use and projecting it 50 years into the future with different scenarios. Next comes the recommendations phase of the study, which is why I recently traveled to Washington D.C. with a small group of colleagues from the Basin States as a representative for a grass roots organization called Protect the Flows.

Protect the Flows is comprised of small businesses from Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, California and Utah who directly depend on the river for their livelihood. They are a diverse mix of rafting outfitters and guides, motels, fishing and birding guides, outdoor retailers, wineries, restaurants, chambers and other businesses.

Protect the Flows advocates a policy that keeps revenue flowing into local economies by keeping enough water in the river and its tributaries to support the recreation experiences that attract volumes of outdoor enthusiasts and tourists.

Healthy flowing rivers are among the main reasons people flock to America's great outdoors, resulting in a robust multi-billion dollar recreation economy. In Utah alone active outdoor recreation contributes $5.8 billion annually to its economy and supports 65,000 jobs across the state.

Protect the Flows asks that the Bureau of Reclamation assessment go beyond the traditional consumption issues and pay attention to the health and sustainability of the river itself. We want to make sure of two things: First, when the basin study team makes calculations to measure water demands on the River, recreation and tourism must be factored in; and second, the study needs to establish an adequate value for defining a healthy flow.

These pieces are critical for the environmental integrity of the River as well as the economic prosperity of the region. Should the final supply and demand report fail in this regard, the study will be a stunning lost opportunity and represent a threat to the future viability of our businesses.

Our basic message connecting river flows with local economics along with a formal letter signed by an impressive 254 businesses across the Basin States voicing how important having a healthy river is to all of us was what we presented to congressional leaders in Washington.

We were fortunate to meet with Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Anne Castle, Assistant Secretary for Water and Science, and staff advisors from the offices of Rep. Jim Matheson and several other western state's senators and representatives. It was encouraging to have these leaders who are keenly interested in conservation values make the connection to recreation and tourism impacts and, ultimately, to the economic future of Utah and the West.

However, our job is not done. We encourage you to find out more about these issues and Protect the Flows.

Sarah Sidwell is a sales director and guide at Tag-A-Long Expeditions in Moab, Utah.

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