The fight for water: Here's why the West's oldest battle could hit you at the tap

Published: Saturday, May 12 2012 1:00 p.m. MDT

Aerial photo of goosenecks on the Colorado River above Cataract Canyon in southern Utah, July 28, 2008.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series on the impacts of the West's shrinking water supply and the costly battle to find solutions.

Related list: Dam locations that comprise the Colorado River Basin area

LAS VEGAS, Nev. — The West is running out of water.

Its lifeblood, the Colorado River, is being hemorrhaged by cities, by farms and ranches, by power plants and by the more than 30 million people who depend on its water in the United States and another 6 million people in Mexico.

This year's flows are near historic lows with runoff about a third of average, pushing the seven states that share the river toward another year of drought. But those stresses are trumped by dire predictions from the agency managing the Colorado River system, forecasting demand far outstripping supply during the next 50 years, reaching crisis levels within two decades.

It reveals a coming tug-of-war over water resources that may pit Utah against other states in the fight for new development, jobs, housing and force an answer to one of the West's most enduring questions: Who is entitled to the water?

The answer will determine just how much it will cost you to turn on your tap at home or what type of lawn or garden you can have. And the answer is hidden within an expansive, multibillion-dollar effort being waged to keep the river flowing.

"There are no innocent parties," said Nevada's Pat Mulroy, who manages a water-delivery system for more than two thirds of her state's residents. "No one on the river has the luxury of doing nothing."

The reason? Colorado River flows are shrinking.

Dealing with drought

Even before drought gripped the river system beginning in 2000, a nearly three-decade look at data shows the combination of water use and loss in the Colorado River increased 23 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Think of it as a 23 percent increase in stress on the river system.

The bureau is shepherding a supply-demand study to be released in July that says residents of Utah and the other six basin states should expect droughts lasting five years or more 40 percent of the time over the next 50 years. 

A warmer, more volatile climate will mean a drier Colorado River basin overall, with more water lost from the ground through evaporation and transpiration by plants; less snowfall; but more rainfall, which behaves differently in terms of shaping water supply.

As the Colorado River shrinks, so do personal choices of where to live, where to work, and how to navigate life in the West.

Communities may no longer grow. Cities and towns risk catastrophic fire because there's not enough water to extinguish blazes. Lawns are relegated as a luxury for the rich.

Across the vistas of the rural West, farms could become idle, brown and barren as irrigation water gives way to homes. Energy projects that grow jobs but use water could be threatened or eliminated. A flourishing recreation industry dependent on the Colorado River and its tributaries could dry up and no longer funnel $26 billion a year into the economies of the basin states or provide tourism or recreation jobs for a quarter of a million people.

Ensuring the availability of water is among Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's highest priorities.

"It is the only limiting factor to growth in Utah," the governor said. "We're going to have to worry about loss of flow and less capacity and volume in the river."

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