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

Politically, agricultural production occupies a lower rung on the ladder of priorities,  subjugated to the thirst of burgeoning populations and the need to keep water flowing for public safety purposes. Utah signed into law just a few years ago the mandate that fields will dry up in a natural disaster so faucets in homes will keep running and hydrants will continue to unleash water to fight fires.

Farming has become more efficient over the years, even as crops have given way to new homes and that water has been converted for urban use.

Randy Parker, chief executive officer of the Utah Farm Bureau, said crop and livestock production is happening at a much more efficient rate than 60 or 70 years ago, achieving greater yields with less land and less water. But less water doesn't mean no water.

"Our leaders plan for the next earthquake because it is inevitable. Is this something our folks are going to have to take a hard look at? Our folks better, or we are headed for a crash."

Mulroy said idling farms isn't the answer because food security is paramount, but the irrigation of crops and pastures must become even more efficient and priorities have to shift.

She pointed to a massive, $300 million venture in Southern California to line the All American Canal for 23 miles to save 65,000 acre-feet of water for urban use. The joint project by the San Diego Water Authority and Imperial Irrigation District, she said, "hasn't changed one acre of farm production," in terms of water efficiency.

But that delicate balancing act — keeping the water flowing to irrigate nearly 4 million acres of land in the Colorado River basin states and meeting the other needs of the population — is getting increasingly difficult to achieve.

"There's a lot of competition for that Colorado River water, more needs than what can be met," Strong said.

In fact, a recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that by the year 2070, the water sharing arrangement for the Colorado River will only be fulfilled 60 percent of the time.

Representatives of all states agree that the Colorado River Compact crafted 90 years ago was inherently flawed because it overestimated the amount of water in the river, drawing on numbers when the river was unusually flush.

Kent Jones, Utah state engineer over water rights, said applications approved over time to water in the Colorado exceed what has been allocated to Utah.

If the water sharing arrangement is ever revisited, Jones said he'd be concerned because of how Utah might fare.

"There are states that need more water than they have a right to, so they think the water should be reallocated. I think every state would say they need more water," Jones said, "but physically it's not there. It is a very limited resource and we are going to have to live within the limits of what that resource provides." 

A stream of pressure

Threats on multiple fronts to the 1,450-mile river are providing a constant stream of pressure and challenges to water managers in the basin states: population growth, climate change, energy and mining development and invasive species are just a few.

The U.S. Census predicts an average of a 53 percent increase in population growth in the seven states by 2030 and climate change portends less water available overall in the Colorado River, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Its study predicts a 20 percent decrease in runoff to the river by the end of this century due to warmer temperatures and an earlier spring runoff that shortens the duration of snowpack accumulation. Earlier than usual runoffs pose particular problems for water managers, reducing the ability to store water, especially for late summer and fall use.

By 2050, the study warns that the increase in warming alone is likely to dry up soil to pose conditions more severe than the conditions during the nation's most extreme droughts, including the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

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