The fight for water: Can the mighty Mississippi save the West?

Published: Sunday, May 13 2012 6:00 p.m. MDT

No more straws

Environmental groups protective of the Colorado River assert the first thing to go ought to be any additional straws in the river and its tributaries such as large-scale diversions that would reduce its flows even more.

"The Colorado River doesn't have anything left to give," said John Weisheit, conservation director of Moab-based Living Rivers. He said proposed diversions such as water for a planned nuclear power plant in Emery County, the Lake Powell Pipeline or a potash operation outside Arches National Park are banking on a water supply that isn't sustainable, he said.

"Projects like those are courting disaster," he said, and should be scrapped.

The bureau claims it is no longer practical for the Colorado River to serve as the single drink of choice for its thirsty dependents in seven states, and alternatives should be aggressively pursued.

"We are going to have to figure out ways to deal with continued growth in the face of limited water supplies," Trueman said. "You can't just build dams when there is no water to store and on the Colorado, those are pretty thoroughly developed."

The Colorado River basin states commissioned a study released in 2008 detailing the viability of  importing water from adjacent drainage basins to bolster supplies of the Colorado River.

The idea is to take water where it is plentiful and move it to places where it is not.

One of four concepts explored in the Black & Veatch study done by consulting engineers  was to divert water from the Bear River downstream from Smith's Fork near the Utah-Wyoming border and move it to the basin of the Green River, a tributary of the Colorado River.  Under one scenario, as much as 50,000 acre-feet of water could be delivered in just shy of a year.

The study concedes the mountain of hurdles that would have to be overcome — including environmental reviews, project costs and working through the complex set of interstate agreements on who owns what water and where. Its premise, however, was not to start out with what could not be done, but where excess water is available, and how to get to it.

That is where the Mississippi River could prove to be the salvation for the seven basin states in the quest for life-giving, city-growing, farm-sustaining water.

The mighty Mississippi

In the Mississippi River scenario, 675,000 acre-feet of water would be diverted from the nation's largest river downstream of where it meets up with the Ohio River. From there, the water would be conveyed via tunnel, canal and a monstrous pipe 775 miles long and 144 inches in diameter to dump into the Navajo River in southwestern Colorado.

The Navajo would then deliver that water to the San Juan River, a tributary of the Colorado River, for use by agricultural users in Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. Those users would then be taken off the Colorado system and the savings in water would flow downstream to other cities that need to grow in the future.

Ludicrous? Not to Mulroy and others staring straight into the bottom of a dry water barrel.

"Well, you know a lot of people laugh about that," she said. "But you have to remember that Hoover Dam was built as a flood control project. And one man's flood control project is another man's water supply."

The Mississippi has a storied history of flooding — in 1927, in 1937 and in 1973. Then came last year, when seven states were awash and 130,000 acres of farmland were deliberately inundated to save a town.

Mulroy said there are lessons to be learned, and more importantly, that the excess water could come to the basin states.

"Why can't it fuel fields farther to the west. … Why can't we put that water to beneficial use?" she questioned. "It would make far more sense to capture that and begin to put it to use where it is needed here in this country."

As the bureau works through the proposals and completes its analysis in the coming months, nothing is out of reach as it approaches the caretaking of the Colorado River much like a nutritionist might.

If the river is already anemic, does it make sense to cut away more precious acre-feet of water it needs to sustain what is already here? Or is it possible to build up the health of the river through massive conservation efforts, and bring in friends like the Mississippi, Snake or Bear rivers to conduct an intervention?

Massive, money-draining projects aren't out of the question if it means water still flows through the Colorado basin, but it depends on the price willing to be paid for water out of the tap, for a lifestyle in the arid West, for the desire to keep fields growing, Strong said.

"Some of these big pipeline systems will require you spend that kind of money to move water to where the people are," Strong said, "but a lot will depend on our appetite and foresight."

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

Read more: Lake Powell Pipeline: Albatross or golden goose?

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16

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