WASHINGTON, D.C. — The most comprehensive study of its kind paints a grim reality for the shrinking Colorado River system that supports 40 million people in seven Western states. And neither an iceberg from the arctic nor a pipeline from the Mississippi River are real options to solve the problem that will impact Utahns for decades to come.
Over the next 50 years, droughts lasting five years or longer will occur 50 percent of the time in a region that is expected to double in population and is home to states like California — in the top five for growth in the country — and Arizona and Colorado, ranked in the Top 10.
That growing demand on the Colorado River will outpace its available water by 3.2 million acre-feet by the year 2060, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation study released Wednesday, and there's no single "silver bullet" solution to the problem, said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in a teleconference.
"We all know that water is the lifeblood of our community and nowhere is it more true than the Colorado River basin," Salazar said.
Some of the fantastic and grand schemes previously previewed that could infuse the basin with new sources of water were panned by the three-year study, which included the receipt of nearly 160 proposals to help stave off shortages.
Towing an iceberg from Alaska to Southern California, for example, is off the table, getting an A grade for water quality, but flunking in the arenas of public policy, long-term viability, implementation and cost.
"There are water import solutions that are impractical from a political and technically feasible point of view," he said.
Big ticket diversions like taking water from the Missouri or Mississippi rivers and piping it to the basin states were also rejected as over-costly, politically unpalatable, and an environmental nightmare that would have to survive a labyrinth of permitting hurdles.
Salazar noted that other proposed diversions from the Snake, Bear and Yellowstone rivers to boost the Green River's flows are flawed as well, dousing any momentum that may have been building for the controversial "Million" pipeline touted to convey water across the Continental Divide to the Front Range of Colorado.
Supply and demand
The study, undertaken in January of 2010, looked at the historical flows of the Colorado River, acknowledging that the amount of water and fluctuations in demand are "highly uncertain" over the next 50 years, variability which is compounded by the threat of climate change.
"There is a recognition that water supply demand is going to grow and we are also going to see a decline in the water supply in the Colorado River Basin, all the scientists are telling us this," Salazar said.
The report, which is open for comment for the next 90 days, was funded by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the seven basin states, including Utah. It was released on the kick-off day of an annual conference of Colorado River water users who are meeting in Las Vegas to discuss the report and challenges to the river.
Deliveries of water to customers have come up short recently in some of the Lower Basin states of California, Nevada and Arizona and the report notes that the trio of states already have demand for Colorado River that exceeds the 7.5 million acre-feet they are allocated under an inter-state agreement.
That puts pressure on the four Upper Basin states of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming, which have a contractual obligation to deliver a set amount of water to that region.
"Shortages in the Upper Basin are a reality today," the report said. "Unlike the Lower Basin, which draws its supply from storage in Lake Mead, the Upper Basin is more dependent on stream flow to meet its needs."
The report concedes the need for the Upper Basin to fully develop its share of the Colorado River, but development of that water further exacerbates the uncertainty surrounding supplies in the future.
Farm land has already been rendered fallow so water can be transferred for urban use, the report said, but that practice has decreased food and fiber production in the Colorado River basin, which adds another layer to the problem.
Problems to solve
"This report lays bare two things. First, we are in a troubling trajectory as a result of population growth," Salazar said. "Second, with the reality of a changing climate, we are going to be putting ever increasing demands on the Colorado River Basin."
The report notes that a combination of options will have to be embraced to curtail the impacts of future shortages, such as conservation and reuse, development of local groundwater supplies, desalination, augmentation and transferring water from agricultural to municipal use.
Salazar noted that desalination is an avenue that has proven successful in reality in places like Yuma, Ariz., at a desalting plant that treats groundwater containing saline.
The report did note that implementation of practices like water conservation and water re-use requires "significant additional efforts," that need to be undertaken immediately, a statement seized on by multiple river advocacy and environmental organizations.
"We support modern river management options that allow us to live within our means rather than taking water from another part of the country," said Taylor Hawes, Colorado River program director with The Nature Conservancy.
"We recognize that we must meet growing water demand needs, but we need to do so in a way that works for cities, agriculture, industry and nature."
Scott Yates, executive director of Trout Unlimited's Western Water Project, said the organization's partnership with farmers and ranchers along key Colorado River tributaries has revealed shorter winters, earlier runoff, hotter temperatures and decreased stream flows in late summer, when crops and fish are the most needy and vulnerable.
"In some respects, the study confirms what many of us are seeing on the ground — drought and changing climate are pressuring our Western rivers as never before."
Trout Unlimited's Dave Glenn, who grew up near Green River, Utah, said the group wants to continue to work with the bureau and other stakeholders to find "pragmatic solutions," but not on those projects that jeopardize high-value fisheries and wildlife habitat. Farming, too, can't be laid on the sacrificial alter as ways to shore up supplies are explored, he said.
"Cities can't meet their water needs on the backs of rural areas, drying up special places like the Green River, and potentially destroying fishing and hunting opportunities."
Some organizations, including Protect The Flows and Save The Colorado, criticized the study, saying the federal government relied on inflated state and utility-provided numbers on population growth to pursue the feasibility of importing water from other regions.
Utah's director of water sources, Dennis Strong, said the study amplifies the need to embrace regional solutions to a growing crisis that demands attention. The next step for the bureau is to host an extensive workshop in January, culling reaction from water managers, conservation organizations and policy makers who have reviewed the report.
"The basin study is a well-thought out summary of water supply and water need in the Colorado River Basin. It is a call to action," he said. "It tells us there are opportunities to enhance and stretch the river's supply, but that ultimately the solution to our growing water need is bigger than the Colorado River."
Why care about the Colorado River?7 comments on this story
Spanning seven states, the Colorado River is one of the most critical supplies of water in the Western United States and Mexico. Based on data observed over the past century, the consensus among regional water managers, scientists and hydrologists is that it is already over-used with population growth and climate change expected to put more stress on the system.
Water shortages in the Lower Basin states of Nevada, Arizona and California could result in cutbacks in states like Utah, which could affect what you pay at the tap. As cities and towns and public policy makers across the state get faced with the hard question of how much water can be saved with aggressive no-use or less use, that impacts how much a community can grow, and how much it costs to live.