'A call to action': Study probing future shortages in the Colorado River released

No 'silver bullet' to solve thirsty West's water problem

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 12 2012 6:18 p.m. MST

River rafting down Cataract Canyon in Moab on the Colorado River Monday June 13, 2005.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

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."

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