'A call to action': Study probing future shortages in the Colorado River released
No 'silver bullet' to solve thirsty West's water problem
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?
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.
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