SALT LAKE CITY — An already over-drained Colorado River further threatened by climate change and victimized by "outdated water management" is the nation's most endangered river, earning the dubious top spot in a new report because of proposed diversions and new dams.
The annual assessment, America's Most Endangered Rivers report, documents 10 rivers confronted by far-reaching public policy decisions in the coming year that could drastically alter their destiny — for better or worse.
American Rivers — a leading national organization working to protect and restore the country's rivers and streams — said it honed in on the Colorado because of its role as a lifeline in the desert, providing the water supply to an estimated 36 million people in seven states, including Utah.
The Colorado River also irrigates 4 million acres of farmland and supports a $26 billion outdoor recreation economy, luring millions of visitors for its fishing, boating and wildlife benefits.
After nearly a century of its water being distributed to the seven basin states, the Colorado River is at a dangerous juncture, noted the report.
"Demand on the river's water now exceeds supply, leaving the river so untapped it no longer flows to the sea. A century of water management policies and practices that have promoted wasteful water use have put the river at a critical crossroads," the report said.
The report points to the unprecedented analysis in the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's 2012 study that projected supply and demand over the next 50 years, concluding that a "do-nothing" water management approach will have consumption far outstripping available supplies.
American Rivers' Matt Niemerski said that proposed diversions from the Colorado River need to be weighed against how the future may look in the face of a further ravaged Colorado River.
"The Colorado River system will break because what we are doing is compounding the interest on our water debt," he said.
The Utah Rivers Council said many of those proposed diversions and new dams are threats that come from Utah — from the Lake Powell Pipeline in southern Utah to water use planned for a proposed nuclear power plant outside of Green River.
Niemerski, who is director of Western water policy for American Rivers, agreed that Utah's "threats" to the system are part of the pivotal choices affecting the Colorado River, but it goes beyond that.
"Utah is part of it, but it is a basin-wide problem … what it speaks to is that the current trends are not sustainable," Niemerski said.
Beyond pointing out those threats to river systems across the country, the report is a call to action, stressing the kind of policies that need to be pursued to safeguard and promote the vitality of the threatened rivers.
This year's report asks that Congress prioritize "robust" funding for Colorado River basin that includes investment in the Bureau of Reclamation's WaterSmart program and strategies that support reclaiming and reusing water.
Niermerski said cities and states also need to direct more of their dollars to water-saving infrastructure and place more urgent emphasis on conservation.
"Those are the 'no regret investments' we need to make," he said. "If we start planning now, we will be happy we did that in 10 to 15 years."