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Colorado River at a 'crossroads,' facing uncertain future

Published: Tuesday, July 16 2013 5:25 p.m. MDT

Members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources received their first glimpse of the findings of the Bureau of Reclamation Supply and Demand study of the Colorado River, which projects a shortfall of 3.2 million acre-feet of water by 2060.

U.S. Bureau of Land Management

SALT LAKE CITY — The Colorado River is at a critical crossroads, depleted by an ongoing dry cycle not recorded since more than a century ago and entangled with the future of a growing Western region.

The challenges to the river system are as vast as its nearly 40 million users and the solutions to shortages will only be wrought through cooperation, warned a panel of experts on Tuesday.

Members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources received their first glimpse of the findings of the Bureau of Reclamation Supply and Demand study of the Colorado River, which projects a shortfall of 3.2 million acre-feet of water by 2060.

The Senate hearing took place on the same day that a coalition of grass-roots organizations presented a draft executive order to President Barack Obama's office for his consideration.

The order put forward by the American Clean Energy Agenda would make water a national priority, calls for a national water census and the creation of a water budget commission — in addition to the reduction or elimination by 2030 of water-dependent power generation sources such as coal-fired or nuclear power plants.

Tuesday's events puts Utah and the other six Western states that draw water from the Colorado River in the center of one of the nation's key environmental concerns.

Low flow years

U.S Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Mike Connor said the impacts of a changing climate are being realized in extremely tough ways on the Colorado River, which has experienced 10 of its lowest flow years in the last 13 in more than a century of record keeping.

"Without a doubt there is evidence of increasing temperatures in the basin," he said, which are being accompanied by diminished snowpack and more rainfall events.

"No single strategy will be enough," added Tanya Trujillo, executive director of the Colorado River Board of California, stressing that the seven basin states will have to work together to find answers.

"These coordinated efforts are not easy, and if the hydrology continues to worsen, the tensions will increase."

Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colorado, who described the water resource challenges that can hit in his state, said it is impossible to underestimate the influence of the river on the Western region.

"Water has literally shaped the West," he said, pointing to geology carved out of sandstone by the river, the farm fields that have sprung up and the towns and cities that have grown over decades to depend on the Colorado River. "It makes the West, as we know it, possible … when you touch water, you touch everything."

The study

The basin-wide study, three years in the making and finalized in December, looked at Colorado River water use in the seven basin states — Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California — and projected how population growth and climate change might shape demand in the next 50 years.

Don Ostler, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, said the bureau's study was not the first to look at supply and demand scenarios and its conclusions were not that startling.

"The results of this study are no surprise to the basin states," he said, adding that the scope of the analysis, however, was "unprecedented."

Ostler said the study underscored the primary differences between the upper basin states — Colorado, Utah and Wyoming — and the lower basin states of Nevada, New Mexico, California and Arizona — differences that will have to come to reckoning in the future.

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