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Colorado River Basin study a 'call to action'

Published: Monday, Aug. 31 2015 5:39 a.m. MDT

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation study was nearly three years in the making and tapped water policy and supply experts in Utah and the six other basin states that depend on the Colorado River. (, Deseret News) The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation study was nearly three years in the making and tapped water policy and supply experts in Utah and the six other basin states that depend on the Colorado River. (, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Key steps to shore up future water supplies in the already over-strained Colorado River system need to include a hard emphasis on conservation and reuse of water in all arenas, improved management of watersheds, and greater flexibility with water banking or water-sharing agreements.

Those next steps emerged last week in a 90-minute Web-based presentation providing more details of a federal study released in December on supply and demand of Colorado River water over the next 50 years.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation study was nearly three years in the making and tapped water policy and supply experts in Utah and the six other basin states that depend on the Colorado River. Those involved in the study and others with a stake in the Colorado River will be convening workshops early this year framed around some of those key points and study areas on where to proceed next. Comments on the study are being accepted through March 14.

A shortfall of 3.2 million acre-feet of water was projected by the year 2060 due to increasing demands brought about by population growth, diversion of water for energy development and streamflows that have to be maintained at certain levels due to enhanced environmental needs.

The good news is that storage capability along the system is four times that of the Colorado River’s annual average flow, allowing mangers and suppliers along the system to react to dire years with greater flexibility, said Carly Jerla, the study’s co-manager.

Key differences between the lower basin states and the upper basin states were underscored in the presentation, including the premise that 60 percent of the anticipated increase in use will come from those lower basin states of Arizona, New Mexico, California and Nevada.

That prediction means an enhanced likelihood of possible shortfalls in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, which share an obligation to deliver a certain amount of water to the lower region because of a water-sharing compact.

Jerla stressed that predictions about what the future of Colorado River looks like 10 to 30 down the road are fraught with uncertainty because of the wide range of dynamics that come into play. The region could have slow growth, rapid growth, more agricultural land (which makes up 85 percent of the Colorado River use) could give way to homes and businesses but additional water is needed for energy development.

A critical component of the study was the solicitation of options to boost water supply in the region, with more than 150 suggestions submitted to the federal agency for consideration.

While some of the options were deemed impractical or technologically unfeasible, study managers stressed that no suggestions or input was unwelcome.

“It became obvious to us there was no single silver bullet solution to address this evolving imbalance over time,” said the bureau’s Armin Munevar.

In a technical component of the report that looked at projected demands state-by-state, the Kanab Creek/Virgin River area and the Wasatch Front are two regions in Utah that are expected to make up the majority of new demand for municipal and industrial uses of water. Those demands, brought on by population increases, are somewhat tempered over the years with decreases in per-capita consumption.

Even under a “slow growth” scenario chartered in the federal study, demand for Colorado River water for irrigated acreage is expected to decrease in Utah over the next 50 years, freeing up more of the resource for other uses.

The agricultural water that would be converted would help offset increased demand for water in the energy sector, which is anticipated to rise in any scenario over the next 50 years because of the need for more electrical generation. The report notes that the heaviest demand will come in the Uintah Basin and southeastern Utah.

Dennis Strong, director of the state’s Division of Water Resources and one of the state agencies that pitched in on funding the study, said the analysis makes clear the Colorado River will not be able to meet all the future demands of water use in the basin states.

But he stressed the temptation to emphasize the projected shortfall may come at the expense of other key lessons and facts that may be overlooked.

“It is helpful to understand that much of the use of the Colorado River is outside of the area that catches the rain and melted snow that becomes the river. The water of the river is used in San Diego, Denver, Salt Lake City and Albuquerque — all cities that are outside the river basin.”

In none of those cities, he added, is the Colorado River the sole supply of water, so when population projections in those regions are used to calculate projected shortfalls, it is not reasonable to expect the Colorado to step in and fill all the gap.

“Most of those future needs must be met with water that is from outside the Colorado River basin, just as they are today,” he said.

The lower basin states have already used up all of their allocations of Colorado River, and that is where the majority of demand will come in the next 50 years.

Seeing what has already begun to play out in those other basin states will provide good lessons for Utah, Colorado and Wyoming in the coming years, he said.

“I don’t think the study is a crisis statement for the Colorado River in the upper basin,” he said. “Is it a call to action? Yes.”

Comments on the study may be emailed to ColoradoRiverBasinStudy@usbr.gov or mailed to the Bureau of Reclamation, attention Pam Adams, LC2721, P.O. Box 61470, Boulder City, Nev., 89006-1470. They may also be faxed to 702-293-8418.

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