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Colorado River meeting, new map highlight challenges to river system

Published: Friday, May 24 2013 7:00 p.m. MDT

Colorado River (, Peter Raabe, American Rivers) Colorado River (, Peter Raabe, American Rivers)

SALT LAKE CITY — A massive probe of the challenges to the Colorado River system enters another phase with a Tuesday meeting in San Diego, where multiple state representatives, the federal government and a 10-tribe Native American partnership look to "what's next" for the struggling river.

At issue is a river system already serving 30 million people that is being sapped by drought, overuse and conservation practices in need of an overhaul — and how that system can be saved to support booming Southwest population growth in the five decades to come.

"We don't have the solutions yet," said Utah's Robert King, who is the state's Interstate Streams section chief with the Division of Water Resources. "We are still defining the problem. This next phase will help us understand what potential solutions will look like."

King will join others at the event being held by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation at the U.S. Geological Survey's California Water Science Center.

The bureau study, unveiled last December, 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.

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

Storage capability along the system, however, is four times that of the river's annual flow, allowing managers and suppliers to have flexibility in years of shortages.

Study presentations since its release have highlighted key differences between the lower basin states and the upper basin states, including the projection that 60 percent of the increase in use will come from the lower basin states of Arizona, New Mexico, California and Nevada.

That prediction puts pressure and possible shortfalls on states like 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.

King said the next-step phase will help guide stakeholders to further refine the hundreds of solutions to shoring up water supplies.

Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, said Utah would be well-advised to shirk massive river-draining projects in favor of implementing greater conservation strategies.

He pointed to the proposed diversion of water from the system in support of the Lake Powell Pipeline project, supported by proponents as a way to meet growth but to also capture Utah's share of the water that slips into neighboring states.

"One of the most important things to think about for the future management of the Colorado is whether Utah will build unnecessary water projects just to keep other states from using the water, or if we are willing to lease our unused waters to other players in the basin and make money," he said.

The San Diego meeting comes just a few days after another advocacy group, Western Resource Advocates, released an interactive, online map of the river system intended to educate people.

The map, which can be found at CoRiverBasin.org, provides information in "layers" that can be peeled away, such as how many dams are on the system, the extent of population centers, or how many power plants. There are also scenic points of interest and snow pack and river flow data.

“What I love about CoRiverBasin.org is that it lets the user determine how much information they want to see on the map,” said Bart Miller, water program director at Western Resource Advocates. “This is truly a 21st century tool for a new way of thinking, and learning, about water issues. After all, there may be no more important issue than having clean water to drink."

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