SALT LAKE CITY — A groundbreaking probe of the Colorado River and its ability to meet the demands over the next 50 years sidestepped consideration of what is commonly known as America's "best idea" — the country's national parks and monuments.
"So much of our parks that are iconic in Utah and in the region are defined by the Colorado River," said Dave Nimkin, southwest regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association. "But there is this gnawing problem about the Colorado River system: It is facing long periods of drought."
Nimkin was the featured speaker at the Salt Lake City Rotary Club's Tuesday luncheon at the Salt Lake Marriott Downtown at City Creek, where he gave a brief summary of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's study that projects supply and demand over the next five decades.
The study, which is still in its infancy, has tapped expertise and opinions from leaders and others from the seven states that are part of the Colorado River Basin on how to meet demands in a system that is projected to be shortchanged by millions of acre-feet of water.
"It is an incredible resource and it is at risk," Nimkin told the crowd.
But he said it's troubling that the National Park Service received scant consideration in the initial phase of the study and how those shortfalls in water supplies could affect parks such as the Grand Canyon National Park and Utah's Canyonlands and Arches national parks.
"We are not blind to the fact that there are a lot of claims within the river system itself, but the needs of the parks need to be identified and considered," Nimkin said.
Nimkin leads a four-state region that includes Utah through the association, which advocates for protection and in some circumstances expansions of national parks and monuments.
In May, the bureau announced that solutions to the potential Colorado River shortfalls will be crafted going forward that address three main areas — municipal water conservation and reuse, agricultural conservation and transfers, and maintaining flows for a healthy environment and recreation industry.
Nimkin told Rotary Club members that the park service will play a significantly larger role in this next phase of the study, serving as a co-coordinator of the environmentally focused group.
Such involvement is important, he added, from both an environmental and economic standpoint. In Utah, for example, nearly 9 million people visited the state's national parks in a single year, and the parks support 9,400 jobs that infused the state with $367 million in economic benefits, Nimkin said.
The intangibles are even harder to put a price on, he stressed.
"These are areas that unite us as people," Nimkin said, regardless of race, religion or language. "We all have intergenerational memories that are refined by visits to a national park."
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