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Rough Water Ahead for the Colorado River

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15 March 2013, 9:46 AM
Drought highlights need for smart solutions to water demand in West
Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. The white bathtub ring will get bigger as water levels drop. (Photo: BuRec)

Winter in the Rockies is almost over. Almost, because April is still one of our snowiest months in Colorado. But even with a few days of snow last week, April would have to be pretty darned wet just to get this year’s snowpack up to average. As of March 15, snowpack in the watersheds that feed Lake Powell—which is just upstream of the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River behind the Glen Canyon Dam—was at less than 80 percent of average.

It’s so low, the National Park Service—which manages boating on the Lake as part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area—is spending a half-million of its sequester-reduced dollars to dredge a new channel for boats that would otherwise have to make a detour around new land that’s exposed as lake levels recede. The Bureau of Reclamation is predicting that inflows to Lake Powell this spring will be less than half of the 30-year average. In Denver, the water agency—which relies heavily on water grabbed from the Colorado River basin—is already warning it will put in place tough restrictions on lawn watering this summer to deal with the ongoing drought. His answer is, it could, as temperatures rise and water supplies dwindle due to global warming.

Lake Powell itself is low, too. It’s down almost 100 feet from the top of the dam, filled to less than 50 percent of capacity. Lake levels haven’t been lower for the Ides of March since 2008.

Downstream, where Lake Mead sits behind another giant cement plug in the Colorado, an entire town drowned by the lake has been revealed since 2002; and water is unlikely to lap at its streets again in the near future.

Conditions on the river are unlikely to improve this year. Virtually all of the upper Colorado River Basin is in a moderate drought condition or worse.

The long-term prognosis is no better. Cities that rely on the Colorado River, like LA, Phoenix, Vegas, Denver, and St. George, UT, are slated to attract hundreds of thousands of more people—and more water-sucking lawns—in the coming decades. And I haven’t yet mentioned the C words (climate change). An article by William DuBuys, a prominent scholar of the West, asks "Could Phoenix soon become uninhabitable?"

What is to be done? The Interior Department recently finished a study looking at some of the more outlandish schemes, like building a 1,000+ miles pipeline to pump water uphill from the Mississippi to slake the Southwest’s thirst. It’s a crazy idea, but another respected Western observer, Allen Best, wonders whether any idea is too crazy.

Ultimately, building our way out of the problem with more reservoirs, diversions, and pipelines is an expensive, losing strategy. And expensive in more than just money. There are numerous proposals on the table to suck even more water from the overtaxed Colorado River headwaters and its tributaries. We’re losing our living rivers and the ecosystems they foster. We’re losing our native fish. We’re losing our heritage.

Instead of planning to pump more waters from our dwindling rivers, we should plan to do more with less, conserving where we can, reducing per capita consumption. And getting rid of our lawns. As DeBuys recommends, we may have to further rethink land use, building codes and transportation policy, too. Even that may not be enough to make living in the West with living rivers sustainable. But before we kill the Colorado or many other rivers, we should give these tools a try.

If you read Jonothan Waterman's book Running Dry, he warned us of this problem of the Colorado River several years ago. At that time, the state of Colorado would fine anyone who collected rainwater, and hopefully that has now been reversed. In the summer of 2011, I worked in Colorado, where acres of vast lawns were watered to be kept green, and trees with large canopies were being cut down. When I spoke up about this, I was shunned. I was getting my degree in Sustainable Community Development and knew the value of water and trees. It will take fires and more crisis to wake up people there and everywhere. Americans race towards their enemies. I watch how drivers race towards a red light and then slam on the brakes. There is no common sense. March 22 is WORLD WATER DAY. Not quite a year ago, I saw a film produced by Robert Redford's brother, Jamie Redford and Robert Redford narrated it, about the West's water issues., Watershed: Exploring a New Water Ethic for the West. The point that was stressed throughout the film was: If people changed their habits by just 2%, we could all live and beat this climate change. Well, 2% is not asking that much. Americans want more and more convenience. I want my grandchildren to have a safe planet. Thank God for and others taking and making a stand against corporations and other greedy mindless self interests.
If you do not know Vandana Shiva and her stand against Monsanto, get to know her. She is forthright and extremely articulate of Monsanto's ways to overtake the farmers and have global control of all seeds. We do have leadership, even in small degrees and we must become educated and educate others, That is how we will survive.

Thank you for posting this information. I'll help bypassing it along.

Why does no one ever say the obvious: population growth cannot continue, and we've got to plan for an orderly and acceptable way to have a healthy, sustainable population and an economic system that functions well without population growth.

And the biggest problem of all is rarely mentioned. Population growth! We need to make an all out push to reduce population. With a reverse in population growth, there should be reduced demands on everything. Plus continuing all the other measures mentioned.

This is really sad. Wake up people. You are in a drought and you are not doing anything to help yourselves? What happened to common sense? I can just picture the waste in all of those thousands of homes. Drippy fawcets, water running while you brush your teeth or rinse the dishes. Kids playing and flushing the toilet a dozen times. You will be paying through the nose for that precious water and you deserve it.

We had better stop worrying about “Too much Federal Spending and leaving our Grand Children mired in Debt.” Instead, we should be worrying about leaving them a Planet with Air and Water that they can survive on!
Tom Nass
5th Marine Division - WWII
Son of a WWI Marine

So true Tom! I have been saying that for years now, it seems they won't listen until it's too usual. I wonder if they just figure they will be dead soon and it's not their problem, or they are just that greedy and will continue to suck up whatever money they can?

We need to ban lawns all across the US, and instead plant drought resistant species or let wild, local plants reclaim their land. We can incorporate a law to install composting toilets or air flushing models in all our buildings and homes. We also need to make laws to incorporate sustainable solutions when building and retrofitting our homes and buildings. Water catchment and grey water systems could save many gallons of water annually and give us the power to collect water locally in our homes.

Where I live (Sierra Vista, AZ), there is a public effort to encourage water conservation. I'm currently visiting Phoenix, and I see no visible conservation effort. Surely this elephant in the bedroom is going to have to start developing a conservation attitude, or else all towns that depend upon the Colorado River will have to drastically curb their growth!

No lawns, use less, save more!!!

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