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Rough Water Ahead for the Colorado River

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.