A Year of Threats Looms for Western Rivers

Drought, diversions threaten Colorado, San Pedro and other rivers

The now-dry Colorado River delta branches into the Baja / Sonoran Desert, only 5 miles north of the Sea of Cortez, Mexico.
The now-dry Colorado River delta branches into the Baja / Sonoran Desert, only 5 miles north of the Sea of Cortez, Mexico. (Photo courtesy of Pete McBride / USGS)

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We’re less than a month in, but 2014 is already shaping up to be a tough year for rivers. Across the nation, from West Virginia to California, the headlines have been bleak. In the Rocky Mountain region, we’re gearing up for a long year defending the Colorado and San Pedro rivers.

Following recognition as America’s most endangered river in 2013, the Colorado River has become known nationwide for the unsustainable balance that exists between increasing diversions and declining flows. Much of the West has been built on a foundation of Colorado River water and millions of people in communities throughout the region depend on it on a daily basis. On-going regional drought and continued growth are now finally forcing water supply managers to accept that business as usual is no longer tenable and changes are coming to the basin.

This year will see the first mandated reduction in flows from Lake Powell (upper basin) downstream to Lake Mead (lower basin). The Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that oversees the Colorado River “system,” now reports that there are even odds that water from Lake Mead will be rationed by 2015—an outcome that may be predicated on this year’s snowfall.

Under the byzantine mechanism that is the Colorado River water supply system, water providers have grown accustomed to taking what they want, when they want. And even though the agreement that underlies the system, the Colorado River Compact, is based on a fundamental mistake—it allocated far more water than is actually available, even before considering what climate change will do to the river’s flows—making these minor changes has required historic and traumatic efforts.

In the face of the ongoing wrestling match over who gets what water from the Colorado River, Earthjustice and our conservation partners are working to keep water in the Colorado source-to-sea. It is imperative that we remember that the river is more than a sponge that can be wrung dry to meet our municipal, industrial and agricultural needs. The Colorado River is home to endangered species and the linchpin of a complex regional ecosystem supporting irreplaceable wildlife and natural communities. Arising in the mountains of Wyoming and Colorado and cutting across an arid region to the Gulf of California, this river is the lifeblood of its region like no other. The Colorado is also host to numerous recreational and economic opportunities, a vital element of our region, but only as long as it flows.

Yet despite the supply “crisis” that already exists, and the incomparable river at stake, water providers continue work to take more water from the Colorado River.

In particular, two major projects are moving forward in Colorado, with decisions granting their go-ahead possible this year. If these projects are constructed and operated as planned, combined with existing river-draining water grabs, a total of over 75 percent of the native flows of the Colorado River headwaters would be diverted and shipped under the Continental Divide to the Denver metro area.

The Windy Gap Firming Project is a scheme by the Northern Colorado Water Conservation District to wring the last of the flows out of the headwaters immediately downstream of Rocky Mountain National Park. This project would construct a new reservoir on the east side of the Continental Divide that would give Northern more storage to divert water that is now “wasted” (i.e., left in the river).

In addition to draining the headwaters and destroying fish habitat, the project would likely further pollute Grand Lake, Colorado’s deepest natural lake, that is seen by the engineers as a conduit for this and other massive cross-mountain water transfers. Grand Lake, once a crystal clear mountain lake at the gateway of the national park, has suffered huge declines in clarity since diversions begun in the 20th century. Efforts underway to restore the lake to its natural state would be undermined by the additional diversions of Windy Gap Firming Project.

The Moffat Collection System Project is Windy Gap’s twin and would capture much of the remaining flows from the southern headwaters of the Colorado River, including the renowned Fraser River. Denver Water has proposed this expansion of its historic system in the basin despite the long legacy of stream destruction that has accompanied its diversions of 60 percent of the natural flow to grow the metro area east of the mountains. The Fraser is prized for its world-class trout fishery and is an essential resource for the local community.

Alone, either the Windy Gap Firming Project or the Moffat expansion could cripple the Colorado River at its headwaters; together, they may be a death blow. The projects are moving through federal permitting processes—amazingly, independently without proper consideration of their combined impacts—with approvals possible this year. Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain Office is carefully monitoring those processes and preparing to take appropriate actions if necessary.

In southern Arizona, Earthjustice has worked for over a decade on an historic tributary of the Colorado, the San Pedro River. Through a series of cases, we have battled the draining of this desert river by forcing more efficient water use in this desert region, providing hope for a better future. Now, however, we find ourselves back in court, fighting Arizona’s approval of ground-water dependent urban sprawl in the city of Sierra.

Last year, Earthjustice brought litigation on behalf of a riverside landowner and long-time conservationist challenging the state’s approval of groundwater pumping to support a massive 7,000-unit suburban development planned for the upper San Pedro valley. Groundwater in the valley is directly linked to the San Pedro River; pumping will drain the remaining base flows that keep the river alive.

The San Pedro River is often referred to as the “ribbon of life.” The river’s flows nourish rich wildlife habitats in the arid southwest and are a remnant of a once-extensive network of desert riparian corridors that traversed the region. Mammals, reptiles and amphibians, fish and especially birds depend on the river and that dependence grows daily in the face of continuing suburban development and climate change. As we move into a hotter, drier and more crowded future, we should be taking steps to preserve unique oases like the San Pedro, not hastening their decline.

The state of Arizona gave the go ahead we are challenging in April 2013; its water management system that permitted the pumping ignores the connection between streams and groundwater, constructing a legal fallacy and denying reality. In defending its decision, the state asserts that the fate of the river is not at issue. Science says otherwise.

Our litigation, and parallel cases brought by another landowner and the Bureau of Land Management, seeks to crack the glass wall that Arizona has erected between streams and groundwater and force the state to acknowledge the authority of water rights granted to BLM’s San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. Keeping sufficient water in the river to meet the needs of the conservation area—preserving instream and riparian habitat and species—would not be possible with the planned groundwater pumping or other similar projects contemplated for the future.

The Rocky Mountain Office attorneys are eager to move ahead with the litigation to stop Arizona’s piecemeal assault on the San Pedro River. Despite the legal cloud we have raised, the state has green-lighted two additional, smaller groundwater dependent developments similar to the one that we have challenged. We are anxious to get a ruling before Arizona can do more damage. Fortunately, a hearing in the case has been scheduled for April so we are hopeful that 2014 can be the year that reality is returned to the San Pedro.

Follow Doug on Twitter: @dpflugh_ej

Doug Pflugh was the Research Analyst and GIS Coordinator in the Rocky Mountain office until 2014. He worked on a full range of issues confronting the Four Corner states: climate change and energy development, public lands management, and river protection. He is also a great backcountry skier and hiker.

Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain office protects the region’s iconic public lands, wildlife species, and precious water resources; defends Tribes and disparately impacted communities fighting to live in a healthy environment; and works to accelerate the region’s transition to 100% clean energy.