How to “Fix” the Colorado River?

Supply and Demand on the Colorado River. Source: USBR


Much ado has been made in recent headlines about growing scarcity on the Colorado River.  Water supply, as reflected by what’s left in storage in the basin’s big reservoirs, has dropped from full just over a decade ago to 64% today, and the river hasn’t run regularly to the sea since the 90’s.

While some water users have the legal right to extract more water from the basin, it is evident that by adding new demands to this over-used system we will create shortages somewhere else.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation has started working with the seven states in the basin (AZ, CA, CO, NM, NV, UT and WY) to study the future of supply and demand on the Colorado, and to search for solutions that fill the ‘gap’ between them, as illustrated in the right hand side of the graph above.  Stay tuned for great debates about the merits of cloud seeding versus conservation, and desalinization versus re-use.

But what strikes me as most promising is the commitment from Reclamation and the states to consider the health of the basin’s rivers.  Their latest report discusses how they will assess the future status of ecosystem health, by looking at projected conditions for endangered species, river-based wildlife refuges, and even for a host of freshwater and riparian habitats on the mainstem and major tributaries.

They draw the connection between the health of the river and the health of the economy not only by measuring how well consumptive water demands can be met in all sectors, but also by discussing how they’ll measure future flows from the boater’s perspective, and how recreation-based economies may fare.

That a study of the future of the Colorado should include the health of the river itself might seem obvious.  Yet the vast system of pipes and canals we’ve built from the top to the bottom of this basin point to the Colorado’s central importance as a water supply to the arid Southwest, and too often we overlook the river itself.  How else can we explain the damage we have done to so many of the basin’s rivers over the last half century?

The future of this region promises to be more crowded, and likely hotter and drier, but that doesn’t have to spell the death of the Colorado River.  Reclamation and the states are facing the need to make decisions of great consequence about how to supply and manage water use in every sector.  Let’s hope their new commitment to look at impacts on the river gives them the wisdom to forge a path forward that meets our legitimate water needs and protects and restores healthy flows.

Jennifer Pitt is the Colorado River Project Director for Environmental Defense Fund.

Jennifer Pitt is the Colorado River Project Director for Environmental Defense Fund. She works with Colorado River water users throughout the Colorado River basin—including seven states in the United States and two in Mexico—to develop practical programs to restore river habitats and to dedicate water to environmental resources. She has worked as a park ranger and a Congressional aide, and has a Masters degree in Environmental Studies from Yale University.
  • Ray Walker

    Development of a non-tributary fresh water Source that, on average, could yield a million acre feet for the region and be utilized to keep Lake Mead reasonably FULL is worthy of consideration.

    Lake Mead holds 28.5 million acre feet and when FULL can produce 2075 megawatts of renewable energy each year.

    By comparison, 21,000 desalination plants in 120 countries around the world produce 3.4 million acre feet a year. A $300 million dollar wind farm will only produce 150 megawatts !

    Lake Mead ’s Hoover Dam and 17 generators are already built, paid for and fully functioning!

    To appreciate a new Source solution to keep Lake Mead reasonably FULL, it is important to understand that all of the present tributary water flowing into and/or stored in Lake Mead already belongs to others and is subject to The Law of the (Colorado) River which is an accumulation of court decrees, compacts and case law stretching back to when the indigenous tribes first inhabited the desert Southwest.

    In other words, “don’t even think about touching one drop of the present Colorado River water supply; it already legally belongs to someone else” !

    Such non-tributary water must be fresh water which is under no circumstances any part of any tributary or groundwater that would drain into or possibly be connected to or eventually ever reach (and never has reached) any part of the Colorado River or any of its tributaries in any state.

    Delivery of non-tributary water from the new Source would not be subject to the provisions of the Law of the River because such water was never part of the Colorado River or its tributaries when the Laws of the River were set in stone.

    More importantly, non-tributary water from the new Source could be stored in Lake Mead WITHOUT DAMAGE to the existing water rights of those who already own and control all of the presently existing Colorado River water.

    If water from the new Source were to be stored in Lake Mead, the surface area of Lake Mead would increase. That surface area increase would cause more evaporation. The increase in evaporation would have to be subtracted off of the amount of non-tributary water stored.

    For example, Lake Mead presently has in storage approximately 15 million acre feet and has a surface area of 93,000 acres. If one million acre feet of non-tributary water were to be added, the surface area would increase to 97345 acres. The additional 4345 acres would cause the evaporation losses( +-7 ft/yr) to increase by 30,415 acre feet per year. In order to keep the non-tributary water in Lake Mead without damage to the water rights of others, 30,415 acre feet (3%) would have to be subtracted off of the million acre feet of non-tributary water accumulated. Each year, the evaporation loss would be re-evaluated and accounted for.

    The increase in renewable energy production due to the increase in reservoir depth could more than pay for the rental of the available air space in Lake Mead .

    If an extra million acre feet of non-tributary water could be accumulated in Lake Mead EACH YEAR, Lake Mead could, in a few years, be kept reasonably FULL and functioning rather than going DRY as predicted.

    Utilizing the million acre feet to keep Lake Mead full is only one option available. It may not be desirable to put all the fresh water in one shopping basket.

    Some of this million acre feet a year could be used by Las Vegas (SNWA) and the cities of California .

    Large instantaneous releases could be made to seasonally flood & restore the Colorado River Delta, worth $2.4 billion a year.

    75,000 acre feet a year could be released for diversion into the old All American Canal for groundwater recharge purposes to keep the 1.3 million people of Mexicali , Mexico from being without water in exchange for Mexico ’s cooperation with the drug and immigration issues.

    Non-tributary water in storage is rather amazing in that it can be utilized for exchanges. There are instances where owners of the non-tributary water can simply trade/exchange their non-tributary water for the natural flow water and thus put water to various beneficial uses in geographic areas where previously it would have not been allowed.

    All exchanges have to approved, properly measured and administered for by those in authority to avoid damage to existing water rights.

    The legal concepts associated with the movement and storage of non-tributary water are certainly not new to Bureau of Reclamation projects and private ventures throughout the west.

    Vast networks of diversion, storage, delivery and re-use of non-tributary waters enable the Colorado Big Thompson, Fryingpan-Arkansas, San Juan-Chama and scores of other projects to function on a daily basis in the desert Southwest.

    With communication, cooperation and coordination, exchanges may be possible which would help solve the issues surrounding Las Vegas , but also the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta .

    As an interesting example for evaluation, at times on a space available basis conveyance structures could receive the stored non-tributary water IN EXCHANGE for leaving an equal amount in northern California .

    Such an exchange could be a win-win trade.

    Point being that a water exchange can be made hundreds of miles away and can involve sometimes several totally separate river basins simultaneously without damage to anyone’s legal water entitlements.

    Nevada , Las Vegas and California need “WATER INSURANCE”.

    A totally versatile supply of millions of acre feet of non-tributary fresh water stored in numerous reservoirs may very well mean the difference between financial life or death for thousands of Nevadans & Californians in the event of severe drought, earthquakes, terrorism or even guagga mussel attacks.

    For all entities/agencies/municpalities/bureaus/states a readily available supply of fresh water for mitigation would certainly beat the millions of dollars spent for litigation, which never creates one new drop of fresh water !

    The best laid plans to mine the groundwater of the deserts for Las Vegas and the cities of Southern California may not turn out as designed.

    A water insurance policy to avoid the devastation & disappointment when all does not go well could avoid an avalance of cease and desist orders which might very well curtail the communities of the future.

    Ray Walker (Retired Water Rights Analyst)
    “The laughter of fools has always been the reward of any man who comes up with a new thought.” Stephen Lister

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