Federal Colorado River Study Points to Big Problems and Common Sense Solutions

The federal Bureau of Reclamation today released a much-awaited federal study of the Colorado River, focused on water available for farms, cities, and the businesses that depend on a flowing river.  Population growth and climate change have stressed the Colorado River to the point where demand for water exceeds supply, reservoirs sit half-empty, and flows dry up before reaching the sea.

What’s clear from this study is that if we keep doing what we’re doing in the realm of river and water management, we will be facing extraordinary problems. But it’s also clear from this study that there are a host of actions that stakeholders can agree are common-sense, near-term, and relatively low-cost solutions. These include increased conservation of water in both cities and agriculture, reuse of water in urban areas, and inland desalination of brackish water. The federal government and jurisdictions that use Colorado River water could show real leadership by finding ways to implement these common-sense solutions.

The Bureau of Reclamation study also highlights an opportunity to help water users in the Upper Basin (WY, CO, NM and UT) save water for use in extended droughts while at the same time improving conditions essential to the $26 billion river recreation industry. An Upper Basin water bank is the kind of modern river management that can ensure prosperous farms and ranches, thriving cities, and healthy river flows. This win-win approach for water users and the river has gained currency with the recent agreement between the United States and Mexico that provides a host of benefits to water users in both countries while restoring flows to the famously dry delta of the Colorado River.

Other solutions considered in the study are more controversial, including a pipeline importing water to Denver from the Missouri River, requiring pumps to lift water nearly half a mile uphill, and ocean desalination plants in California and Mexico.  These extremely high-cost and energy demanding projects require careful examination before being rushed into development.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation should be commended for undertaking such a groundbreaking and comprehensive study, for focusing on a problem less obvious to us now than other climate-related consequences such as the extreme weather events of Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina. The bad news for the people who rely on the Colorado River is that droughts are all too often ignored until they become extended and severe, and even then they don’t grab national media attention in the same way that catastrophic storms do.

The good news is that we can start working on solving the problems of the Colorado River today with proven, common-sense solutions. Learn more about Environmental Defense Fund’s approach at www.coloradoriverbasin.org.

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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.