A Christmas Present for the Colorado River

Rafting the Grand Canyon. Photo: Brian Richter


Just days before Christmas, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released the results of a comprehensive study of the Colorado River basin’s water situation.  The “Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study” assessed a Christmas tree of more than 150 different proposals for balancing the water budget of the Colorado River.

One of those proposals grabbed headlines across the country: a scheme to build a 600-mile long water pipeline from the Missouri River to Denver.

Pipeline boosters have argued that the water import project could fill the gap in overdrawn watersheds and aquifers all along the pipeline’s path, and relieve the pressure on the Colorado River by providing an alternate supply to cities like Denver that depend heavily on trans-mountain exports of water out of the Colorado’s watershed.

For many though, the proposal conjured memories of the North American Water and Power Alliance or “NAWAPA.” That project – conceived by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s – envisioned diverting water from rivers in Alaska and then moving the water south through Canada in a complex water transport and storage system involving 369 separate construction projects. The water would enter the U.S. in northern Montana, and from there it would be diverted to the Colorado River and into other watersheds.  According to its proponents, the project would double the total amount of freshwater available to the lower 48 states, “solving the water shortage problems of the western U.S.”

Thankfully, NAWAPA died on the bookshelves.

Because here’s the thing about water importation projects: they spread the malaise of water scarcity to other places.

A case in point:  By the turn of the 20th century, Los Angeles had fully consumed both its namesake river and local aquifers.  It turned next to the Owens River on the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada and built a 300-mile long pipeline that sucked numerous Sierran streams dry and dangerously lowered Mono Lake (and did so in a rather deceitful way – see the movie Chinatown for Hollywood’s adaptation of the story).  After maxing out those water sources, the city stuck its long straw into the Colorado River to the east, and into the Central Valley rivers far up north, increasing the strain on those rivers.

While many of my colleagues and friends have decried the Bureau’s new report for its inclusion of water importation (stealing water), desalination (energy guzzler), and even weather modification (good luck with that), we should not miss the forest for the trees: the report is quite extraordinary for the open and transparent process that was employed in its formulation.

Sure, anytime you run a democratic process you’re going to get some goofball ideas.  But the fair and objective manner in which the Bureau evaluated the more than 150 proposed ideas marks a bellwether for water governance in the 21st century.

Moving Away From Top-Down Decision Making

Not so long ago, such as in NAWAPA’s heyday but continuing to the turn of the century, big decisions about water were made in the offices of technocrats and behind the closed doors of political deal-makers.

As Dan McCool writes with brutal clarity in his new book River Republic, “It did not take long for both the (Corps of Engineers) and the Congress to realize that some form of Corps project, paid for by the taxpayers of America, could generate a lot of votes and contributions for a legislator’s next campaign.  Water projects would help a lot of legislators get elected – again and again and again.  Projects became a kind of political currency, to be traded in the halls of Congress for favors and votes.  That, in a nutshell, is why we have so many dams, levees, channels, and waterways.  The projects were sometimes in the national interest, occasionally in accord with sound economic principles, but rarely built in an environmentally sound manner, and sometimes a gross waste of money.”

In contrast, the Bureau’s new study of the Colorado basin reveals that the cream can still rise to the top when exposed to the open air.  By inviting input from all interested parties and prioritizing those ideas using a fair and objective review, the Bureau is helping to set a new standard for water planning.

Grand Canyon
The Colorado River winds through the Grand Canyon. Photo: Brian Richter


The Key:  Spreading Less Water on Farms

Agricultural water conservation is a clear winner in the Bureau’s study, not just for the fact that it is by far and away the most cost-effective measure among the finalist options, but also because it can yield a lot of water.  Irrigated agriculture is responsible for more than 70% of all water consumption within the basin, so any reduction in that volume adds up quickly.  By the Bureau’s own estimates, one million acre-feet could be saved in agriculture every year – enough to flood a million acres a foot deep.

Those water savings, while highly cost-effective, won’t come easily.  It will take a lot of hard work on the ground, in the farm fields.  It will require thousands of actions to be undertaken on hundreds of farms throughout the basin.  Leaky earthen canals and ditches will be lined with concrete or piped instead; water will be applied to crops more efficiently; farmers will shift to less water-intensive crops.  Some farmers will decide to “grow water” instead of crops by voluntarily fallowing their fields – either temporarily or permanently – and getting paid to do so.

Such a massive effort to reduce agricultural water consumption will work only if it is done in partnership, and only if farmers are financially supported in their efforts.  As Laura Huffman, the Nature Conservancy’s director in Texas, has said in response to her own state’s water crisis, “we first need to stop behaving like a ‘circular firing squad,’ meaning that laying blame on each other or pitting cities, farmers, energy producers and environmentalists against each other is fatally unproductive.”

If agricultural water conservation is undertaken in a proper manner – by which I mean with full respect of and in voluntary collaboration with farmers, such as is being done in the Flint River basin of Georgia – it holds great promise for alleviating water scarcity in the Colorado River basin.

If that saved water were allowed to trickle into the Gulf of California again instead of being sent via pipeline to L.A. or Denver, it could go a long ways toward restoring life to the river’s desiccated delta.

Reducing overall water consumption is an imperative for this basin.  Recent studies predict that the average yield of the Colorado River could be reduced by as much as 20 percent due to climate change in coming decades.  By lightening our demands of the river we can lighten the pain when the river has less to give.

Weaning Cities Off the River

Urban water conservation also ranks very highly in the Bureau’s study, as it should.  In many cities, saving water inside the home does little to relieve water scarcity because virtually all of that water flows down our drains and back to the river from which it came.  But most of the 40 million people drinking from the Colorado’s tap live outside of the basin – it comes into their cities through inter-basin pipelines – and so every drop that doesn’t have to leave the basin is a drop saved for the river.

The most promising place to save water in cities is on the lawn.  In the West, half of all water used in cities is poured onto outdoor landscapes, and unlike water used in our homes, that water used outdoors does not return to a local water source but is instead evaporated to the sky.

Turning to the Ocean?

I have long held serious reservations about ocean desalination – i.e., the removal of salts from seawater, thereby turning it into fresh water – but the American Southwest may very well be an appropriate place for it.

The huge problem with desalination is its energy appetite.  It takes massive quantities of electricity to push salty water through a membrane that traps salt molecules but not H2O.  That makes desalination nearly ten times as expensive as most other sources of freshwater. It also has big implications for carbon emissions when the electricity is generated using fossil fuels.

There are also very serious challenges with disposing the “brine” left behind after desalination.  In the desalting process, about half of the volume of seawater is transformed into freshness, but half is left behind as an intensely salty brew.  That brine must be disposed of carefully, and responsibly, and that can be both difficult and costly.

But maybe – just maybe – coastal cities such as Los Angeles and San Diego, dependent on imports of water from the Colorado, could someday become appropriate candidates for desalination?  Alternate sources of water for these cities have become rather expensive, so the cost difference between desalination and other options may not be as appalling for Southern Californians as it is elsewhere.

The Bureau estimates that nearly half a million acre feet of freshwater could be cooked up each year with ocean desalination.

What if desalination for coastal cities could be done entirely with renewable energy, such as was done for Adelaide in Australia?  What if an agreement could be struck with those coastal cities, providing them with funding support for building carbon-free desalination plants, with the understanding that they would cut their water imports from the Colorado by an equal amount, leaving the saved water to flow to the delta?

Think of it:  a Colorado River unshackled from big city water exports and a lightened draw from agriculture.  Now that would be a nice Christmas present for the river.

Brian Richter has been a global leader in water science and conservation for more than 25 years. He is the Chief Scientist for the Global Water Program of The Nature Conservancy, an international conservation organization, where he promotes sustainable water use and management with governments, corporations, and local communities. He is also the President of Sustainable Waters, a global water education organization. Brian has consulted on more than 120 water projects worldwide. He serves as a water advisor to some of the world’s largest corporations, investment banks, and the United Nations, and has testified before the U.S. Congress on multiple occasions. He also teaches a course on Water Sustainability at the University of Virginia. Brian has developed numerous scientific tools and methods to support river protection and restoration efforts, including the Indicators of Hydrologic Alteration software that is being used by water managers and scientists worldwide. Brian was featured in a BBC documentary with David Attenborough on “How Many People Can Live on Planet Earth?” He has published many scientific papers on the importance of ecologically sustainable water management in international science journals, and co-authored a book with Sandra Postel entitled Rivers for Life: Managing Water for People and Nature (Island Press, 2003). His new book, Chasing Water: A Guide for Moving from Scarcity to Sustainability, was published by Island Press in June 2014.
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  • Think Again

    There are no water shortages in Missouri, so the articles premise that the proposed 600 mile pipeline is ridiculous is not so ridiculous at all. It seems that the author almost likes the idea of scarcity of fresh water and wants to preserve the situation. The reality is that Western water reserves may be scarce but building a pipeline from a water-rich region like Missouri is not only brilliant but could save and restore the long depleted Colorado river basin as well.

    • Whether or not the Missouri River has “surplus” water to share with Colorado, the more important issue is whether long-distance water importation is an optimal solution for meeting the needs of Colorado’s Front Range cities and resolving the water scarcity problems of the Colorado River basin. By the Bureau of Reclamation’s own accounting, such water importation would be among the most expensive options available, and could not likely be put into place for decades. There are clearly better options for resolving water scarcity in the region in the near term that should be implemented to their fullest potential before further considering importing water from the Missouri. You might be interested in this earlier blog on this very point: http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2012/11/01/water-privatization-lets-cut-the-hysteria/

  • Kevin Wheeler

    This is not only a topic I’m interested in as a native Coloradan, but I also had the good fortune to contribute to this study. The document does analyze many potential solutions, but what it should really do is make us think about how we want to manage our water resources 10, 50, 100 and even 200 years into the future. As a water resource engineer, I am deeply concerned about the idea of large inter-basin transfers. By relying on my fellow engineers to solve our problems sounds tempting, but is likely quite dangerous. Building dams allowed us to distribute existing water when we needed it, but came with large environmental consequences and conflicts that we are perpetually trying to sort out and resolve. Constructing pipelines to import water is not the same as building a dam, but potentially much worse. It certainly may reduce our scarcity for a short period, but it eventually will significantly increase our vulnerability. Expanding the west on imported water is like building a society on permanent financial debt that we can’t escape from without suffering dire consequences. What happens if the pipeline fails? What if something unforeseen happens to the Missouri River and that water is no longer available for a year or two? The drafters of the Colorado River Compact certainly did not see climate change coming.

    We must find solutions locally and ones that can adapt for an uncertain future. Expensive pipelines from the east are not able to do this for us. Ultimately we must understand that water is finite in the west and realize that more people means less water available for other uses. We must plan our future to use only what we have. If we ask congress to balance the national budget, we must also be responsible enough to do the same with our water.

  • Joanne McAndrews

    NAWAPA has not died on the bookshelves, quite the opposite. A NAWAPA for the 21st Century has been devised and promoted by the LaRouche PAC. http://larouchepac.com/infrastructure
    Engineers, water experts, farmers and policy makers, anyone who still has the courage to think big, are getting behind the project.
    If President Kennedy had not been assassinated NAWAPA would probably already exist.

  • Dan Auerbach

    The claim that “There are no water shortages in Missouri” is insulting to the many MO farmers and ranchers struggling with the effects of the ongoing drought in that region.

    The further claim that a geographically and topographically ludicrous transbasin (re)diversion could remedy the ill effects of the present diversion of Colorado flows into the Missouri basin reveals the types of misinformed challenges that BOR must confront from public commentary. Kudos to the Bureau for acknowledging the existence of convoluted, deeply impractical, and narrowly profitable schemes (requiring the same type of “boosters” that led many astray during the Dust Bowl rush), and then presenting the basic ecological and economic realities that render them nonstarters, regardless of one’s willingness to “think big”.

  • Michael Kirsch

    Had the appropriate system of reservoirs or diversion system for Missouri and Mississippi flood waters of 2011 been in place, the drought of 2012 would not have been as severe for plain states and the southwest. The flood water could have stored, or used to recharge the Ogallala Aquifer, instead of destroying farmland and cities along the rivers. The creative solution to the limitation on food production and the utilization of resources, is the creation of a nation wide, or even continental wide, drought and flood control system. Missouri water could be pumped out of the Fort Randall up the Niobrara river and then brought by gravity into a canal through the plan states of CO, KS, OK, and TX. A “Kansas Water Control Pipeline” could pump water the tributary of the Kansas River or from the Missouri into the Kansas river and into a pipeline bringing the water to Hutchinson, into the Ogallala aquifer, or back into the Arkansas river if needed which would then feed into the Mississippi.

    The author writes: “Water importation projects..spread malaise of water scarcity to other places.” This statement is not applicable to NAWAPA, or the general principle of diverting excess flood water. Diverting 10% of the runoff of northern rivers south, would be a permanent addition of water to the south, and not a creation of a scarcity in AK, B.C., Yukon. The interaction of the pacific ocean weather system with the mountains creates, according to a conservative estimate using modern data, 2.2 Billion Acre Feet of annual precipitation in AK, B.C., and Yukon, and 1.3 Billion Acre Feet(BAF) of runoff. This is compared with the 32 Million Acre Feet (MAF) for the whole southwest (Sacramento, San Joaquin, Colorado, Rio Grande Rivers). NAWAPA conceives utilizing 138 MAF a year of the 1.3 BAF of annual runoff, utilizing 11% of the annual runoff of the region, for pumping and hydropower in the north, and the rest for distribution in the south, bringing 72 MAFY into the Southwest and Northern Mexico. An updated 3D video with maps and reservoirs, “NAWAPA XXI Feature” with a more detailed design and all of the calculations can be found online.

    NAWAPA in fact did not “die on the bookshelves” as you state, but was not built due to the assassinations of two U.S. leaders, JFK, and RFK. JFK’s reclamation speeches around the country and his close collaboration with Prime Minister Lester Pearson indicate the potential for the project, which was then publicly put forward in March 1964. The Prime Minister of Canada and his resource minister Pepin were then in favor of the study, as was BC Premier William A.C. Bennett. Robert Kennedy co-sponsored Frank Moss’s HCR 55 in 1965 to have Johnson to refer NAWAPA to the IJC. The true history of NAWAPA can be found in a video documentary called, “NAWAPA 1964.”

  • Macwhirr

    The purported economic arguments against water transfers reflect the same penny-wise, pound-foolish thinking that has decimated our once productive economy. You could use the same logic to argue against any form of interstate commerce, since transport costs could be avoided by buying only local products. The result would be that each now-isolated region would be reduced to a Third World economy.

    The idea that the problem could be solved by simply reducing consumption is a proposal to sign the death warrant for the southwestern U.S. And the suggestion that NAWAPA would “spread the malaise of scarcity” to Alaska is just plain ignorant.

  • Craig

    Wow, it’s refreshing to read that the powers that be are starting to get realistic about water resource management. The past 100 years of “management” in the western US should provide a powerful cautionary tale regarding engineered solutions to the problem of people wanting to live and farm where there isn’t enough water available. The story of Owens Valley is just one of many in which one locale is permanently harmed in order for another area to thrive. I find it both sad and scary that some people still support these kinds of projects; hubris seems to know no bounds. I am optimistic, however, that this sort of “think big” mentality is on the wane, and many policy makers are beginning to see the potential benefit of thinking small.

  • bruce todd

    Two projects in the new jersey region which had they been fulfilled would have done much to alleviate potable water, flood control, irrigation, and hydro- power production, were the abandoned Tocks Island Dam Project for the Deleware River, and the Joseph Wharton (1826-1909) attempt to build a series of dams in southern new jersey to flood at that time what was an almost uninhabitted region, which still today is called the “pine barrens”. Now in an area which contains the cohansey aquifer, extensive draining by wells despite the massive amount of runoff from rivers in the area, salt water intrusion from the ocean is occurring. Wharton, whose other interests were steel, railroads, and canals, wanted to bring that water to the Philadelphia and New Jersey area. Just like Roosevelts T.V.A., such projects bring immense benefits for the future.

  • No “Green” Facist

    As a Citizen of the Republic and a follower of Physical Economic Development of Sovereign Nation States, I am compelled to response by saying, “Go Jump in a River.” Build NAWAPA!

  • Yaseen Abdul Malik

    The fact that you even look at a huge project like Nawapa as being unaffoardable clearly shows that your concern for the complete preservation of not only man but all forms of life in the USA is irrational. The Nawapa project, should it ever be started, would be the largest economic boom in american history ( which this country is in dire need of). It would create millions of not only direct, lbut also indirect jobs in the long run plus in the
    same process create new farmlands, cheap energy msources through damn building and overall increase not only the usefullness of the areas irrigated but also an increase in living stardard for billions of people not born yet. The only other way besides that is genocide, which your plan(s) hint at smh

  • Yaseen Abdul Malik

    Ps: And i’ve been calling all of my political leaders to press the issue( catch my drift punk )

  • anonymous

    “Because here’s the thing about water importation projects: they spread the malaise of water scarcity to other places.”
    Hahaha, yeah, those poor Alaskans with their huge state covered in snow and rivers wouldn’t have enough water if NAWAPA was implemented. Right.

  • AL

    Study says Colorado River water supply to fall short of demand. Why not reduce demand by reducing water waste in the areas that depend on that water supply? Water Select® helps educate people on how to conserve water in the home. Go green, reduce your water and carbon footprints, and help conserve water for our national river systems. For more info go to water-select.com

  • Md.Ashraff Hossain

    it is very charming to look at.

  • Md.Ashraff Hossain


  • R. Rudolik

    “Thankfully, NAWAPA died on the bookshelves. Because here’s the thing about water importation projects: they spread the malaise of water scarcity to other places.” That’s just about the most ignorant statement I’ve ever heard, particularly regarding NAWAPA, which proposes to import water that would drain into the Arctic Ocean. Thousands of years of civilisation is built upon the concept of irrigation. Had it not been for man-made channels, no intensive farming in the cradles of man’s historical foundation would have been possible, no surplus of goods would be possible, and no civilisation would occur. Is that better than starving the Arctic of excessive runoff? I don’t think so.

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