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A Christmas Present for the Colorado River

  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...

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.

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Meet the Author

Brian Richter
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.