What the New York Times Misses About the Colorado River

Colorado River
The Colorado River. Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior

When the New York Times features an alarming story about water in the West, people pay attention. This week’s story, “Colorado River Drought Forces a Painful Reckoning for States” by Michael Wines, trended as the Times’ most emailed piece for much of Monday. The article helped to elevate the reach and understanding of Western water issues, but for those of us in Colorado and other basin states, this reality is one we must face every day.

Drought has gripped the Colorado River basin for fourteen years, and reservoir operation rules that address dwindling water supply are being triggered. For the first time since the 1922 Colorado River Compact was signed, this year’s water delivery from the Upper Basin states (CO, NM, UT, and WY) to the Lower Basin states (AZ, CA, and NV) will be reduced. Barring an epic snow year in the Rockies – since the Colorado’s supply relies heavily on snowfall – water shortages may be imposed on Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico as soon as 2016.  Drought, whether or not influenced by climate change, is dealing a tough hand to this arid-leaning region of North America.

The good news, as reported by the Times, is that many water managers understand the dire circumstance of reduced snowfall, as well as the options available to avoid water rationing.  Water conservation – already widely employed across the region – is an imperative moving forward, whether or not the drought persists.  The Great Recession temporarily slowed the region’s meteoric rise in population, but its cities are growing again.  In some cities where people bathe, drink, water lawns, and wash cars with Colorado River water, historic tightening of supplies has successfully and dramatically reduced per capita use, extending supplies. Many cities use less water now than they did a decade ago, despite population growth.

Still, even the most water-thrifty cities in the basin have a long way to go before they achieve conservation levels seen in other cities across the globe, such as those in Australia and Israel.

Where water has been plentiful, by dint of geography or law, investments in water conservation are less common.  John Fleck makes this point nicely in a recent Albuquerque Journal post:  “When there is more water, people use more water. When there is less, they use less.  The trick is making the transition from one to the other. New data from state water managers suggest New Mexicans are doing better at this task than I expected.”

Santa Fe is a terrific example of a city that has adapted to and thrived in dry conditions, as are Tucson, Long Beach, and other Western cities. This should be a call to action for the rest of the Basin: the time to increase incentives that promote water saving is now – before regulations and requirements become necessities.

Water conservation in agriculture will be more of a challenge. While the Times cites laser-leveling of fields as a practice to reduce farm run-off, this practice may not actually save water.  Much of the water that leaves farms is already going back into our water supply where it is used over and over again. Limited but promising options for conserving water in agriculture are technologies that reduce evaporation, such as drip irrigation of high-value crops.  These technologies can also add resilience to farming operations.  But to make such technologies effective at saving water, farmers will need financial incentives to reduce water use and changes to law and regulation that allow them to profit from the savings.

Historically in the West, water has been permanently taken out of agriculture to feed the thirst of our growing cities, and the acreage of irrigated fields has declined.  That’s something to consider as Western communities make choices about water supply:  do we want lawns if it means we have to buy-up and dry-up our irrigated open spaces and our culture of farming and ranching?

Another important point is one Wines failed to capture in his story: what all of this – the problem of extended drought and the solutions we employ – mean for the Colorado River itself.  The mighty Colorado is not simply infrastructure for water delivery. It is the lifeline of the American West.  It is a river of legends, with awe-inspiring canyons that have for centuries seduced people to explore their depths. Citizens of the West and the rest of the globe alike love the Colorado River for the thrill of its rapids, the shade of its riverside forests that make for epic fishing, and the serene calm of a morning view from a houseboat on one of its large reservoirs. Colorado River recreation adds some $26 billion to the economy every year.

Those with the power to affect Colorado River water management – our elected leaders and the officials they appoint – have the power to preserve the natural wonders of the American West.  Persistent drought presents these leaders with a significant challenge, and how they respond will have an enduring impact, not only on the economic viability of our cities and rural counties, but also on the health of the Colorado River.

In the words of Anne Castle, Assistant Secretary for Water and Science at the Department of Interior, “we can’t simply sacrifice recreational and environmental flows when times get tough. We know that outdoor recreation is an important driver of the Southwestern economy, just like agriculture, so we’ve got to consider all of those things together. It’s essential to our economy. It’s essential to our way of life.”

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.
  • Brian Richter

    Great post, Jennifer! Thanks for highlighting the importance of water conservation in resolving water shortages among Colorado River users. Too often, media reporters tend to highlight the more controversial or sensational proposals for securing additional water supplies, such as diverting water from the Missouri River basin or cloud seeding. However, the cost-effectiveness and sustainablity benefits of water conservation are irrefutable. Deploying water conservation strategies can also add up to a huge volume of water savings. You mentioned the potential for saving water in agricultural irrigation, and you also point out some of the challenges. But I think it’s important to keep the potential volume of water savings in mind. Of all the water consumptively used from the Colorado River (i.e., water that is extracted and not returned to the river), more than HALF goes to irrigated agriculture. Saving just 10% of that irrigation water would free up enough water to double the water use in all cities dependent on the river and yet still keep agriculture in full production. Better yet, let’s split those water savings with the cities and the river, and bring the Colorado River delta back to life!

  • Bill Orme

    Shouldn’t this piece be welcomed rather than assailed? Not every news story can say everything about its topic in its limited space, nor should it try. There is a reason these are called ‘newspapers.’ The NYT piece on the Colorado provides valuable and disturbing new information on critically declining river levels quite cogently and effectively. It is unfair and inaccurate to imply that the reporter somehow overlooked the fundamental issue of water conservation. After citing several examples of real if insufficient and overdue moves to save water along the river’s course, the story closes with this ‘kicker’ (as they say in the news biz): “Even after those measures, federal officials say, much greater conservation is possible. Local officials say they have little choice.“The era of big water transfers is either over, or it’s rapidly coming to an end,” said Mr. Entsminger, the southern Nevada water official. “It sure looks like in the 21st century, we’re all going to have to use less water.”

  • LFarwell

    Agriculture uses TOO much water growing low value crops in the desert. Not every agricultural acre should be provided water. Some agric. land (west side of San Joaquin Valley, Salt River Project, AZ) should never have been provided irrigation water and should be retired NOW. Growing alfalfa to export to Japan, cotton to export, sugar beets for a protected US market, etc, etc, etc. does tremendous damage to our rivers, lakes and groundwater basins. Let’s take a serious, adult look at agriculture and stop repeating the myths of the ‘family farm.’

  • Rodney T. Smith

    Great post. The basin acknowledges that there will be less water going forward than available in the 20th century (climate change, return to long-term identified by tree-ring studies, whatever). In addition, there will be greater variability in natural flow. So, conservation and storage will become increasingly important. Economic incentives to conserve are critical

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