Categories
op-ed vol1:3

The Arid Southwest And the River It Depends On

[blockquote3]“Record-setting drought reduced flows on the Colorado River by nearly 20 percent…[so far] this century…”
– Shaun McKinnon, The Republic | azcentral.com[/blockquote3]

On the Upper Great Plains where I grew up, folks dreaded winter, complained about having to shovel snow and rejoiced when spring arrived. Here in the mountains, it’s different. We welcome winter and worry when there isn’t enough snow.

 

The more the better.

 

In the San Juan Mountains where I live, we expect abundant snow in winter and a big thaw in spring that lasts well into the summer. We expect “mud month” to start sometime in April and run into May, although exactly when it happens varies from year to year.

 

Mud month was abbreviated in 2018 because there was so little snow to melt. If it gets much shorter we will have to start calling it mud week or, God forbid, mud day.

 

The streams that usually run strong in early summer were down to a trickle in June. By the Fourth of July, some were bone dry for the first time in recent memory.

 

We often ignore problems that don’t directly affect us—until they do. It’s human nature. When my cistern ran dry in August, I became acutely aware of how dependent we all are on a reliable water supply. We imagine that water is limitless and tend to take it for granted because all we have to do is turn on a faucet or push a button on the washing machine.

 

Nowhere in America is public awareness of water as a finite resource more critical than in the Southwest, a rapidly growing arid region with sprawling cities largely dependent on a single source of fresh water: The Colorado River.

 

[blockquote3]“The Colorado River is the most dammed, drained, depleted river on the planet.”
– Gary Wockner, Director, Save the Colorado[/blockquote3]

 

Under the Colorado River Compact—a deal struck almost a century ago and still in effect—the lion’s share of Colorado River water belongs to six other states in the region. At the time, the river seemed to have a nearly unlimited supply of water, and the compact divided it equally between the Upper and Lower states.

 

The four Upper Basin states (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico) and three Lower Basin states (Arizona, Nevada, and California) each get a total of 7.5 million acre-feet per year.

 

The Lower Basin states were given the right to an extra million acre-feet if necessary. After all, it’s just water.

 

That attitude is perfectly understandable in the context of the early 1920s when populations were low, the Rockies were snowcapped year-round and the flow rate in the Colorado was strong and steady. It was hard then to imagine that it would ever be “depleted”.

 

[blockquote3]…2000 to 2014 [is] a period marked by one of the worst droughts in modern history. The river’s flow during those years declined by 19 percent, about 2.9 million acre-feet per year compared with the long-term average from 1906 to 1999.” – Shaun McKinnon, The Republic|azcentral.com[/blockquote3]

 

In 1948, the Upper Basin states agreed on a water-sharing formula in which Colorado’s share is 51.75 percent. (Utah gets 23 percent, Wyoming 14 percent, and New Mexico 11.25 percent.) Colorado gets roughly a quarter of the total (half of the Upper Basin’s half). The rest goes south and west.

 

As much as two-thirds of Colorado’s share is diverted across (or under) the continental divide to the Front Range. The water diversion started in 1985 with the Windy Gap Project.

 

Climate change is not the only or even the major reason why so much Western Slope water is diverted to Denver and other cities on the East Slope. Rather, it’s a reflection of a problem that will not go away even if we get normal or above-normal precipitation levels in some of the coming years.

 

The real problem is too many people in too many of the wrong places—thirsty cities and crops in desiccated landscapes.

 

When the Colorado River Compact was hammered out almost a century ago California’s population stood at four million or just 10% of its present population; the rest of the Southwest (minus Texas) did not reach four million until the early 1950s. In 2016 it had climbed to 21 million.

 

Massive metropolitan areas— most notably Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego, among others—have grown exponentially, creating an ever-increasing need for water, but as is true of many overpopulated and arid regions, California’s own water resources are relatively inelastic Today, 55-65 percent of southern California’s water comes from the Colorado River which forms the state’s border with Arizona.

 

Much the same is true of the other two Lower Basin states. Las Vegas and Phoenix are two examples of outsized cities located in a desert where the term “drought” has no place because lack of water is a natural and permanent condition.

 

In December 2007 the seven original compact states signed a new “historic” agreement. The AP gushed, “Seven Western states signed a sweeping agreement on Thursday to conserve and share scarce Colorado River water, ending a divisive battle among the thirsty rivals” and noted “…the drought plan lets the lower-basin states of California, Nevada and Arizona use the vast Lake Mead reservoir behind Hoover Dam to store water they conserve or don’t need for use later.”

 

Problem solved, right? Not so fast: In mid-August of this year Lake Powell measured 49% full and Lake Mead a meager 38% full. Neither “lake” would exist without the Colorado River.

 

Closer to home, the Blue Mesa Reservoir west of Gunnison—the largest reservoir entirely contained in Colorado—is 77.41 feet below Full Pool (or 32.88% of Full Pool). It’s jarring to see it now.

 

If you’ve driven by a receding reservoir lately and wondered where all the water has gone, have a look at a good map of Colorado’s river systems and you’ll get the picture. On the Western Slope where I live, the Uncompahgre is a tributary of the Gunnison which flows into the Colorado River, which no longer reaches the Sea of Cortez. If that doesn’t answer the question, look again.

 

[blockquote3]California had it own Zero Day not long ago when, in Tulare County in the Central Valley, an area of corporate farms, something like a thousand wells went dry…more than seven thousand people…[were] occupying houses where you would turn on a tap and nothing came out. – Alec Wilkinson, Esquire[/blockquote3]

 

In 2010, California needed 38 billion gallons of water per day—a 116.617.7 acre feet—to sustain its population and economy. About 80% of Colorado River water is used to irrigate 3.5 million acres of farmland in the arid Southwest. It would take California only about a week to drain the Blue Mesa Reservoir at Full Pool.

 

Water for food and profit accounts for 80% of California’s water consumption. Almond production alone takes 10% of the total. At a water cost of one gallon per almond, that’s more water than Los Angeles and San Francisco together use.

 

We can’t make more water and there’s not going to be enough to go around. It’s true that there’s a vast amount of water in our world—salt water. Less than 3 percent is fresh; two-thirds of the fresh water takes the form of ice or permafrost. That leaves less than 1 percent for all the planet’s existing fauna and flora.

 

Meanwhile, elected officials get failing marks for water leadership. Few ever dare to engage in straight talk about overpopulation or water conservation, and virtually never talk about the vital relationship between these two major challenges in the 21st century.

 

Campaign contributions (PAC money) and raw politics (bitter take-no-prisoners partisanship) trump sound public policy. Too many members of Congress care too much about being re-elected and too little about breaking the gridlock in Washington and getting things done.

 

Bottom line: this November, make an effort to find out where candidates on the ballot stand on water-conservation, clean energy, and climate change, and vote as if planet earth and life as we know it depends on the outcome. Because it does.