Study: Colorado River can’t meet long-term demand

A 2001 NASA satellite image shows the dessicated Colorado River delta. Click on the image to visit the NASA Earth Observatory page.

New U.S. Bureau of Reclamation report outlines tough scenario for resource managers

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — The Upper Colorado River Basin — including Summit County — could see deficits in its compact obligation to deliver water downstream as often as once every five years by 2040, according to a massive new Bureau of Reclamation study released this week.

The study details a 50-year Colorado River water supply and demand outlook. Based on a combination of population growth and climate models that show a general drying trend in the region, the river could be short by at least 3.2 million acre feet by 2060, and perhaps by as much as 8 million acre feet, according to the Colorado River Water Users Association.

Colorado River water is used by about 40 million people in seven states: Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming. Under the most aggressive growth scenario, that number could nearly double, to about 76 million people, by 2060.

“You can’t manage a resource that you can’t measure,” said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, announcind the results of the study during a press conference. “With he help of the U.S. Geological Survey, we are gathering crucial science about our water supplies and how we will use them … We need to work with other partners on the Colorado River, as we have been. That same spirit of partnership is needed to tackle all the water challenges we will face,” Salazar said.

Those challenges are daunting, Salazar continued, acknowledging that the river is already stretched to the limit.

“We need to recognize that frankly, the legal construct we have already over-subscribes the water by several million acre feet,” he said explaining that the best available climate science suggests that the Colorado River Basin could see an overall 9 percent reduction in flows in the next 50 years.

Salazar also acknowledged that there is no easy answer to filling the projected shortfall, and said that federal resource managers won’t look outside the basin, rejecting ideas like shunting Missouri River water to Colorado, or towing icebergs to Southern California.

“Those ideas are “impractical and technically not feasible,” Salazar said. “We will pursue practical common sense solutions … like reducing demand thru efficiency and conservation, and also increasing our supply through practical measures like re-use,” he added.

The Colorado River Basin States will have to work together to find ways to make the existing water go further, he said. That will include intensified conservation efforts, significant re-use of water and conversion of agricultural water to municipal and industrial purposes, since that’s where the greatest demand will continue to come from.

That work must begin now, said Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Ann Castle.

“The problem of a drier Colorado River Basin is one that we have to tackle now so that our children and grandchildren will have water,” she said.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Michael Connor reinforced Salazar’s comments about practical solutions. He said the agency has no plans to pursue Missouri River imports and explained that uncertainties related to conservation, weather modification and water banking must be resolved as part of the equation. Scientists must also continue to refine climate projections to help firm up estimates of future supplies, he concluded.


4 thoughts on “Study: Colorado River can’t meet long-term demand

  1. While becoming more water efficient is important in reducing water overconsumption, humanity also has to do something about stopping population growth. Otherwise, population growth will just cancel out any gains in water conservation. Increased access to family planning educational services and affordable contraception are needed on a worldwide basis.

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