How To Prevent A ‘Complete Doomsday’ Along The Colorado River

Via The Washington Post, commentary on potential steps to avoid a complete doomsday along the Colorado River:

Time is running out for the Colorado River. After more than two decades of drought fueled by climate change, the once-mighty waterway has seen its flow shrink by more than 20 percent. Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the nation’s largest reservoirs, are about three-quarters empty. And forecasts for the future are even more dire: Officials warn that, if water levels continue to fall, the river could see a “complete doomsday scenario.”

This looming catastrophe would have far-reaching consequences. Seven states and 30 tribes rely on the river. The basin’s hundreds of hydropower dams also provide energy to millions of people across the Southwest.

What would it take to save the Colorado River? As we wrote last year, there are no painless solutions. But leadership and investment now could spare parched states an enormous amount of grief in the future — and start the overdue transition to a more sustainable relationship with water in the region. 

Start with cuts

Most stakeholders along the river agree that drastic cuts in water use are urgently needed. But states have struggled to reach a consensus on the terms of these reductions. Under the conditions of a century-old compact, states in the river’s Upper Basin agreed to preserve a certain amount of water each year for states downstream. These allocations were based on optimistic estimates for the river’s flow — ones that have long since proved unrealistic. Even under more recent guidelines, there simply is not enough water in the system to distribute at agreed-upon levels.

At the end of January, a federal deadline to get all seven states to come to a voluntary agreement on reductions passed without a deal. Six states — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — submitted a joint proposal with potential cuts, particularly to California’s share.

California — which holds senior water rights to the river and is its largest user — submitted its own proposal, which spread cuts out more among the states and kicked in later than the six-state plan. If further reductions were needed, they would be allocated based on the priority system, preserving the flow to California’s agricultural districts over urban centers in central Arizona.

This puts the federal government in a difficult position. The Interior Department is right to prioritize a voluntary agreement, which would improve the chances of buy-in and factor in local needs. But if negotiations fail to yield an effective model, the department should prepare to step in.

Fortunately, the agency has tools in its arsenal, including the ability to define the “beneficial use” of water and allocate deliveries according to that standard. Interior also oversees the operating guidelines of the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams, allowing it to reduce downstream releases to safeguard hydrologic conditions. Even the threat of federal intervention could encourage states to share the burden. 

Use water smarter in cities

Agreeing to cuts, while critical, is only the first step. Communities, including cities and suburbs across the Southwest, will then have to undertake the difficult process of reimagining their water use.

Some localities have already managed to dramatically reduce their reliance on water. Las Vegas has been a standout, banning ornamental turf, limiting water deliveries to golf courses and reducing swimming pool sizes. This comes after decades of effective advertising to get households to voluntarily reduce their water use. Local authorities have also invested heavily in water recycling: Approximately 99 percent of indoor water in the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s service area is recycled, meaning that even the resorts on Las Vegas Strip waste very little water.

Cities can also make existing infrastructure more efficient. That could involve reducing leakage in pipes by auditing water loss and setting up controls to reduce the drain. States could also establish high-efficiency standards for plumbing products so they require less water pressure.

In the long term, however, Western cities looking to conserve water will need to find ways to reduce urban sprawl. Low-density development can cause more runoff, while lawns and parks require lots of water to maintain. Shifting development will take planning and foresight — and that work should begin now. 

Help farms reduce waste

But urban areas account for only a fraction of the Colorado River’s use. Approximately 80 percent of its water goes into agriculture. Though farms and ranches have come a long way in the past two decades, there is plenty of room to make these systems more efficient.

For a start, federal, state and local authorities can incentivize farmers to adopt more sustainable irrigation practices. This could involve switching from flood irrigation to sprinklers and drip, adding pump-back systems to reuse water and lining canals with materials that reduce drainage. Agencies can also recompense farmers for temporarily fallowing land and growing crops that require less water. Many crops produced in the region, such as alfalfa, are water-intensive species that are primarily used for livestock and often shipped abroad.

The Inflation Reduction Act contained $4 billion for drought relief, including water-saving projects. The Biden administration plans to use part of this funding to compensate farmers, cities and tribes for reducing water use, as well as for salinity and restoration projects. This is a promising start, but the scale of change required might necessitate more resources in the future. In that case, Congress should be prepared to act.

Invest in alternative water sources

Reducing water use is only one part of the equation. Authorities also need to find other sources of water — especially ones that are not at the mercy of weather patterns and climate change.

One possibility is desalinating water: Israel has managed to build up this infrastructure to great effect. This was the backbone of a proposal last year from Arizona’s governor at the time, Doug Ducey (R). Desalinated water is extremely expensive to produce, and the process requires a great deal of energy. But desalinating brackish water — water with more salinity than freshwater but less than seawater — is a cheaper option that generates fewer byproducts, though the required infrastructure would take years to build.

Water recycling is also more cost-effective than desalinating seawater, and the public has become more accustomed to drinking treated water over the years. Storm water capture can play a critical role as well. Los Angeles, for example, has made promising investments to save rainwater runoff, including expanding cisterns and underground basins that collect water, and seen some early successes.

There is no panacea for decades of overuse and environmental degradation. The battle to safeguard the Colorado River for future generations will not be won with a single policy or announcement. Yet, for now, there is still a window — albeit a rapidly closing one — to act. Local and state authorities, Congress, federal agencies and all others with a stake in the river need to rise to the challenge — or see the “lifeblood of the West” dry up before their eyes.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 15th, 2023 at 5:45 am and is filed under Colorado River, United States.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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