Everything You Never Wanted to Know about the Colorado River Basin

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The Bureau of Reclamation released a new report on water usage in the Colorado River Basin. Short version, water is currently over-allocated and providing water to 40 million people. Projections are that by 2060 it will need to supply water to almost 71 million people-the basin will be 3.2 million acre feet of water short of meeting that demand.

It took two years to complete this study, and involved projections from seven states. Critics are suggesting that the anticipated population growth in the study amounted to little more than padding on the part of states so that their pet water projects would be funded. Likewise, climate deniers pooh-pooh the fact that the words climate change are in the report.

The final report runs to 1,000 pages, so I have not read the whole report. However, there was a fact sheet produced by the authors, which , along with the Executive Summary, is the basis of my comments.

The importance of this river system to the west cannot be overstated. From the Executive Summary:

“The Colorado River and its tributaries provide water to nearly 40 million people for municipal use, supply water used to irrigate nearly 5.5 million acres of land, and is also the lifeblood for at least 22 federally recognized tribes (tribes),7 National Wildlife Refuges, 4 National Recreation Areas, and 11 National Parks. Hydropower facilities along the Colorado River provide more than 4,200 megawatts of generating capacity, helping to meet the power needs of the West and offset the use of fossil fuels. The Colorado River is also vital to the United Mexican States (Mexico) to meet both agricultural and municipal water needs.”

Today there is already a shortage of water in the basin as measured by demand vs. supply. That shortage is projected to increase over time, the consequence of increased population and more frequent drought years.

“Studies have postulated that by mid-century the average yield of the Colorado River could be reduced by 10-20 percent due to climate change.” (Konola: There’s that phrase! Heads must be exploding at Fox News.)

When water is allocated, there are two types of usage: consumptive and non-consumptive. One example of non-consumptive is water that is used in hydroelectric plants because it eventually returns to the river. Consumptive water defines usage by manufacturing and households. The study projects increases in consumptive usage over the next 50 years.

This report is not all gloom and doom, although the solutions discussed in the report will be difficult to implement. During an open comment period, over 150 potential solutions were presented to the agency.  The report categorizes the potential solutions into four categories: increase supply, reduce demand, modify operations, and governance and implementation. As in study, the authors claim there was not enough money to adequately measure the usefulness of each of the proposed solutions. However, they did take a closer look at 30 of the 150 proposals.

Proposals that might increase supply include desalination of ocean water, reusing municipal and industrial waste water, treating coal-bed methane produced water, and harvesting rain water. Another sub-category in the increase supply proposals included things like forest management and tamarisk control. There were even proposals to modify the weather. And, of course there were proposals to take water from somewhere else: from the Missouri or Mississippi Rivers, from the Bear, Snake, or Yellowstone Rivers, from the Columbia River, or the best-importing ice-bergs.

Proposals that might decrease demand include conservation of manufacturing and industrial and agricultural water and converting power plants from water cooling to air cooling.

Proposals to modify operations include covering canals to reduce evaporation, covering reservoirs, using chemical covers to reduce evaporation. (Gee, that sounds good to me. How about we put a layer of oil on top of all canals and reservoirs to preserve the water and pollute it at the same time.) Some proposals included modifying the current operations of reservoirs and/or building new ones. Finally there is the concept of water banking.

The cumulative increase in water supply from all of the proposals was about 11 million cubic feet per year. None of the proposals had a price-tag attached, but study authors point out that not all of the proposals have the same feasibility. Discounting for feasibility, the 11 million cubic feet per year is reduced to 7 million. One of the options deemed unfeasible was hauling icebergs to California.

The Executive Summary concludes:

“The Study confirms that the Colorado River Basin faces a range of potential future imbalances between supply and demand. Addressing such imbalances will require diligent planning and cannot be resolved through any single approach or option. Instead, an approach that applies a wide variety of ideas at local, state, regional, and Basin-wide levels is needed. The Study’s

portfolio exploration demonstrated implementation of a broad range of options can reduce Basin

resource vulnerability and improve the system’s resiliency to dry hydrologic conditions while

meeting increasing demands in the Basin and adjacent areas receiving Colorado River water.”

Homework (Link to actual report):


2 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. dmindgo says:

    valuable info and call to action.

  2. cuppajoe says:

    Thanks, Konola, for keeping a whole lot of people informed regarding this very important subject.

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