Conditions on the drying Colorado River are worsening faster than expected. States can’t agree on how to divide water cuts. Native American officials say they’re still largely shut out from the bargaining table and murmurs of a dystopian “water war” scenario now punctuate the conversations.
The crisis is over a century in the making and water experts have been ringing alarm bells for decades. Now government officials have weeks or months, not years, to find ways to save massive amounts of water.
At risk are the country’s two largest reservoirs — lakes Powell and Mead — both of which are losing water. Levels could drop so low this year that Glen Canyon and Hoover dams would no longer be able to generate electricity for millions of people. By the end of next year, Powell’s water level could fall so low that its dam will only be able to send smaller quantities of water downstream to Arizona, California and Nevada.
Federal officials need the seven states in the Colorado River Basin to save at least 2 million acre-feet but water managers now acknowledge that number might need to be three times higher, enough to bury the entire state of Rhode Island under more than seven feet of water.
And that’s just so the basin can survive long enough to plan for the years ahead. Nobody wants to be the one responsible for turning down — or off — taps to farmers, ranchers, companies or even major cities.
Local, state and federal officials often mention using more efficient irrigation methods on cropland and they discuss accounting for water lost to evaporation or as it’s transported across thousands of miles of desert terrain. But neither of those two — necessary — steps will be enough.
The Denver Post spoke to experts across the region about ideas, both substantive and farfetched, that could save enough water to keep the Colorado River Basin afloat. Nobody could say precisely how much water a given strategy might provide but each of them acknowledged that officials throughout the American West must think creatively and be prepared to use any and all available resources.
Here are several of those ideas:
The gist: The Pacific Ocean has more than enough water to supplement whatever the Colorado River has lost. But, as it is, ocean water is not safe to drink, nor can it be used on crops. Running ocean water through a desalination plant can filter out its dangerously high salt content, bacteria and other impurities to make it safe for use.
Could it work? The technology is already in use but no plants in existence can replace the amount of water the Colorado River is losing. Plus, desalination is expensive, time consuming and the waste it produces would create new problems.
Click here to see how desalination could fit in to the West’s strategy to save the Colorado River.
Reuse and recycling
The gist: Collect water that’s already been used and use it again.
Could it work? Many cities and states are already using these strategies, though the amount of water that can be recycled and reused is limited by population size and legal constraints.
Click here to see how reuse and recycling could fit in to the West’s strategy to save the Colorado River.
The gist: If the Colorado River is losing water so fast, why not take water from the places that have it and transport it into the basin that needs it, likely with a system of pipes?
Could it work? Water is already transported all across the country using pipelines and canals. But this is an expensive, time-consuming undertaking that would come with substantial political challenges. In addition, many other regions across the country are suffering droughts as well.
Click here to see how importing water could fit in to the West’s strategy to save the Colorado River.
The gist: By spraying a chemical compound — typically silver iodide — into certain types of clouds, seeders can agitate super-chilled water particles inside, causing them to freeze and fall to the ground as snow.
Could it work? The technology is already in use across the West, though the process likely doesn’t create snow or moisture. Instead, it uses moisture that’s already in the air and causes snow to fall in one location rather than another.
Click here to see how cloud seeding could fit in to the West’s strategy to save the Colorado River.
The gist: The more people, industries and businesses that call the American West their home, the more water those communities will need. Cities and states can encourage current residents to use less water, especially with aspects like water-dependent lawns. And they can require new homes and businesses to ensure they have a water supply before building.
Could it work? Cities across the West are taking steps to grow responsibly and sustainably. But new laws depend on the political atmosphere of a given city or state and can take time to enact. Plus, cities and businesses only account for a fraction of overall water use.
Click here to see how managing growth could fit in to the West’s strategy to save the Colorado River.
The gist: State and federal officials could use huge chunks of now-available money to “buy and dry” farmland, farmers could periodically let their fields lay fallow or they can switch to less water-consumptive crops. Likely, the basin needs a combination of all of these combined with efficiency improvements throughout the industry to save water from the irrigating process.
Could it work? Averaging the seven states together, agriculture consumes about 75% of the Colorado River’s water, so the biggest potential savings will likely stem from changes to the industry. Changes would be costly and depend on variables like the types of crops and the region in which they’re being grown. The agriculture industry is also a major employer across the West upon which many other industries depend. Agriculture also provides food across the world, so changes could disrupt the supply and cost of food.
Click here to see how changes to the agriculture industry could fit in to the West’s strategy to save the Colorado River.
The gist: Pay people not to use water or to use less. Or hike the price of water to encourage less use.
Could it work? Finding ways to reduce demand for water across the Colorado River Basin encompasses many other strategies and has been described as the way of the future. Some aspects only qualify as short-term solutions, though. They must be followed by a long-term strategy.
Click here to see how demand management could fit in to the West’s strategy to save the Colorado River.
Native American tribes
The gist: By legally cementing the water rights for the tribes depending on the Colorado River, state and federal governments could begin to lease, buy or otherwise compensate the tribes for their water. In addition, this would give the tribes better access to their own water, which they need to drink, farm and develop their communities.
Could it work? State and federal officials must work with Native American tribes to solve the Colorado River’s water crisis. But governments have a poor track record of working with the tribes, sewing generations of mistrust. Many of the tribes remain without clean drinking water and the necessary infrastructure to access what’s rightfully theirs.
Click here to see how working with Native American tribes could fit in to the West’s strategy to save the Colorado River.
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