Sharing water becomes more complicated
GUNNISON, Colo. It all seemed so simple 85 years ago: The proportions were cut and dried.Turns out, they’re all wet.Explosive growth, an extended drought and forecasts for a dry future are causing many to reconsider the effects of the Colorado River Compact.For a traditional Hopi farmer, it means trying to balance an ancient world view against the pressures of modern development.For the manager of the Las Vegas water district, it means trying to stretch a supply of water once thought adequate in a gamble that didn’t pay off.For a Colorado water developer, it means using the rules of the existing system in a radical way to meet Front Range water needs.Meanwhile, river preservations want even less use of the river to give it a chance to rebound a little from the forced imposition of civilization.A dizzying spectrum of viewpoints on the Colorado River emerged this week at the 32nd Colorado Water Workshop at Western State College. For three days, 25 speakers discussed future challenges faced in the basin.”This piddling river is not among the 25 largest in the United States, but it has the two largest reservoirs. That shows you how important the water is,” said Jack Schmidt, a Utah State University professor who is among the top river researchers in the nation.He argued that better water management could keep the upper part of the river relatively wild and improve the lower reaches to some extent, although water development has taken a big toll.”Whether any changes will be made is perhaps a matter of values as well as a science,” Schmidt said.
Or from another perspective:”We have plenty of water. The people are in the wrong places,” opined Jack Flobeck, a water consultant from Colorado Springs.One of the more moving presentations during the workshop came from Ferrell Secakuku, a former chairman of the Hopi nation.Secakuku explained that the Hopis were largely unaware of the West’s code of water rights until the 1950s, and did not realize their supply of water was threatened. Much of the water for domestic use came from nearby streams. The Hopi relied on prayers and feathers for the crops.In the 1960s, the tribe began drilling wells, making life easier, but changing the balance of it. Still, the average Hopi uses only about one-eighth of the water of the average American.”Our water use is intensifying, both in population growth and per capita use,” Secakuku said.Coal mining operations in northern Arizona for power development are drawing down water tables, as well, putting pressure on the Hopis.”Our elders taught us that economics, material possessions and education are necessary, but secondary. The core of life is a sustainable core,” Secakuku said. “Our prayers are so there is plenty left for future generations. Our way of life promotes ecological morality.”The future is arriving at a rapid pace in Las Vegas, where water authorities have paid customers $100 million to dig up their lawns. Water districts have enacted conservation measures to accommodate the fastest rate of growth in the United States.”Water is fundamental to our existence,” said Pat Mulroy, director of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. “Yet we have constructed a legal system that would separate us from water that is fundamental to our survival.”Western water rights are shifting to water responsibility, Mulroy said. In recent negotiations, lower basin states in the Colorado River Compact agreed to “share shortages” in the future, rather than insisting on full entitlements.
“Why do we think it’s easier to deflect our pain so that other states have more pain?” Mulroy said. “A water right is a protection against shortages. But a water right is useless when you get to a drought.”Nevada and Arizona have entered a water banking agreement that crosses state lines, providing hope that the future won’t be marked by the conflicts of the past.A Colorado businessman is banking on interstate cooperation to develop a plan to bring water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to the Front Range.Aaron Million’s unorthodox plan attracted a lot of attention during the workshop, even though he left after his presentation on the first day.”There’s an opportunity for integration among the states,” Million said.His plan could bring the equivalent amount of water into the state to satisfy the entire current demands of Colorado Springs and Aurora, but would be spread among cities, water districts and farms while helping with environmental needs.There would be added security because Flaming Gorge relies on a higher watershed with a different rate of runoff.”It would minimize the hydrologic risk to the benefit of the entire system,” Million said.For as many speakers who advocated better use of the Colorado River, there were those who urged less use.Mark Bird, of the Community College of Southern Nevada, argued that an economic collapse of Southern California is not only possible but probable. The Colorado River is overused and reservoirs are filling with sediments that reduce their capacity to store water and generate power.His long-term alternative is to develop desalinization of sea water to meet water needs in California.
“Blame it on the politicians,” he said. “The solutions are already out there.”Richard Ingebretsen, of the Glen Canyon Institute, suggested Lake Powell is not necessary for regulating flows on the Colorado.The drought of recent years, predicted to become an every-other-year event by global warming scientists, has lowered the level of Lake Powell to reveal unique geologic features once trapped underwater, Ingebretsen said.”Glen Canyon is being restored by global warming,” he joyfully proclaimed as he showed before-and-after slides of many points along Glen Canyon. “The bathtub ring is disappearing. The waterfalls and seeps are coming back. When the sediment moves, the natural features come back.”Ingebretsen argued that the required amount of water flows past Lee Ferry, the dividing line between the upper and lower basin, every year even without Lake Powell and said water could be stored more efficiently in Mead.Others said it would be wise to hold on to the cards that have been dealt before making dramatic decisions.Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Conservation District, said climate change will be real – resulting in both a 12 percent reduction of supply and a 6 percent increase in demand on the Front Range.The states have done the best they can for now to address that reality, Kuhn said as he explained a complex agreement reached by the seven basin states and awaiting final ruling by Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne.Global warming will raise temperatures and reduce supply, but it could actually bring more snowpack to some areas of the Rockies. The states have to be prepared to react to the changes with the system that’s in place, Kuhn said.”Precipitation issues are not well understood,” Kuhn said. “A drier world means we need more insurance. Aaron Million’s plan to pipe water along the [Interstate] 80 corridor and into Colorado is a great idea for us because it stops imports from the Western Slope. But it also takes away some of our insurance.”Kuhn added: “There is risk. There is no answer to how much water is available. There’s only the question of how much risk we’re willing to accept.”
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Aspen and Snowmass Village make the Aspen Times’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User