Colson: It’s been wet, sure, but not all that wet
Ok, ok, it’s been a rainy spring and summer this year, the most humid I can recall in 37 years of living on the Wetter … uh, Western Slope of the Colorado Rockies.
The rivers have consistently been higher than my comfort level for fly fishing from mid-stream, the boaters have been having the kinds of joyrides that make for great storytelling back in Chicago or Houston, and the mountainsides look much greener than usual.
If this is what global warming is going to mean for us over the long haul, I have to say we’ll be pretty fortunate.
But the thing about climate change is, you can’t predict it, just as we’ve never been able to predict long-range weather and cannot possibly know in advance what the volumes of water will be in our region’s rivers and streams.
To finally get to the point, that means all this gabble about coming up with a Colorado-oriented plan for allocating water use out of the Colorado River seems kind of off-kilter to me.
I’ve been hearing and reading for years that already there simply is not enough water in the Colorado River to meet all the needs of everybody who has a claim on it.
The much-maligned Colorado River Compact, written in 1922, was supposed to be the last word in dividing up the soggy spoils of the river, parceling out water rights to seven states comprising two basins — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming in the Upper Basin, with Nevada, Arizona and California in the Lower Basin.
But according to many experts, the years leading up to 1922 were not the best time for crafting the Compact, because that span of years happened to be a very wet time for the river, raising the Colorado’s flow well above its historic annual volumes.
So, from the get-go, the river was “over-allocated,” as the water nerds say. The experts who were writing up the 1922 Compact thought the river always and forever would be able to deliver 7.5 million acre-feet per year to the Upper Basin states, and 7.5 million acre-feet to the Lower Basin states, and then some.
An acre-foot, by the way, equals one acre of area covered by water a foot deep, which was said theoretically to be the amount of water needed by one family in a typical suburban home for a year.
Subsequent talks, in the 1940s, guaranteed the delivery of an additional 1.5 million acre-feet to Mexico, which at one time boasted a healthy Colorado River delta at the northern end of the Sea of Cortez (that region is now a desiccated wasteland most of the time, thanks to us). An additional 110,000 acre-feet was handed at the same time to the Lower Basin, but only when the river was running a surplus.
At the time the Compact was written, the experts believed the river’s annual flow was about 16.4 million acre-feet.
Now, if you add up the numbers in the above paragraphs, you will soon see that even in 1922 there wasn’t enough water in the river to meet all the demands that could be made on it, even assuming that the annual flow was that high.
According to more recent calculations, however, the picture is even bleaker.
Even prior to the onset of global warming, critics of the 1922 Compact maintained that the estimates for the river’s flow were exceedingly optimistic, to say the least. The actual, historic flow of the river, according to the critics, was somewhere between 13.2 million and 14.3 million acre-feet.
That is where some of these experts believe the Colorado is now, at an annual flow much closer to those lower numbers, and we haven’t even gotten into the effects of global warming yet.
Add to this bag of data the fact that the Western Slope currently sends between 500,000 and 600,000 acre-feet of water to the Front Range every year, courtesy of what are known as “trans-mountain diversions,” and your problem concerning expectations exceeding reality gets a little bit worse.
And now there are ongoing talks in Colorado centered around the idea of pulling even more of the river’s flow into the tunnels beneath the mountains, to feed the thirsty and ever-growing suburbs of Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo, which undoubtedly would further complicate matters for the river-dependent states.
And, of course, throughout the West, population growth is the mantra of developers and civic boosters everywhere, which will even further strain the river’s ability to meet demand.
I don’t know the answers to the myriad questions that pop up all around this issue, but I do know this: The one, inescapable fact of life is that nothing on Earth is limitless, certainly not our supplies of fresh water, nor our ability to live without that water.
This is a lesson that humanity has refused to embrace, however, at its peril.
And the Colorado River’s situation is a prime example of that refusal.
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