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May 25, 2022

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Call to action sounded on Colorado River’s future; stakeholders ready to respond

Hoover Dam Bypass Project

Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

The Colorado River winds its way through Black Canyon south of the Hoover Dam Bypass on Aug. 19, 2010.

Execution of a Colorado River Basin Study, the first of its kind, took three years and was met with delays and criticism along the way.

The report, The Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, was conducted by the Bureau of Reclamation and looked at water demand and supply scenarios in the river basin over the next 50 years. Its release Dec. 12 was accompanied by press releases that sounded the trumpets for mobilization.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar echoed the study’s sobering summary, which predicted substantial water shortages if no action was taken, and said the report was a “call to action.”

What, exactly, those actions are will be the next crucial question. A variety of stakeholders, from farmers and small-business owners to environmentalists — all of whom have an interest in how water from the river is conserved and distributed — will want to weigh in on the issue.

“Now’s where the real work begins,” said Andres Ramirez, Nevada director of Nuestro Rio, a group that advocates for conservation of the Colorado River and the cultural heritage of the communities in the river basin. “Some suggestions will be refined more and people will put in other concrete suggestions. The next steps are probably one of the most important parts of the process. We’ve learned from people and have heard what people have recommended. Now, how do we move forward?”

Nuestro Rio was encouraged by the report’s acknowledgement that conservation techniques, rather than infrastructure projects such as desalination plants and pipelines that augment supply, are among the more cost effective ways for balancing water supply and demand, Ramirez said.

The Colorado River Basin spans parts of seven states, including Nevada, and is one of the most vital sources of water in the western United States and northern Mexico.

The study has been mostly well received for its overview of various models of future supply and demand, and for its variety of options to address water needs.

Those who depend on the river for their livelihood, such as businesses that operate on Lake Mead, are hopeful the study provides momentum for conservation efforts.

“I think that people have been trying to push the Colorado River issue under the rug and haven’t wanted to deal with it,” said Izzy Collette, owner of the Boulder City kayak touring company Desert Adventures. “This is the first time we’re taking a hard look at the demands on the water, and we’re finding that we are going to have a lot of challenges.”

According to the study, water demands on the Colorado are expected to outweigh supply by more than 3.2 million acre-feet by 2060. One acre-foot of water is approximately the annual amount of water used by two households.

In its rapid-growth scenario, the study estimates population in the Colorado River Basin, which currently provides water to about 40 million people, could nearly double by 2060.

Advocates from all sides agree negotiations regarding Colorado River Basin water are at an unprecedented stage. More organizations have been invited to share their views, and intergovernmental cooperation is at an all-time high. Combined with a U.S.-Mexico agreement for sharing Colorado River water announced in November, the release of the study has created seldom-seen optimism and anticipation.

“I’ve been around here for a while, and I’ve seen a dramatic change in how the different states that use the Colorado River interact,” said Southern Nevada Water Authority spokesman K.C. Davis. “It used to be in the 1990s a fairly adversarial relationship with everyone fiercely and jealously guarding their allocation and never interested in working with their neighbors. I’ve seen that stance soften. We’ve seen the seven states come together on the basin report and agree on issues that need to be resolved.”

Yet, with so many different groups vested in the river’s future, many organizations watched and commented on the study as it was being conducted and were ready with criticisms upon its release.

Protect the Flows, a coalition of 600 businesses that advocates for conservation techniques over augmentation strategies, argued that some states, including Nevada, inflated their population projections to help make the case for the larger, more expensive strategies.

“In some cases 2006 or 2008 numbers were used where 2012 numbers could have been used,” said Molly Mugglestone, project coordinator for Protect the Flows. “We prioritize conservation methods that are cheaper than augmentation projects, and inflated demand scenarios are used to justify augmentation projects.”

The Southern Nevada Water Authority provided the Bureau of Reclamation with its data on projected water supply and demand. For its population projections, SNWA used 2008 projections from UNLV’s Center for Business and Economic Research. Protect the Flows argues the authority should have used updated 2012 numbers.

Davis said SNWA stuck with the 2008 numbers because it felt more recent data overstated the effects of the recession. The authority didn’t want to come in too low with its projections, either.

“When you are a municipal water agency, you can’t afford to underestimate,” Davis said. “What are you going to tell your population? ‘Oops, we didn’t realize the economy would get back on track?’ We are projecting a half-century into the future and it’s a dangerous idea to underestimate things based upon a few years. … We don’t feel like we are overestimating; rather we are viewing the current economic conditions as being likely temporary.”

The Bureau of Reclamation took suggestions on solutions from the public and ended up with more than 150 recommendations. The Bureau of Reclamation and Salazar dismissed as impractical some of the augmentation suggestions most loathed by conservationists, such as towing icebergs from Alaska to California or a building a pipeline from the Missouri River to Denver.

The report does not include a decision on how future shortages will be addressed.

Davis said it was important to start early on planning for any large-scale augmentation projects under consideration because permitting could take decades.

The National Parks Conservation Association, while acknowledging the important groundwork laid by the study, said it did not include enough information on the water needs of parks and input from those who manage national parks and recreation areas, such as Lake Mead.

"We are disappointed and concerned that the National Park Service and the resources of our national parks did not have a consistent voice or visible presence in the study,” David Nimkin, Southwest senior regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, said in a statement. “The national parks within the Colorado River Basin are not only iconic parklands, they are also significant economic engines for the region.”

The Colorado River and its tributaries provide water to about 40 million people for municipal use and also supply the water used to irrigate approximately 4 million acres of land. At least 22 Native American tribes, seven National Wildlife Refuges, four National Recreation Areas – including the Lake Mead National Recreation Area – and 11 national parks depend on the river for water.

The study pointed to several next steps, including refining the data used to project necessary water flow to meet demand, exploring costs and permitting issues related to augmentation projects and improving on climate projections. The Bureau of Reclamation plans a workshop in early 2013 to review the recommendations.

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