Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Another big pipeline proposal is not really news, but the questions that arise are still relevant

Yesterday, the New York Times ran a story about the Bureau of Reclamation's not-yet-released Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study with the headline, "Water Piped to Denver Could Ease Stress on River". The Denver Post also reported this story last week. The story refers to the concept of building a 600-mile pipeline to transport 600,000 AF of water from the Missouri River to Colorado.   Denver and the Missouri River are both part of the Mississippi River Basin. Nonetheless, this story has the familiar theme of emotional outrage that comes with proposals to take water from one area for another's benefit. Because Denver depends on imported water from the Colorado River Basin across the Continental Divide, the Missouri River pipeline would presumably help the CR Basin by lightening the demand from Denver and other areas along the Front Range in eastern Colorado.

Image of the major subbasins of the Mississippi, Colorado, and Columbia Basins from USGS. 

The Times reported that this information was "leaked out in advance of [the final report's] expected release this week"- kind of a strange "leak" to claim because  the Missouri River option has been on Reclamation's publicly available list of options for solving the not-so-surprising demand-supply imbalance since at least May 2012.  In fact, this concept is 2nd on the list of 160 ideas - importing water from the Snake River Basin is listed 1st.  The article also notes that this is not a new idea, considered most recently in 2006.

 In addition to the Mississippi and Columbia River pipelines, the draft Study lists several other importation options, including towing icebergs, but it is possible that these won't make their way into the final report for further study. Nonetheless, in spite of the catchy headlines, proposals to pipe water over long distances to supplement the Colorado River aren't news anymore, at least not new news (can old news still be news?).

However, a positive outcome of this somewhat irrelevant publicity would be an honest assessment of what additional water would be used for and at what cost. This conversation is critically important, not just for Arizona, but for all of the Colorado River basin states. The consequences of implementing any water supply augmentation plan need to be considered in terms of not only economics, but also in terms of where and how the water would be used.  For example:
  1. The article says an additional 600,000 AF/year of water in the basin could provide for 1 million single family homes. Will this supply be used to plug a supply gap or will it double the population living in eastern Colorado?  Which outcome is desirable?
  2. Would the cost (billions of dollars) be shared by all uses - people, industry, and agriculture? Or would only a subset of users, or new users have to pay? 
So, as I think the authors of the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study would agree, its time to start talking.

17 Dec 2012: Corrected post (changed  from "people" to "single family homes")


  1. Juliet - I think (assuming people do pursue augmentation) that your final two questions are the right one. My suggested answer is that that the hypothetical 600kaf might be piped to Denver, but the most desperate user in the basin would be the one paying and "using" it, by substituting the water (there, or California coastal desal). So Vegas pays for the pipeline and picks up spare water Denver does not now need, for example. I realize this raises more questions than it answers (how do we do this under current Law of the River?) but that'd be the policy approach I can imagine.

    1. John- good point. And even if the lower basin states wanted to finance a project in the upper basin, the only way to avoid worsening the future supply-demand imbalance would be augmentation without additional allocation. This may be a hard-sell: "Pay more, but get nothing more than what you already have rights to." Then the question becomes how much are we willing to pay, not for more water to support more growth, but for increased certainty to meet the existing demand?

  2. Juliet - small detail in the big picture, but where does the 600KAFY/1M people number come from? Wouldn't 600KAFY support between 3-4 million people?

  3. Bradley- good catch, thanks for the comment. I mis-quoted the article and updated the post. It should say 1M single-family homes (equivalent to 3-4M people). The actual number depends, of course, on the all-important question of per capita water use. And, frugal water use would allow projects like this to support more people. By the way, this is NOAA website is helpful for hydrologic conversions. http://www.srh.noaa.gov/wgrfc/convert.php