Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Colorado River study is a call to action, but to do what?

The much-anticipated Colorado River Water Supply and Demand Study was released in December 2012 by the US Bureau of Reclamation. This ground-breaking study, which took over 3 years and $5 million to complete, sets a new baseline for water planning in the Colorado River Basin. In addition to compiling projections on water supply and demand over the next 50 years, the study also models the impacts of climate change to flows in the Colorado River. 

The conclusions of this study are not all that surprising. At current consumption rates, demand will exceed supply and climate change will further strain already limited water supplies – facts most water managers in the basin have long acknowledged. 

In the weeks since the report was released, media outlets around the country have quoted various water experts on the significance of this study for their particular region or interest group. Almost universally, the study has been heralded as “a call to action” by its many participants, and at first glance, this is a surprisingly unified view from such a diverse group. But a call to action to do what?  Here is a impartial compilation of some of the ways this question has been answered –  mostly paraphrasing, but hopefully not misrepresenting, responses.

The Basin Study is a “call to action” to______________________ (fill in the blank)
1.      … prioritize conservation projects, which are cheaper than augmentation projects (Molly Mugglestone, Protect the Flows); protect the river and keep it flowing (again)
2.      …cities outside the basin that use Colorado River water (Albuquerque, San Diego, Salt Lake City) to develop other sources of supply (Dennis Strong, Utah Division of Water Resources)
3.      … build more dams in the Upper Basin (reader comment on the above article)
4.      …plan for future growth and climate change (Anne Castle, Asst Sec’y of Interior)
5.      …rely on water conservation to meet future demand and protect the river (Jennifer Pitt, EDF)
6.      …aggressively pursue water augmentation projects, like desalination, and consider more ways to bring water to the Front Range (Chuck Cullom, CAP)
7.      …conservation (Drew Beckwith, Western Resources Advocates)
8.      … enhance our current water conservation, reuse, and infrastructure project and invest in new ways to augment, protect and sustain the Colorado River so that it can reliably meet current and future water needs while preserving a healthy river system (joint statement by Arizona’s major water agencies)
9.      …refine the projections of supply and demand, explore costs and permitting issues for augmentation projects, improve on climate projections, and prioritize projects that provide a wide-range of benefits and healthy rivers (Reclamation, final report)

The diversity of the group starts to emerge when looking at tremendous range of options presented to address the projected supply deficit.  And for this reason, the next step - deciding what action to take - may not be as harmonious as the first step.  Reclamation is organizing a series of workshops for stakeholders to begin to hammer out a plan for the future. The Bureau is also accepting comments on the study accepted through March 14, 2013.

The bottom line for Arizona – With its dependence on the Colorado River, Arizona needs to stay involved in this process. Arizona probably will approach the process with an “all of the above” strategy as endorsed by Arizona’s major water managers and Reclamation (#8, and #9 above).

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