May 13, 2012
PNP comment: The West is not running out of water — statements that are incorrectly made. A simple solution to drought years is to build more reservoirs and get better at recycling. If we can put a man on the moon, this is not out of our capability. — Editor Liz Bowen
Aerial photo of goosenecks on the Colorado River above Cataract Canyon in southern Utah, July 28, 2008.
Tom Smart, Deseret News
Published: Saturday, May 12 2012 1:00 p.m. MDT
Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series on the impacts of the West’s shrinking water supply and the costly battle to find solutions.
LAS VEGAS, Nev. — The West is running out of water.
Its lifeblood, the Colorado River, is being hemorrhaged by cities, by farms and ranches, by power plants and by the more than 30 million people who depend on its water in the United States and another 6 million people in Mexico.
This year’s flows are near historic lows with runoff about a third of average, pushing the seven states that share the river toward another year of drought. But those stresses are trumped by dire predictions from the agency managing the Colorado River system, forecasting demand far outstripping supply during the next 50 years, reaching crisis levels within two decades.
It reveals a coming tug-of-war over water resources that may pit Utah against other states in the fight for new development, jobs, housing and force an answer to one of the West’s most enduring questions: Who is entitled to the water?
The answer will determine just how much it will cost you to turn on your tap at home or what type of lawn or garden you can have. And the answer is hidden within an expansive, multibillion-dollar effort being waged to keep the river flowing.
“There are no innocent parties,” said Nevada’s Pat Mulroy, who manages a water-delivery system for more than two thirds of her state’s residents. “No one on the river has the luxury of doing nothing.”
The reason? Colorado River flows are shrinking.
Dealing with drought
Even before drought gripped the river system beginning in 2000, a nearly three-decade look at data shows the combination of water use and loss in the Colorado River increased 23 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Think of it as a 23 percent increase in stress on the river system.
The bureau is shepherding a supply-demand study to be released in July that says residents of Utah and the other six basin states should expect droughts lasting five years or more 40 percent of the time over the next 50 years.
A warmer, more volatile climate will mean a drier Colorado River basin overall, with more water lost from the ground through evaporation and transpiration by plants; less snowfall; but more rainfall, which behaves differently in terms of shaping water supply.