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Study Projects Significant Water Shortages For Colorado River Users


A final study analyzing the future of the Colorado River Basin says the gap between supply and demand over the next 50 years is expected to be significant.

The imbalance will be an average annual gap of 3.2 million acre feet by 2060. To put that in perspective, 1 acre feet is the amount of water an average household uses in a year.

Speaking at a Colorado River Water Users Association conference in Las Vegas, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar says the current water use trends are troubling.

“As a result of the projected population growth in the Southwestern states, and all of the states on the Colorado River Basis, and the reality of a changing climate, we’re going to be putting ever increasing demands on the Colorado River Basin.”

Meeting the Needs of Seven States and Mexico

Four different supply scenarios were addressed. Each took into account historical water records and the impacts of any future climate change. Those were linked with six hypothetical demand scenarios including increased population growth, conservation, and economic conditions on the watershed.

“The study clearly illustrates the need for federal and state leaders to come together and develop a comprehensive strategy to manage the water supply,” says Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO).

Citing the many entities who rely on the river basin, Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) urged all groups to respect the ‘Law of the River’ while addressing possible solutions.

“We must find creative and innovative ways to meet growing residential, agricultural and industrial demands for water. The report lays out a variety of options to address projected water shortfalls in the basin – shortfalls driven, in part, by climate change – and I commend the Bureau of Reclamation and the seven basin states for their work.”

There Is No Silver Bullet

Colorado Water Conservation Board Director Jennifer Gimbel says all basin states remain committed to working within the law, but adds there is no ‘silver bullet’ to solving future demand shortages.

“The way forward is through cooperation with our neighbors, holistic management of the river, and a varied portfolio of strategies.”

While only six percent of the state’s water supply goes to Colorado’s Front Range utilities, a large portion of it comes from the Colorado River.

Jim Lochhead, Denver Water CEO and chair of the Front Range Water Council says Front Range utilities will continue to have a large stake in the river's future, as well as finding solutions that will address increasing population and climate change.

“We don’t need to pursue drastic solutions in the short term. Instead, we believe the best approach is to work together as a community of seven states that share the vital resource of the Colorado River to discuss the right mix of measures to meet the challenges as they arise. We also believe Reclamation and the basin states can work within the framework of existing law and institutions to achieve solutions to secure the future of our water supply and future development of water for Colorado.”

Multiple Colorado River Stakeholders

Another key user of Colorado River water is the Colorado River District. Encompassing 15 counties west of the Continental Divide, the district includes a majority of the Colorado River Basin in the state of 

Credit Colorado River District
A map of the Colorado River District

Colorado. District General Manager Eric Kuhn says the study does include ‘substantial assumptions’ and possible conflicting legal and policy interpretations.

“Planners should be cautious in using the study as a risk-analysis tool without further examination,” Kuhn said.  “While many in the Upper Basin may believe that water remains to be developed, the reality may be that new development simply threatens existing supplies or that new development may only be available during increasingly rare wet cycles.”

The study concludes that a wide range of ideas are needed at not just the national level, but a local level as well including resolving uncertainties related to water conservation, cost, permitting and energy needs. 

Study Fundamentally Flawed?

UT San Diego.com reports critics of the study find it 'fundamentally flawed', with incorrect projections of water levels and population levels in the region.

"States cooked the books to show higher demand for water consumption to set up a federal bailout on expensive water projects," said Molly Mugglestone, director of the advocacy group Protect the Flows. "Meanwhile, the states failed to account for river flow that will be required to sustain our multibillion dollar recreation economy."   Another advocacy group, the Environmental Defense Fund, was more measured in its expectations for the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study. "The Colorado River is the lifeblood of the dry West," said Dan Grossman, an official with the Boulder, Colo.-based organization. He said the report would show the critical need for increased conservation. "We can't keep bleeding the river dry," Grossman said. "The basin study says loud and clear that it's time for a new approach that puts conservation first."

The 'Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study' was the first of its kind authorized by Congress and took three years to complete.  Some of the 150 proposals for solving the shortage range from towing icebergs and importing water from the Mississippi River. Secretary of the Interior Salazar says those are not feasible. 

The public has 90 days to comment on the study.

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