Colorado River…Good to the Last Drop

Published on: August 26th, 2011

The Colorado River has not emptied into the ocean since 1998. Coloradans see it in the two-weeks-early runoff and their rapidly disappearing snowpack—the agonizingly slow death of Colorado’s primary water source.

As the state moves rapidly toward doubling its population to 10 million by 2050, it remains one of few western states without a water plan. Gov. John Hickenlooper insisted at How the West Was Warmed, a climate change conference, the state must move forward with a plan in the next five years. The general consensus? The solution must start with the people and politicians will just have to catch up.

Brad Udall, research scientist and director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-funded Western Water Assessment, wrote Water in the Rockies, a 21st Century Zero-Sum Game.

“Water is a vexing problem world wide,” Udall said. “Climate change is really water change. Solutions are almost always zero-sum. Colorado suffers from all of the above problems. Solutions need to involve the five rights: right people, right prices, right priorities, right flexibility and right morality.”

Beth Conover, author of How the West was Warmed, a collection of stories about how people have experienced climate change in the Rocky Mountain west.

“Water issues in the (Colorado) basin are not new, but the increased urgency created by climate change might facilitate or require a more urgent look at how to balance some of the uses in our rivers,” Conover said.

She said the Colorado River is representative of all of the state’s rivers.

“It’s sort of the grandaddy of them all,” she said. “It’s sort of an overdrawn checking account—there’s more demand than supply already and with persistent drought and unknowns related to climate change that becomes an even bigger threat.”

Udall said the state doesn’t know right now how much right it has to the Colorado River, with the bulk of it diverted to other states and climate change decreasing its usage by roughly 20 percent in 2050.

“This is a dangerous strategy,” he said.

Already, all state water, including wastewater, is recycled in the state, so water reuse and redirection would take from someone using that water, Udall said. Even conservation presents challenges, he said.

“Moving water around, solving these problems (is) really difficult because of legal impediments, infrastructure impediments, environmental issues, property rights and the many, many people that show up whenever somebody wants to move water.”

Some Coloradans might claim the Colorado River’s failure to reach the sea isn’t this region’s problems, he said.

“I think it is,” he said. “I think everyone who uses that system needs to have a place at the table to solve it.”

Front Range utilities have begun banding together to do climate change studies and the state has funded no less than three studies on climate change and water issues in Colorado, Udall said.

“We’ve begun, at least, to nibble at some of the solutions,” he said.
With areas in the state relying on unsustainable groundwater, the Colorado River’s future does not look good, he said.

He said the state needs the right people in the policy-making room with the right priorities on the environment, then focus can include agriculture and other uses.

“You make sure your economy and your environment are protected first,” Udall said. “…We need the right prices on water. We’re underpricing water. If it’s less than your cell phone bill, you have no idea what it is.”

Colorado looks to lose 50 percent of its trout due in the next 50 years due to warming and stream flow changes, Conover said.

“About two-thirds of our species in the state of Colorado depend on our river corridors,” Conover said. “A lot of things people in Colorado take for granted, floating on rafts, being able to fish, the aesthetic qualities, all of the benefits that really draw a lot of people of our state in addition to the basic economic sort of life-blood characteristic of water in our region, are a threat as we look at the future.”

To put the problem of climate change into perspective, Udall cited the Pakistani flood, overpopulation, deforestation, China’s South to North Project displacing hundreds of thousands of people, and Australia’s 10-year drought.

“How about water quality?” Udall said. “We’ve talked drought and infrastructure. …There are 400 dead zones around the world right now due to too much nitrogen from fertilizer run off. Two of those are in the U.S.—two of the really big ones, the Gulf and Chesapeake Bay.”

As these dead zones grow exponentially, it becomes more evident that the world’s nitrogen cycles have been damaged even more than it’s carbon cycles, Udall said.

“You’re going to hear a whole lot more about nitrogen and fertilization throughout the 21st century,” he said.

If Colorado is to be at the nexis of a solution, Hickenlooper said, the east versus west, agricultural versus environmental, and urban versus rural wars must stop.

“It’s impossible and inexcusable to ignore the stress that is being applied to our systems, especially water,” he said.

The state must stop glossing over infrastructure, proposing solutions on the back of agriculture, allowing practices that contradict environmental interests and come together to reduce per capita consumption and develop a water rights framework, Hickenlooper said.

Udall summed it up: “Wendell Barry said it best, ‘Do unto upstream as you would have upstream do unto you.’”

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