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Regional News
November 29, 2008

Drought deepens strain on a dwindling Colorado Flows falling

California first in line as Utah, other states fight for water.
By Patty Henetz
The Salt Lake Tribune
Updated: 11/29/2008 08:49:15 AM MST

Utah's water forecast: Thirsty times are a-brewin' The drought gripping Utah, Southern California and the rest of the Southwest this century shows no sign of ending. Scientists see it as a permanent condition that, despite year-to-year weather variations, will deepen as temperatures rise, snows dwindle, soils bake and fires burn.

That's grim news for all of us in the West, perhaps most especially for the 10 million residents along the northern stretch of the Colorado River -- Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming and Colorado -- whose water rights are newer, and therefore junior, to those in Southern California, Nevada and Arizona.

Making matters worse, the Colorado -- the 1,450-mile-long lifeline that sustains more than 30 million souls and 3.5 million acres of farmland in seven states, 34 tribal nations and Mexico -- is in decline, scientists warn.

Even so, demand for the Colorado's water echoes from city leaders, industry giants, oil drillers, farmers, fishers, ranchers, boaters, bikers and hikers -- along with silent pleas from wildlife and the ecosystem. Trend analyses by federal scientists, probably conservative, predict the population dependent on the river will reach at least 38 million during the coming decade.

Right now, California, with the most senior rights and the largest share of the Colorado under a 1922 law, is struggling with a statewide water shortage. Not enough rain has fallen in the southland, as weathercasters like to call it, home to 18 million people, roughly half the state's population.

California already uses all of its Colorado River allocation. As the drought has worsened, Southern California water bosses have labored to keep the taps running through a host of conservation schemes.

Meanwhile, water managers in Utah and the Upper Basin are working to get all of their water rights in use, even as their cities and counties register some of the highest per-capita consumption in the nation.

Demand is up. Flows are down. Something has to give. And when it does, Utah could be in trouble if it doesn't change its wasteful ways -- just as 19th-century explorer Maj. John Wesley Powell predicted.

The West lacks water, he wrote in his 1879 Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, With a More Detailed Account of the Lands of Utah. "Disastrous droughts will be frequent."

Law of the River

The 1922 Colorado River Compact may have given California water rights senior to the other six states, but the Metropolitan Water District (Met), which supplies up to 60 percent of the water for 19 million people spread across six Los Angeles-area counties, made its claims after the state's allocation already had been divvied up. That means the most populous part of California is last in line among its peers when water runs low.

"If California ever did take a shortage," said Assistant General Manager Roger Patterson, "Met would take the hit."

That's already happened.

In 2003, California had to curtail its Colorado River use to its 1922 allocation of 4.4 million acre-feet per year, enough water for about 8 million households. Previously, under water-sharing deals with Arizona, the Golden State had been funneling about 5.2 million acre-feet. Because of its junior standing, Met had to eat about half the total shortage. No one else in the state had to cut supplies, Patterson said.

In February, Met agreed to a rationing plan for most of Southern California, including Los Angeles and San Diego. It expects to add 5 million residents during the next five years. Since the Pacific Ocean blocks growth to the west, the district is pushing eastward, where it's hotter.

A federal judge has ordered California water managers to leave 30 percent more water in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in Northern California to stave off fish kills and keep the massive estuary healthy. More for the environment means less for Los Angeles.

Other populous regions of California also have taken steps to ensure a good water supply.

-- Developers in Riverside, Kern, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties must guarantee a 20-year water supply before they build.

-- The state has brought back a water bank, last used 17 years ago, in which Southern California cities can buy water from willing Sacramento Valley farmers. However, given the high prices farmers can get for their crops, especially rice, willing sellers might be hard to find.

-- Orange County residents are drinking recycled sewer water.

-- In San Diego County, the Coastal Commission greenlighted a $300 million desalination plant adjacent to a state beach. The operation still has to meet lots of conditions -- which probably will make the plant more costly to build and run -- but even if completed would supply no more than 9 percent of San Diego's current needs.

Met residents have cut back to about 185 gallons of water per person per day. Residents of Long Beach are down to 115 gallons.

"If Long Beach can do this," said Kevin Wattier, the city water department's general manager, "so can every other city in Southern California."

Splish, splash

Upstream, Utahns on average use 291 gallons of water per person per day, a rate second only to Nevada. In Salt Lake County, it's 255 gallons; Washington County, 350 gallons; Kane County, a bloated 430 gallons. Sixty percent of Utah's water goes for outdoor use, including landscaping and agriculture. In California, agriculture consumers about 85 percent. California, however, is the fifth-largest farm economy in the world.

By comparison, Utah's agriculture profile is nearly nonexistent, contributing less than 1 percent to the state's economy.

The system might seem out of balance. Yet no state, not even Nevada, which has the measliest Colorado allocation, wants to reopen the 1922 Colorado River Compact that divided the water. Each fears getting an even worse deal. Nor does anyone know what soon-to-be-settled Navajo claims on the river will mean to both basins.

There is, however, a growing sense that the Colorado Basin states are all in this together.

"Everybody ought to share in the reality of the river," said former Utah Attorney General Paul Van Dam, now director of Washington County-based Citizens for Dixie's Future. "And there ought to be great flexibility in how we use it without losing it."

Dozens of scientific studies issued since 2004 have documented the Colorado's decline.

The river's annual flow has averaged 11.7 million acre-feet this decade, according to federal records. In 2002, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation measured only 6.2 million acre-feet passing Lee's Ferry below Glen Canyon Dam, the lowest flow of the decade. Even after this year's above-average precipitation, Lake Powell and Lake Mead combined are at 57 percent capacity.

A 2007 U.S. Geological Survey report found that, by 2050, rising temperatures in the Southwest could rival those of the nation's fabled droughts, including the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Hotter weather is expected to reduce Colorado River runoff by at least 30 percent during the 21st century.

If the USGS is correct, and if this century's trend persists, average annual flow in the Colorado could fall to 8.2 million acre-feet per year.

Imagine that. The Law of the River requires 9 million acre-feet to pass Lee's Ferry on the way to the Lower Basin and Mexico. Under a strict interpretation of the law, the Upper Basin could be left with nothing.

A far more likely scenario would have the states banding together to rework the river allocations. But when Arizona Sen. John McCain suggested just that during his failed presidential campaign, the shrieks emanating from Colorado's halls of power were enough to prompt the Republican nominee to back down.

Pipeline dream

Dennis Strong, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, in October told the state Water Development Commission that the state is using about 1 million acre-feet of its yearly 1.4 million acre-foot allotment from the Colorado.

Tribal water settlements yet to be signed would take up about 186,000 acre-feet, he said. New agricultural uses, mostly dedicated to controlling the salinity of the water that flows back to the Colorado, would take 35,000 acre-feet. Municipal and industrial uses along the river corridor would account for 5,000 acre-feet, and the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline would need 100,000 acre-feet, leaving about 74,000 acre-feet unused, theoretically.

Utah water managers are pushing the $1 billion-plus pipeline, which would lavish more water on a Dixie desert region likely to feel the full brunt of global climate disruption and permanent drought within the next 40 years.

The state hasn't actually secured rights to the 100,000 acre-feet for the pipeline. Strong said that would have to be nailed down by 2010, when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is expected to issue the license necessary to start building it. He's confident the water will come.

By 2040, the pipeline's water would be entirely committed to a regional population of about 400,000, Strong said.

Given current scientific warnings about the shrinking Colorado, that prospect looks shaky.

But Strong isn't worried. He's skeptical about global warming, though he "sees evidence" of it. "Water managers," he said, "have been dealing with drought forever."


Climate change, drought to strain Colorado River
By MIKE STARK โ€“ December 5, 2008

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) โ€” Seven Western states will face more water shortages in the years ahead as climate change exacerbates the strains drought and a growing population have put on the Colorado River, scientists say.

"Clearly we're on a collision course between supply and demand," said Brad Udall, director of the Western Water Assessment at the University of Colorado.

Although there is some disagreement about when the most dire conditions will materialize, scientists at a conference in Salt Lake City said Thursday they expect less water to be available in the coming decades. Without fundamental shifts in water management, the result will be shortages and difficult decisions about who in the seven states the river serves will get water and who will go without, said Dave Wegner, science director for the Glen Canyon Institute, which organized the one-day conference at the University of Utah.

"To me, it's not going to be a pretty debate," Wegner said.

The changes are already being seen in reduced water flows, higher air temperatures and an unrelenting demand on the Colorado, which snakes across more than 1,400 miles and provides water for farms, businesses, cities and homes. The river serves Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah, an area where 30 million people live.

Last year, officials from the seven states and Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne signed a far-reaching agreement aimed at conserving and sharing scarce Colorado River water. The 20-year plan formalized rules for cooperating during the ongoing drought.

A study released in February by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego said there's a 50 percent chance that Lake Mead, which straddles the Arizona-Nevada state line, could run dry by 2021.

Several models by different scientists have made predictions about the future flow of the Colorado, all of which forecast less water, said Tim Barnett, one of the Scripps study's authors. The prospect of warming temperatures only increases the strain on an already strained system, he said.

"The current usage is simply not sustainable," Barnett said.

Udall quibbled with Barnett's prediction about 2021 but not the overall speculation that water in the Colorado River basin will become more scarce. "It's a question of when," he said.

Even if the West's climate doesn't get as warm as predicted, the river system will likely be faced with shortages, said Gregory McCabe, a project chief at the U.S. Geological Survey's water resources division in Denver.

Building more reservoirs to store water probably won't be enough to mitigate the effects of changes to the system โ€” especially warming temperatures, he said. One of the best approaches will be to drive down demand by finding better and more ways to conserve water, McCabe said.

The Colorado has long been the source of controversy as thirsty states fight for their share to quench growing economies.

The 20th century was one of the wettest going back several centuries. But it shouldn't be assumed that water levels will remain as plentiful in the future, researchers said.

Connie Woodhouse, a University of Arizona scientist, said tree rings in the basin indicate that the amount of moisture has fluctuated widely over hundreds of years, but has tended to be drier than was seen in the last 100 years.

It's time to consider a "new normal" for shrinking water supplies in the Colorado River basin, Wegner said. That will require a sweeping re-evaluation of allocations, use, conservation, dams and legal obligations, he said.


Water agency needs an overhaul, congressman says Conservation award ยป George Miller was honored for leadership on natural resource policies.
By Judy Fahys
The Salt Lake Tribune
Updated: 12/05/2008 09:16:21 AM MST

The federal government's water-management agency can no longer operate as though Colorado River water is abundant, said one of Congress' leaders on natural resources Thursday night.

"The Bureau of Reclamation has to reinvent itself," said U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. and longtime leader on natural resource policy. "It has to address the future in an innovative way and not be tied so strongly to the past."

Miller made the remarks as he accepted the David R. Brower Award for Conservation by the Salt Lake City-based Glen Canyon Institute, an organization that made its name by calling for the draining of Lake Powell.

The institute now focuses on scientific issues surrounding the vitality of the Colorado River, and much of Thursday's program was devoted to updates about how climate change might affect the 27 million people and 3.5 million acres of farmland that rely on the 1,450-mile river.

Miller was a driving force behind legislation in the early 1990s to complete the Central Utah Project -- the water program behind construction of the Jordanelle Dam in Wasatch County -- along with the creation of a mitigation fund to address the environmental damage caused by decades of dam-building in Utah.

He also pushed for moderating flows through the Glen Canyon Dam to lessen the harm high-energy water releases were causing to Grand Canyon National Park The northern California lawmaker served from 1991 to 1994 as the chairman of the House committee that oversees the nation's mining programs, water, national parks and other natural resources.

Miller attacked the departing Bush administration for what he described as a culture of corruption in the Interior Department. Science, he added, was "tampered with" and "pushed aside.""You don't get to change the conclusions for political reasons," he said. Instead, with a change in administration in Washington, science should be harnessed to help make smarter decisions about preserving already-taxed water supplies.

Scientists who spoke at the conference talked about Western water resources that are dwindling in the face of growing populations and are threatened by global warming.

Tim Barnett, a researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, told the conference that no models of Colorado River water -- even without climate change factored in -- predict an increased flow.

"You have a river that's on the brink of failure," he said.

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