Climate change, urban demands, energy exploration tapping out Colorado River

The once-lush delta where the Colorado River used to spill out into the Sea of Cortez is now a dry sandy landscape in Mexico where “America’s hardest-working river” is too tired to finish the job.

Climate change, urban demand and a burgeoning energy industry are tapping the Colorado River to death. The 1,450-mile waterway hasn’t reached its historic destination since the 1990s.

In recent months, the United States and Mexico have been in negotiations over a new allocation agreement that could help spring some life back into the Colorado River Delta. A coalition of conservation groups in the Southwest delivered more than 5,000 signatures this week to the U.S. Department of State urging officials to work with Mexico to restore water flow to the river delta.

“We need to focus on collaboration and compromise,” said Gary Wockner of Save the Colorado when he announced the conservation groups’ petition on Sunday. “The U.S. and Mexico have a historic opportunity to meet their own water needs while allotting a small flow back to the river.”

The Colorado River’s headwaters are in the state of its namesake where it collects much of its water west of the Continental Divide. To feed Denver and other cities and farmlands along the Front Range, where most of the state’s population lives, the water has to be pumped east over and through the Rocky Mountains. The river naturally flows in the other direction, through seven states and Mexico, supplying water for Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego and Baja California.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a former Colorado senator, spoke about the pressures on the Colorado River during the State of the Rockies Project conference this week at Colorado College where the degradation of the Colorado River Basin has been the central theme for students this year.

A scene from the Colorado River in Westwater Canyon on a recent spring day. (Photo courtesy of Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism)

In his speech, Salazar said the Colorado River Compact, signed in 1922, overestimated its water supply by 2 million acre feet, and he blasted Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado, for trying to open large swaths of the American West to oil shale — a commercially unproven water-intensive resource.

Humans already drain over 5 trillion gallons of water a year from the Colorado River and a recent study shows that if climate change continues at its current rate, there soon won’t be enough water in the river to satisfy the 30 million people or so who depend on it. Additionally, planned diversions to quench the thirst of the urban masses are on the rise — many of them, like the proposed Flaming Gorge mega pipeline from a tributary in Wyoming to Colorado’s Front Range, are steeped in controversy. Add in the rush of oil and gas companies that require vast quantities of water to flush down the holes they drill in the ground and the Colorado River ranks as one of the nation’s most endangered rivers.

The Colorado River Delta used to be a 2-million acre wetland with one of the continent’s most vibrant migratory bird populations. Like a mirage in the desert, that has all disappeared. Low flows in the United States are now a threat to endangered fish, riparian ecosystems, native plants and animals.

There isn’t a specific water quantity on the main stem of the Colorado River designated for environmental needs, stressed a Colorado College State of the Rockies Report Card released this week. The student report is full of supporting data and first-person accounts, including those of two recent Colorado College graduates and field researchers, Will Stauffer-Norris and Zak Podmore, who completed a 110-day-long expedition of the entire Colorado River that was mostly spent kayaking, except for sections that were too depleted for their boats to navigate.

The Colorado College report recommends five actions for the Colorado River Basin:

• Recognize the finite limits of the river’s supplies and pursue a “crash course” in conservation and water re-distribution that sustains current users while leaving water in the river.
• Modify and amend the “Law of the River” to build in cooperation and flexibility.
• Embrace and enshrine basin-wide “systems thinking” in the region’s management of water, land, flora and fauna, agriculture, and human settlements.
• Give “nature” a firm standing in law, administration, and use of water in the basin.
• Adopt a flexible and adaptive management approach on a decades-long basis to deal with past, present, and projected future variability of climate and hydrology.

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About the Author

Troy Hooper

Troy Hooper covers environmental policy for the American Independent News Network. His work has been published in The Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, Huffington Post, San Francisco Weekly, Playboy, New York Post, People and dozens of other publications. Hooper has covered the Winter Olympics in Italy, an extreme ski camp in South America and gone behind the scenes with Hunter S. Thompson on election night in 2004. Born and raised in Boulder, Hooper has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of California at Santa Barbara.

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