Report: Energy production makes Colorado River ‘most endangered’

Major reservoirs in the 1,450-mile Colorado River drainage could dry up in the next 13 years because of drought and climate change, according to one environmental report — a situation exacerbated by unprecedented energy production in the basin in the last eight years.

A Dec. 21 ProPublica story also published in the San Diego Union-Tribune reports that: “In the eight years George W. Bush has been in office, the Colorado River watershed has seen more oil and gas drilling than at any time in the past 25 years. Uranium claims have reached a 10-year high. [And] last week the departing administration auctioned off an additional 148,598 acres of federal land for gas drilling projects outside Moab, Utah.”

The ProPublica story also points out that 11th-hour Bush administration rule changes opening the door to the water demands of oil shale mining will put even more pressure on what the Scripps Institution of Oceanography calls the “most endangered” waterway in the United States.

“The decisions we are making today will be dictating how we will be living the rest of our lives,” Jim Pokrandt, a spokesman with the Colorado River Conservation District, told ProPublica. “We may have reached mutually exclusive demands on our water supply.”

The Colorado Independent has been sounding the oil shale alarm for months now and also recently cited a state-funded report on the scarcity of water in the state’s major drainages that feed into the Colorado. Northwestern Colorado is ground zero for the energy versus water debate.

But the ProPublica piece expands that debate to include the water demands of uranium mining and natural gas production, pointing out that growing pressure to tap domestic energy sources could drastically curtail the residential and commercial development potential of the arid Western states.

“Without (the Colorado), there is no Western United States,” Jim Baca, director of the Bureau of Land Management under the Clinton administration, told ProPublica. “If it becomes unusable, you move the entire Western United States out of any sort of economic position for growth.”

According to the story, current oil and natural gas drilling in Colorado already consumes so much water that if the annual demand was fulfilled in one fell swoop it would require cutting off all the water to Southern California for five days. Add oil shale mining into the mix and the faucet would go dry for 79 days.

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail and Real Aspen.