Colorado River Basin: What does the future hold?

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From the Summit Daily News (Alan Best):

The centuries are different, and so are the challenges. Looking back to when the water first began gushing into the Uncompaghre Valley from the 5.8-mile Gunnison Tunnel, it is amazing to think that only humans and horses were available to scrape those canals out from the hillsides. In a way, the achievement is only slightly less impressive than the building of the pyramids in Egypt. In 1909, President William Howard Taft blessed the opening of the Gunnison Tunnel with his voluminous presence. The new water he caused to flow expanded the irrigated acreage of the valley by 160 percent, enabling the community’s population to double in 10 years. This was among the first projects launched by the Bureau of Reclamation. The agency went on to build Hoover Dam — producing both electricity and a reliable water supply for burgeoning Los Angeles — as well as Grand Coulee on the Columbia River and then, in the 1960s, that sprawling reservoir on the Colorado River called “Lake” Powell. In all, BuRec built 180 projects in the 17 Western states. Water delivered by all of that plumbing grows 60 percent of the nation’s vegetables and 25 percent of its fruits and nuts.

But then, the dam building sputtered to a halt. President Jimmy Carter in 1977 issued what critics called a Hit List but what he contended were financially ridiculous projects. Indignant Westerners brayed that Carter, hailing from Georgia, couldn’t possibly understand the West’s problems. Yet Ronald Reagan, a Californian, did nothing to overturn Carter’s action. The Age of Dams had come to an end.

The challenges of our new era seem biblical in nature. At issue is whether this massive hydraulic system to deliver water to semi-arid lands will continue to work. Evidence from a millennia ago describes droughts far more prolonged than anything we’ve experienced in the last century. Global climate models concur that increasing greenhouse gas emissions will cause sharply rising temperatures in the American Southwest.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here.

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