Colorado River basin: Is there a supply crisis coming?

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Here’s a guest column about the Colorado River Basin and future supplies, written by Douglas Kenney that is running in The Denver Post. From the column:

First, the bad news — the Colorado is indeed in trouble. In the first phase of our new report, Rethinking the Future of the Colorado River, the Colorado River Governance Initiative studied long-term trends in Colorado River flows, and the amount of water being withdrawn for human use. Our work shows that even under normal conditions, river flows have been just barely sufficient to meet human needs. In other words, the river’s much-publicized recent troubles — like Lake Mead dropping to low levels not seen since the 1960s — can’t be entirely blamed on the recent string of dry years. Rather, they are the result of steady increases in the amount of water humans are taking from the river. Even if the basin were to suddenly return to historically normal conditions, the prospect of looming water shortages would not go away. To make matters worse, the basin will probably not return to the wetter conditions we have come to think of as “normal.” Although climate models can be maddeningly uncertain, in the Colorado basin they display a rare degree of unanimity: a recent review shows that 18 of 19 models predict the region will get drier in the coming decades, perhaps decreasing river flows by 10 percent to 30 percent by 2060…

Fortunately, momentum is building for a better approach. A growing body of studies is both documenting the current predicament and beginning to assess a range of possible solutions. To be politically viable, any such solutions must not require altering the core provisions of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, which most parties consider inviolate. But what is viable is the concept of using those provisions as a foundation upon which to build new agreements that more effectively achieve the original goals of the Compact. The states have a history of doing just that. Just three years ago, for example, they negotiated the 2007 Colorado River Accord, which established new rules to improve river management under dry conditions. It’s a notable start, although not enough to constitute a long-term solution to the river’s woes.

Meanwhile, Secretary of Interior, Ken Salazar, was at the Center for American Progress this morning and touched on the problems surrounding the Colorado River. Here’s a report from Karoun Demirjian writing for the Las Vegas Sun. From the article:

In comments he delivered at a symposium hosted by the progressive Center for American Progress Thursday morning, Salazar said the worsening situation with the Colorado River — where the water level has dropped about 20 percent in the last decade — is serving as a powerful wake-up call to conservatives to do something about climate change.

“The seven states … are a bastion of conservatism. They recognize … that the…supplies of the Colorado River are directly related to the changing of the climate,” Salazar said. “You further reduce that by 20 percent, what’s that going to mean for the cities of Los Angeles and Las Vegas?”

“They get it,” Salazar continued. “And so what they’re saying to us is ‘we support, understand, the changes climate change is going to bring to our communities and our states, and we want to get ahead of it.’ ”[…]

But Salazar’s suppositions aside, it doesn’t seem like mounting concern for the fate of the Colorado River has been translating into a rush of proactive moves when it comes to combating climate change. In fact, earlier this month, two of the region’s most powerful Republican senators, Orrin Hatch of Utah and John Barrasso of Wyoming, introduced legislation to limit President Obama’s ability to take steps to combat global warming. The measure is intended to prevent federal agencies from introducing carbon-dioxide emissions limits without authorization from Congress, and according to a press release, “prevent any legal action from being taken against greenhouse gas emitters for their contribution to climate change.”

More Colorado River basin coverage here and here.

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