Colorado River basin: Demand continues to push the limits of available water in the basin, conservation education seems to be helping

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From The Durango Telegraph (Will Sands):

Last month, the Bureau of Reclamation released an interim report titled “Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study.” While the report acknowledges a “high degree of uncertainty” regarding future water supplies, the view through the crystal ball is not looking good. Based on continued climate change, the authors predict an increase in the frequency and severity of droughts in the West. Add increases in population into the mix, and the study predicts decreases in the natural flow of the Colorado River of approximately 9 percent over the next 50 years…

Closer to home, the Colorado Water Conservation Board has drawn similar conclusions. According to its Statewide Water Supply Initiative, a report released early this year, Colorado is marching on the path to water shortages. The SWSI finds that if water use follows current trends, large supplies of water will have to be shifted away from Colorado agriculture in order to satisfy municipal needs. The result will be significant loss of farmlands, economic damage to the state’s agricultural regions and potential environmental harm. If Colorado’s appetite for water does not change, anywhere from 500,000 to 700,000 acres of irrigated farmland will have to be dried up by 2050.

However, the outlook on this liquid predicament may actually be half-full. A think-tank with offices in Colorado and California has unearthed hopeful findings. According to the Pacific Institute, Western water users are beginning to curb their appetites. The group has found that per-capita usage of Colorado River Basin water has dropped all over the region. Although there are now 10 million more people living in the West than in 1990, the Pacific Institute has documented substantial water-efficiency gains made during the same period.

“Demands for water from the Colorado River basin now exceed supply,” said Michael Cohen, author of the report. “This supply/demand imbalance would be much worse if municipal water agencies across the seven basin states had not decoupled water deliveries from population growth.”

Municipal water deliveries from the Colorado River Basin have increased by more than 600,000 acre-feet since 1990. However, that increase represents a rate that is actually much slower than population growth, according to Cohen. Between 1990 and 2008, per capita water delivery rates declined by a dramatic 38 percent in Albuquerque, 30 percent in Phoenix, and 24 percent right here in Durango.

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