Here’s a guest column from Jim Spehar that’s running in The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:
It’ll be hard to avoid the overwhelming desire for a tall glass of cool, refreshing water in the coming week while we’re flirting with record 100-degree plus temperatures here in the Grand Valley. In a broader sense, the daily blast of heat past the century mark will put another exclamation point on water issues along the Colorado River.
The first one came a few days ago. The water level at Lake Mead near Las Vegas hit its lowest level since filling in the 1930s. The Bureau of Reclamation expects the decline will continue until November, causing ripples upriver as agreements linking Mead and Lake Powell water levels come into play sooner than expected. Other recent alarms include massive drought-induced wildfires, resulting post-fire runoffs impacting water supplies, shorter irrigating seasons … the litany goes on and on while the Colorado River Basin is expected to post its second-driest year in more than a century of recorded history.
Before you complain about those fountains and golf courses in Sin City, consider what that desert community has done to alleviate its water use. Millions of dollars, as much as $3/square foot, is paid to residents to replace grass with xeriscaping. Building codes prohibit front lawns for new houses. A new state law will prohibit Colorado River water from being used to irrigate “non-functional turf” such as grass in office parks, at the entrances to subdivisions and in strips between sidewalks and streets.
That latest restriction, according to the Southern Nevada Water Authority, will save about 10% of the region’s Colorado River allocation, that 30,000 acre feet equal to the amount normally used by 60,000 homes. The Central Arizona Project is taking 30% less water from the Colorado River than in previous years. Further downriver, farmers in California and along the border in Arizona are being paid nearly handsomely to fallow cropland by cities clamoring for municipal water.
Here in Colorado, there are rumblings of what may become necessary steps for some communities in the not too distant future.
In Fountain, south of Colorado Springs, developers have applied for nearly 30,000 new water taps in the last year. The city currently serves 9,000 taps. According to Colorado Public Radio, Fountain is telling developers they need to support their applications with the millions of dollars necessary to obtain new water rights and storage and delivery infrastructure. Utilities Director Dan Blankenship is telling those developers “We can’t give you something we don’t have.”
Which spotlights the elephant (perhaps more appropriately the whale) in the room as water shortages are discussed — carrying capacity. It’s a question that’s been avoided for years but ultimately can’t be ignored. Is there a hard limit to how many of us can live, work, recreate in any one place along the Colorado River?
Of course there is. We just don’t want to acknowledge that, at least so far, though we live in an arid West where more than 40 million people in seven states and two countries depend, at least in part, on the Colorado River and its tributaries.
Twenty-five years ago, I worked for Gov. Roy Romer on his Smart Growth Initiative. One of his ideas was that developers wishing to build in the then-emerging area around Castle Rock ought to prove there was a 300-year supply of guaranteed water for their projects. That, of course, didn’t fly. Nor did a later 100-year proposed guarantee. But setting requirements like that, or such as Fountain is talking about, seems inevitable.
I’m both amused and frightened at suggestions the flawed 1922 Colorado River Compact needs to be renegotiated, hoping to keep more of “our water” in the Upper Basin. That’d take congressional action. Count the number of members from California, Arizona and Nevada and compare that total to those from Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico. Shouldn’t reopening the Compact be the option of last resort?
“Water, water, water…. There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount , a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand, insuring that wide free open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.” — Edward Abbey, “Desert Solitaire”
Jim Spehar represented western Colorado communities for eight years on the Board of Directors of the Colorado Water Congress. Comments always welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org.