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January 08, 2013
Colorado River states face water imbalances

The combination of drought associated with climate change and a projected doubling of population in the seven Western states relying on the Colorado River will result in serious imbalances in water supply and demand over the next 50 years.  That imbalance may exceed 3.2 million acre feet by 2060; 1 acre foot is approximately the amount of water used by a single household in a year.  The prospects of an unsupportable drain on the legendary river have prompted floods of recommendations on reversing an environmental disaster in the making.

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Both the details of the problem and over 100 potential remedies have been included in a major federal-state report just issued by the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation.  Publication of the document follows a 3-year study funded under the 2009 SECURE Water Act.  “This study provides a solid platform to explore actions we can take toward a sustainable water future,” said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.  “While not all the proposals included in the study are feasible, they underscore the broad interest in finding a comprehensive set of solutions.”

Essential water resource

In addition to 40 million people currently served, the Colorado River and its tributaries irrigate nearly 4 million acres of land, provide water to at least 22 Native American tribes, 7 national wildlife refuges, 4 national recreational areas, and 11 national parks.  Hydropower facilities along the river provide more than 4,200 megawatts of generating capacity.

The study looks at about 150 proposals from study participants, stakeholders, and the public, which represent a wide range of potential options to resolve supply and demand imbalances.  Proposals include increasing water supply through reuse or desalinization and reducing demand through increased conservation and efficiency.  Reclamation sidesteps endorsing specific solutions.  Instead, the Bureau of Reclamation states that by implementing a combination of the best of the proposals, the resource vulnerability of the Colorado River Basin can be reduced while the system’s resiliency to dry hydrologic conductions can be increased, all while meeting increasing demands on the river. 

Augmentation projects needed

Four general approaches to improve water prospects are recommended:

  • Significant uncertainties related to water conservation, reuse, water banking, and weather modification must be resolved to adequately implement mitigation.
  • Costs, permitting issues, and energy needs relating to large-capacity augmentation projects need to be identified and investigated through feasibility studies.
  • Opportunities to advance and improve resolution of future climate projections should be pursued along with enhancements to the operational and planning tools used in the Colorado River system to better understand the vulnerabilities of water-dependent users, including environmental flows.
  • As projects, policies, and programs are developed, consideration should be given to those that provide a wide range of benefits to water users and healthy rivers for all users.

The Bureau says it plans to work with the Basin states, tribes, water entitlement holders, conservation groups, and other stakeholders to conduct workshops in 2013 to review the recommendations and take the next steps to resolve future imbalances.

Click here to read the Reclamation study.

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