Skip to main contentSkip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit
WRITERS ON THE RANGE

Writers on the Range: A clear warning about the Colorado River

  • 0

For the West this summer, the news about water was grim. In some parts of California, it didn’t rain for over 100 days. In western Colorado, the ground was so dry that runoff at first evaporated into the air. And in New Mexico and Nevada, the rains never came.

Bill Hasencamp is the manager of California’s Metropolitan Water District, which provides treated water to 19 million people. What was most unfortunate, he said, was that, “the upper Colorado Basin had a 100 percent snowpack, yet runoff was only 54 percent of normal.” In 2018, a variation happened – light snow and little runoff, which doesn’t bode well for the future.

What everyone wants to know, though, is who loses most if severe drought becomes the norm.

Gary Wockner, who heads the nonprofit Save the Colorado, predicts that western Colorado ranchers and farmers will be among the biggest losers: “In any crisis situation, Colorado laws gives municipal water priority over farm water.”

He added that “If push comes to shove, farmers on the Western Slope, might get a very hard ask to stop diverting.” Which might explain why so many deep-pocketed speculators are buying up Colorado ranches and farms, especially near Grand Junction, Colorado. Speculators include a New York hedge fund, Water Asset Management, along with Michael Burry, a Wall Street trader made famous in the movie, “The Big Short.”

Wockner thinks selling water rights to the highest bidder is a dangerous idea. “Any time you try to monetize a natural resource, the resource will get further exploited.”

What makes the Western Slope of Colorado most vulnerable to drought is a pact among seven states signed in 1922. It bound the states to give priority in a water crisis to the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada, potentially leaving the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming high and dry.

A crisis could be approaching. The two giant reservoirs on the Colorado River are both below 50 percent of capacity. If drought causes even more drastic drops, the Bureau of Reclamation could step in to prioritize the making of electricity by the hydro plants at lakes Mead and Powell. No one knows what BuRec would do, but it would call the shots and end current arrangements.

Before that happened, California could “call” for the water it is owed — 4.4 million acre-feet annually. In that case, Wockner said, ranches and farms would be forced to go dry before city residents suffered.

For now, California has avoided flexing its muscle to get its fair share of the Colorado River. To stop the Colorado River’s reservoirs from dropping to “dead pool” where power generation fails, California acts as if serious drought never ended. Since 2000, when the punishing drought began, California has cut annual water consumption by 30 percent, using both carrot and stick.

California charges the highest water rates in the West and also pays for efficiency. Under a program called Cash for Grass, “A good size lawn removal can net a homeowner $30,000,” said Rebecca Kimitch, who works for the Metropolitan Water District.

The state also invests in smarter irrigation, piping leaky ditches in the Imperial Valley, the Colorado River’s biggest irrigator. And it invests in desalinization plants and reuses some of its water via a program that was first derided as “toilet-to-tap.” More recently, statewide laws restrict personal daily consumption to a measly 55 gallons, declining to 50 gallons by 2030.

As for the Upper Basin, states continue to push not for water conservation but for more dams and reservoirs that would drain water from the basin, such as the proposed St. George, Utah, Diversion from Lake Powell. John Fleck, Director of the water resources program at the University of New Mexico said, “it’s not a binary question of: Is there enough water? The way we need to think is that the system is at risk, and every time you take more water you create risks for existing users.”

Meanwhile, California is king of the Colorado River and wants you to know it.

“We’ll never give up that right – our first priority among all Colorado River water users — and never say we’ll give up that right,” Hassencamp told me. “ That’s our fallback position, though we’ll set it aside for now and try to work out a solution.”

For Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, this is a clear warning. As Hassencamp put it: “We recognize the pie is shrinking for good.”

Dave Marston is the publisher of Writers on the Range (writersontherange.org), a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West.

0 Comments
0
0
0
0
0

Catch the latest in Opinion

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

Opinion: Garden City pathologist Ryan Cole burst onto the national scene as a leading Covid-19 vaccination denier and purveyor of unproven cures in July of 2021. Speaking at a meeting of America’s Frontline Doctors (AFD), a group of Covid-19 anti-vaccination activists, Cole falsely described the life-saving vaccines as “fake,” a “clot shot” and “needle rape.” He falsely claimed that thousands had died from the vaccine.

Opinion: A week before the House of Representatives approved a ban on "assault weapons," a federal judge in Denver explained why such laws are unlikely to pass constitutional muster. House Democrats either were not paying attention or did not care because they view the Second Amendment as an outmoded provision that imposes no meaningful limits on gun control.

Opinion: How angry are some Republicans at what they see as betrayal by a centrist Democrat? Angry enough to betray sick military veterans, apparently. That’s the only rational explanation for last week’s sudden about-face by two-dozen Senate Republicans who opposed legislation they previously supported to make it easier for cancer-stricken veterans to get help from the government.

Opinion: Cynical Democrats have cause to rejoice. They decry Republican voters who embrace GOP candidates who spout the lie that former President Donald Trump won the 2020 election. At the same time, they do their utmost to make sure big-lie believers win GOP primaries so that Democrats are more likely to win in November.

Even though I’m now an old guy, I can still remember the day I accidentally discovered my oldest brother’s secret stash of Playboy magazines. I was twelve at the time. He was preparing to leave for college, and was a little sloppy in his packing. I was very surprised.

Opinion: Over the course of the year, people in this country purchased $504.9 billion in goods from Communist China, while Communist China bought only $151.4 billion from us. The result was a $353.5 billion bilateral trade deficit — by far the largest trade deficit the United States ran with any country. In fact, in every year since 1985 — the first year that the Census Bureau reported the U.S.-China trade balance — the United States has run a trade deficit with this Communist regime.

Opinion: If you watch "Stranger Things" with your kids, there's a good chance they spend some of the time crying. Not because the monsters are so scary, but because the kids are so free. It's like monkeys at the zoo watching a Jane Goodall documentary.

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

News Alerts

Breaking News