Water study reaction: Predictable—and self-serving

By Bart Taylor | Dec 20, 2012

Much of the initial reaction to last week’s release of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado River study had been heard before, owing to a prior release of data. Headlines focused on the study’s earlier forecast of a 3.2 million acre-feet shortfall throughout the Colorado River Basin in the coming decades, and prepared remarks from water interests tended to reiterate prior positions.

Utilities and providers across the West were quick to acknowledge the need for basin-wide collaboration, conservation where possible and responsible stewardship. Environmental voices continued to stress the current imbalance in the river system, where demand now exceeds supply in some years. Colorado-based Protect the Flows characterized the study as a self-serving effort by states to justify federally funded water projects.

The release of the study’s final phase was timed to coincide with the annual Colorado River Users Conference in Las Vegas. Several things stood out in conference presentations that referenced the study:

  • Everyone is concerned with the study’s dire forecast of the impact of climate change. Climate models used in the research predict about a 10 percent diminishment of the Colorado River because of warming over the coming decades. Debate the causes if you must, but know this: water planners are near unanimous in embracing climate-change science that forecasts warming - with less water in the river as a result.
  • This final phase of the study analyzed the impact of more than 150 different suggestions submitted to the Bureau to address the imbalance in the river. Several different combinations were modeled against the supply and demand data, and the results were very promising in some cases. It may sound obvious, but active, collaborative river management is projected to make a big difference going forward. The unknown factor is whether policy-makers will use these models to maximum effect.
  • Desalination will be in the mix – likely in a big way.
  • The Lower Basin, in particular, is counting on a high-level of consensus developing around this solution ‘tool-kit’. As I’ve written before, the decades to come may well tilt upstream, to the Upper Basin’s benefit. There's a sense that Nevada officials, in particular, will work mightily to maintain comity between the Lower and Upper Basin. But self-interest in the headwater states may stress this status-quo.
  • The most pointed concerns at the conference about the results of the study came from agriculture – easily the industry sector that stands to lose most in a new river reality. Researchers assumed agriculture could realize additional million-acre-feet of water savings per year through conservation. This raised eyebrows. As one ag voice pointed out, “You can only line water canals once." More on ag’s dilemma in the next post.
  • The results should embolden Colorado, Utah and Wyoming to develop their full legal entitlement to the Colorado River. The math works especially well for Colorado. Data from the past couple decades aligns with forecasts from the study that forecast an average of 13 million acre-feet of water to divide annually. The Upper Basin gets 50 percent, Colorado 51 percent of that, or 3.3 million acre-feet. Call it 2.5-2.8 given other factors. The state currently uses 2.1. With pressing demand, Colorado water officials should move on several hundred-thousand acre-feet of new supply in the coming years. Much to ag’s relief.