Demand to grow, supplies dwindle for Colorado River

Report points to water deficiencies in watershed

LAS VEGAS - More drought, more demand and less water is the conclusion of a comprehensive study of the Colorado River.

The Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study was released Wednesday afternoon by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.

The multi-year study says that last year water demands in the water basin exceeded the seasonal supply.

Because the Colorado River system can store up to four years worth of an annual average flow with its inventory of reservoirs, it was able to makeup for the shortfall.

However, the research concluded that increased demand and diminishing supplies due to climate change will put greater stress on a number of Western cities to meet its water needs.

Some other findings highlighted in the study included:

  • The Colorado River basin has been suffering through its worst 11-year drought in the past century.
  • Water demands will exceed supplies by an estimated 3.2 million acre feet by 2060.
  • The Colorado River's flow has fallen over the past decade and will continue to decrease.

More than 33 million people depend on the Colorado River for their water supply. That number is expected to more than double to possibly 76 million by 2060.


Climate change increases droughts in West

Droughts lasting 5 or more years are projected to occur during 25 of the next 50 years. The report states this increase in the frequency of droughts is linked to climate change. The water system will be further be stressed by more evaporation in storage areas and less precipitation falling as snow.

Missouri River pipeline possibility

To offset the projected water deficiency, the Bureau of Reclamation and representatives of the seven river basin states - Colorado, Arizona, California, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming - came up with four alternative plans to address the issue.

The four alternatives take into account hundreds of ideas and suggestions. Some of those ideas included towing icebergs from the Arctic to California, treating and re-using waste water and building desalination plants.

One possibility raised was to build a 700-mile pipeline from the upper Missouri River to Colorado. That project would reportedly provide annually an additional 600,000 acre feet.

Critics of that idea likened it to robbing Peter to pay Paul.


No consensus on forward action

Salazar bluntly dismissed proposals like a multi-billion dollar pipeline running some 670 miles from the Missouri River to Colorado.

He left open the discussion about options ranging from eliminating thirsty invasive but prolific plants like tamarisk, capping reservoirs and irrigation canals to reduce evaporation, and desalting seawater.

Salazar noted that the federal government already operates a desalination plant near Yuma, Ariz., to treat saline agricultural irrigation water as it returns to the river.

The report also cites the possibility of entities increasing cooperation to swap water credits and "bank" the valuable resource.

A copy of the full report as well as an executive summary can be found on the Bureau of Reclamation's web site.


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