Mountain News — hard times on the Colorado River 

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BOULDER, Colo. — In due course, the Colorado River goes past Las Vegas on its way, at least in theory, to the Pacific Ocean. But it originates in Rocky Mountain National Park, flowing through Grand Lake, picking up additional water from tributaries that go through Winter Park, Vail, Telluride and other ski towns.

Fully half of the Colorado River's water comes from Colorado, with lesser amounts from other states before the river is stopped at Glen Canyon Dam to create the reservoir most people call Lake Powell.

Now comes the news that because of the drought that has continued more years than not since 1999, less water will be released from Powell downstream to Las Vegas, Arizona and California. Also as a result, less electricity can be produced at Hoover Dam.

This was not surprising news. Water experts for some years have spoken with increasing alarm about the razor-thin margin between supplies and demands in the Colorado River Basin.

Bull's eye for this story is Las Vegas. A century ago, it wasn't much more than a railroad depot in a place that annually gets only four inches of precipitation. Mafia dons and gambling and giant hotels all came later. When the Colorado River Compact was drawn up in 1922, only 700,000 acre-feet out of what the compact framers optimistically estimated were an annual 16 million acre-feet of flows were allocated to Nevada. California could see its future needs, and Colorado presciently saw the need for a compact before California slurped up all the water. But nobody foresaw The Strip.

Pat Mulroy looks after the water interests for The Strip and all of Clark County. The county, which includes Henderson, a decade ago surpassed Manhattan in population. This was about the time that she and others decided it was not wise to depend upon a Lake Mead brimming with water. Or any water, for that matter.

With that in mind, Mulroy's Southern Nevada Water Authority began boring a new tunnel to the reservoir, its third. This newest one will come up from deeper, burrowing into the bed of the lingering Colorado River, just in case the reservoir ceases to exist. Cost of tunnelling has now reached a projected $820 million.

Meanwhile, in her many talks through the West, Mulroy has hammered away at the same message: cooperation and not conflict, sharing instead of fighting, innovation and the future — and the great challenge of climate change.

"We need to find the language that the public can understand. If we talk about winners and losers, the public will talk about winners and losers," she said at a recent water conference sponsored by the University of Colorado's Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment.

"The last conversation we need is who is on first, who is in charge," she added.

Mulroy called for more innovative partnerships, such as her organization forged with Arizona, to store more water in wet years for use in tight times.

"Some day it will snow again in Colorado. One day it will snow again in New Mexico," she said.

Just what part of this drought and increased temperatures is natural and what part is a result of human-caused greenhouse effect, scientists cannot say with precision. Tree rings document decades-long droughts in the Colorado River Basin a millennium ago similar to the one now underway. But while climate models haven't figured out how increased greenhouse gases will affect precipitation, they are clear about rising temperatures — which are almost certain to exact much higher tributes of water for everything from corn fields north of Denver, to residential lawns in Salt Lake City to fountains in Las Vegas. All depend on the Colorado River in some way.

Mulroy long ago accepted the science of climate change. "It's time to stop the religious discussion about climate change," she said.

She also called for greater federal involvement in drought planning and mitigation in advance of climate change. "We have an interesting attitude in this country," she said. "We think we only have to pay once the destruction has occurred."

Barton "Buzz" Thompson, a professor at Stanford University, said that the evidence about effects of greenhouse gases has strengthened — and the outcome is likely to produce more weather extremes. This will require planning for solutions that "are not really within our range of experience," he said.

He called for consideration of higher rates for water, greater development of technology to expand conservation and recycling, but also more serious thought about limiting population growth in the Southwest. That's an idea anemic to Las Vegas.

Thompson also noted the need to increase costs charged consumers for water even while asking them to conserve. That, observed Mulroy, is a "very, very difficult conversation to have" with water customers.

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