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The Crisis on the Colorado

Disappearing River

by JOHN WEISHEIT

“You’ll be sucking air before that gets done,” said Patricia Mulroy in August, according to the Las Vegas Review Journal. Mulroy is the General Manager of Southern Nevada Water Authority, and made this statement in reference to how long a US Supreme Court battle would take to resolve the impending Colorado River crisis over water rights. Of course, Mulroy’s statement insinuates that Lakes Mead and Powell are destined to go empty in the next twelve-years, which is how long the last Supreme Court decision took to resolve.

In July of 2005, two board members of Living Rivers drove to Las Vegas to essentially say, at a public gathering of water managers, “the intakes of Hoover Dam will soon be sucking air.” During our presentation, a few of the most recalcitrant water managers audibly laughed at us. Today, apparently, the threat of Hoover Dam sucking air isn’t very funny any more.

We provided an alternative back then, which was to decommission Glen Canyon Dam and to instead store surplus water in depleted aquifers throughout the basin. However, I have to confess that our “One-Dam Solution” isn’t really an original idea. Living Rivers merely harvested a few good ideas that we stumbled upon, while reading the public record of the “most studied river in the world.”

The tab in this public record begins in the year 1953 when a lawyer by the name of Northcutt Ely pointed out to Congress that Glen Canyon Dam, in time, would become a burden to maximizing the available water supply efficiently, once the Colorado River system reached the level of maximum consumption. Mr. Ely even provided the year when that situation would approximately occur, which was 2000. As it turns out, he was spot on and I wish he had lived long enough to see it happen for himself. I doubt people laughed at Mr. Ely back then, since he was best known as the lead author for the ultimate analysis of the “Law of the River,” which is called the The Hoover Dam Documents.

You could keep Lakes Mead and Powell nearly full, and the generators buzzing, if the demand in the basin were cut by a third. As it is now, the over-reaching for water in the Colorado River basin has exceeded the supply, and in 50-years the imbalance will grow at least 21 percent. The take-home message here is: if Mr. Ely believed it, and Ms. Mulroy believes it, then maybe the people should believe it too. Obviously, the next step is to make some changes that are correct, since the changes of the past were incorrect.

I will admit that 4-years of abundant snowfall could shave some layers of worry off the mind’s of these water managers. Pat Mulroy said as much herself when she mentioned, “praying for a change of weather couldn’t hurt either.” But eventually the Day of Reckoning is gonna come. And when it does, unfortunately we will discover that our underground reservoirs are going empty too.

Okay, so now the nation is a dollar short in a big time way, and finally looking back to realize it just squandered a few decades of precious time to properly prepare the Southwest for this really monstrous problem. Consequently, the infrastructure isn’t in place and won’t be for at least another 30-years. Other river basins that might actually have a surplus of water in 50-years aren’t really interested in sharing their water with the unquenchable people of the desert.

Folks, let’s start to get real. The problem isn’t the Colorado River and neither is it the solution. The blame and the fix rests on we the people. It won’t come from the water managers, because they are the ones who got us into this mess in the first place. Whatever it is that they want, it will be the wrong choice. In my opinion, they should all begin a new career in show business, since they seem to enjoy laughing their problems away.

We need to curb our consumption. We need to downsize our population. We have to kick our dependance on finite resources, especially hydrocarbons. We need to build communities and watersheds, and stop this insidious and absurd accumulation of wealth that is diverting and delaying the changes that urgently must take place. I am sure you can add to this list. The possibilities and opportunities are truly endless. Otherwise, enjoy the river and the reservoirs until they are gone.

John Weisheit is a co-founder of Living Rivers based in Moab, Utah and the official Colorado Riverkeeper. His book Cataract Canyon: An environmental and human history of the rivers in Canyonlands. He can be reached at: john@livingrivers.org

 

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