A Gathering of Water Buffaloes at Glen Canyon Dam

Today the Bureau of Reclamation will host an exclusive celebration for water buffaloes only at Glen Canyon Dam to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Colorado River Storage Project Act (CRSP). The assistant secretary to the Department of Interior, Mark Limbaugh, will provide the keynote address. The CRSP was developed primarily to build storage reservoirs in the upper basin states of the Colorado River watershed, which include New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado.

The legislative debate for the CRSP incidentally launched the modern-day environmental movement in the early 1950s when Reclamation brazenly proposed two dams in Dinosaur National Monument below the confluence of the Green and Yampa rivers in the state of Utah. The proposal to build Split Mountain and Echo Park dams were successfully defeated by the combined efforts of the environmental groups then involved.

During the congressional hearings for CRSP, many witnesses testified that the big reservoirs of the CRSP were unnecessary because they would needlessly waste water through evaporation and seepage. The evaporation would also impair the quality of the water by increasing the dissolved solids, especially salt. It was also pointed out that the hydropower revenue produced by the CRSP projects would not be economically feasible once the demand for water equaled the supply, which would lower the reservoir levels enough to reduce the efficiency of the turbines. Especially since the negotiators of the Colorado River Compact (1922) made the huge blunder of over-allocated the demand by underestimating the supply.

Over-allocation is not the only reality that will compromise the reservoir level behind Glen Canyon Dam, which is currently half-full. When considering the effects of climate change and the scientific projection that river flows on the Colorado River will be reduced 10 to 30% by 2050, this additional aggravation ensures that the CRSP hydropower will never fulfill its debt to the American taxpayer.

Now that fifty years have passed since the first arguments against the project were made, the warnings have turned into fulfilling prophecies. CRSP reservoirs do waste more water than they save, the water is undrinkable by the time it gets Tucson, and currently the demand does equal supply and the efficiency of the turbines has dropped to the point that the managers of federal hydropower now buy electricity from the common market to meet their contractual obligations.

Instead of a celebrating, the Bureau of Reclamation should be performing a wake for the pending funerals of the communities that will run out of water once these reservoirs bottom out and the rivers run dry. Its time to develop a new project, the Colorado River Survival Project.

Climate specialists warned Reclamation ten years ago (the aftermath of the 1989-92 drought) of the consequences that climate change would have on the supply of the Colorado River and the message went unheeded up to year 2000 as the ink dried on their management plan for the future called “Surplus Criteria.”

It took the reality of water year of 2002 for Reclamation to finally resonate with the problem of water scarcity. First came the public relations campaign called the “2025 Plan,” which threw some cash out to water purveyors to improve efficiency standards. When the drought did not break, Reclamation finally decided in 2005 to take baby steps towards developing a management plan called “Shortage Criteria.”

Reclamation may be able to guarantee survival through a small drought, but they cannot guarantee survival through the severe and prolonged droughts that all of us are about to face. We are not talking about the daily weather forecast here. This is a situation about a changing climate of warmer temperatures that is going to hang around for a very long time.

The climate professionals have been successfully modeling Colorado River flows based on the trend of a increasing temperatures for the atmosphere and oceans. Their peer-reviewed reports say the consequences of global warming include a lengthening of the growing season, increasing surface water evaporation, drier soils, and, most importantly, that it will rain more than it will snow–the snow that reservoirs require to refill when it melts each spring.

The CRSP is a water project that was never needed. It is apparent that all it does right now is waste water and money, degrade the water quality, and destroy the national park values of Grand Canyon. The first step to survive the water scarcity situation that we now face is to decommission the dam that makes the least sense–Glen Canyon Dam.

JOHN WEISHEIT is the conservation director of Living Rivers and the Colorado Riverkeeper. He lives along the Colorado River in Moab, Utah. He can be reached at: john@livingrivers.org

For more information:

The report for “Surplus Criteria” by Living Rivers and called The One-Dam Solution

Bureau of Reclamation web page for “Shortage Criteria

The Colorado River Project Storage Act:

Excerpt of congressional testimony opposing the CRSP:

Western Area Power Administration article about drought impacts to hydropower

Climate forecast by USGS/NOAA on stream flow reduction due to global warming