FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Why the Colorado River Basin Crisis is No Surprise

Perhaps you have heard how urgent it is for the upper basin states to take water from the Colorado River before those “Californians use it all up?” This us-versus-them attitude, as a justification to take more water from a finite system, will obviously not solve the regional water predicament. Later on, I will explain that scientists from California demonstrated early leadership to create equitable water solutions for everybody.

California’s surface and groundwater allotment from the Colorado River Basin is limited to 4.4 million acre-feet per year and 70 percent of this water is used to grow food and fiber in the Imperial and Coachella Irrigation Districts, which is largely exported. However, it might surprise you to know that the state of Arizona uses as much surface water from the Colorado River system, and if you include the water that Arizona consumes from the water supply underneath the Colorado River Basin, then it exceeds California’s consumption by about 3.5 million acre-feet per year.

Here is the inventory of Arizona’s surface water: The estimated natural flow of the Gila River through Arizona is about 1.8 million acre-feet. The state of New Mexico will use a portion of this surface water, but Arizona consumes the lion’s share and the river bed is dry long before it ever reaches the Colorado River. This includes the flow of the Little Colorado River in Arizona, which is 138,000 acre-feet. Again, New Mexico will use a portion of this water supply and Arizona dominates the rest.

Because the division between the upper basin states and the lower basin states of the Colorado River occurs in Arizona at Lee’s Ferry (15 river miles below Glen Canyon Dam), Arizona has two allocations under the Colorado River Compact of 1922. Arizona’s upper basin allocation is limited to 50,000 acre-feet. The city of Page and the nearby Navajo Generating Station are the consumers of this entitlement. Between Hoover Dam and the Mexican border, Arizona will divert 2.8 million acre-feet directly from the Colorado River for its lower basin apportionment. Like California, about 70 percent of Arizona’s water consumption is dedicated to exporting food and fiber.

The consumptive use of surface water in the Colorado River Basin is currently over-extended and we know this because we can see the “bathtub ring” with our own eyes when we visit Lake Powell, and especially Lake Mead. This visual realization is not necessarily the case for our groundwater reservoirs, that is, until we begin to notice subsidence fissures on the Earth’s surface caused by the mining of groundwater. In Utah, dramatic subsidence is happening in Iron County near Cedar City.

As of 2003, 52 percent of the water consumed by the states of the Southwest region was extracted from groundwater aquifers. New Mexico extracts 90 percent of its water from aquifers; Arizona is 60 percent; Wyoming is 57 percent; Utah is 56 percent; California is 45 percent; Nevada is 32 percent; and Colorado is 22 percent. Subsidence is occurring in 45 of the 50 United States and 80 percent of this subsidence is directly caused by groundwater depletion by humans. It is called groundwater mining because humans are extracting water from aquifers faster than Nature can replenish them.

Lake-Powell-water-level

Dropping water level at Lake Powell/Glen Canyon. Photo: Bureau of Reclamation.

Water shortages were officially predicted to occur in the Colorado River Basin as early as 1946. This message was delivered at a convention of the Colorado River Water Users Association in Salt Lake City by hydrologists from the state of California. Essentially the message was: The water supply of the Colorado River was significantly over-estimated by the commissioners of the 1922 Colorado River Compact. Consequently, the suggestion from California to the other six states was to find a mutual way to balance the supply with the demand. To this day, modifying the 1922 Colorado River Compact to share this finite resource equitably has yet to occur and water grabbing continues to dominate our political culture.

In 1957, scientists from California at the Scripps Institute demonstrated that the ocean could not absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide fast enough to avoid a planetary greenhouse effect. Twenty-three years later, the scientists at Scripps suggested to water managers that they modify their water delivery infrastructure to compensate for the imbalance ahead. They also said it was best to to get started immediately, because it takes more than 30 years to implement effective planning and zoning features.

As we all should know by now, heeding these two suggestions from Californian hydrologists to restore system balance never materialized. Collectively, the entire basin had its chance to act, but never accepted the challenge. Seventy years of time has elapsed since the first warning, which is twice the time necessary to cross over to safety. Will the water managers fail to act a third time? Yes, because a finished 30-year comprehensive strategic plan is nowhere to be found in the public record.

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

This essay also appears in the Moab Sun.

More articles by:

Weekend Edition
January 18, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Melvin Goodman
Star Wars Revisited: One More Nightmare From Trump
John Davis
“Weather Terrorism:” a National Emergency
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Sometimes an Establishment Hack is Just What You Need
Joshua Frank
Montana Public Schools Block Pro-LGBTQ Websites
Louisa Willcox
Sky Bears, Earth Bears: Finding and Losing True North
Robert Fisk
Bernie Sanders, Israel and the Middle East
Robert Fantina
Pompeo, the U.S. and Iran
David Rosen
The Biden Band-Aid: Will Democrats Contain the Insurgency?
Nick Pemberton
Human Trafficking Should Be Illegal
Steve Early - Suzanne Gordon
Did Donald Get The Memo? Trump’s VA Secretary Denounces ‘Veteran as Victim’ Stereotyping
Andrew Levine
The Tulsi Gabbard Factor
John W. Whitehead
The Danger Within: Border Patrol is Turning America into a Constitution-Free Zone
Dana E. Abizaid
Kafka’s Grave: a Pilgrimage in Prague
Rebecca Lee
Punishment Through Humiliation: Justice For Sexual Assault Survivors
Dahr Jamail
A Planet in Crisis: The Heat’s On Us
John Feffer
Trump Punts on Syria: The Forever War is Far From Over
Dave Lindorff
Shut Down the War Machine!
Glenn Sacks
LA Teachers’ Strike: Student Voices of the Los Angeles Education Revolt  
Mark Ashwill
The Metamorphosis of International Students Into Honorary US Nationalists: a View from Viet Nam
Ramzy Baroud
The Moral Travesty of Israel Seeking Arab, Iranian Money for its Alleged Nakba
Ron Jacobs
Allen Ginsberg Takes a Trip
Jake Johnston
Haiti by the Numbers
Binoy Kampmark
No-Confidence Survivor: Theresa May and Brexit
Victor Grossman
Red Flowers for Rosa and Karl
Cesar Chelala
President Donald Trump’s “Magical Realism”
Christopher Brauchli
An Education in Fraud
Paul Bentley
The Death Penalty for Canada’s Foreign Policy?
David Swanson
Top 10 Reasons Not to Love NATO
Louis Proyect
Breaking the Left’s Gay Taboo
Kani Xulam
A Saudi Teen and Freedom’s Shining Moment
Ralph Nader
Bar Barr or Regret this Dictatorial Attorney General
Jessicah Pierre
A Dream Deferred: MLK’s Dream of Economic Justice is Far From Reality
Edward J. Martin
Glossip v. Gross, the Eighth Amendment and the Torture Court of the United States
Chuck Collins
Shutdown Expands the Ranks of the “Underwater Nation”
Paul Edwards
War Whores
Peter Crowley
Outsourcing Still Affects Us: This and AI Worker Displacement Need Not be Inevitable
Alycee Lane
Trump’s Federal Government Shutdown and Unpaid Dishwashers
Martha Rosenberg
New Questions About Ritual Slaughter as Belgium Bans the Practice
Nicky Reid
Panarchy as Full Spectrum Intersectionality
Jill Richardson
Hollywood’s Fat Shaming is Getting Old
Nyla Ali Khan
A Woman’s Wide Sphere of Influence Within Folklore and Social Practices
Richard Klin
Dial Israel: Amos Oz, 1939-2018
David Rovics
Of Triggers and Bullets
David Yearsley
Bass on Top: the Genius of Paul Chambers
Elliot Sperber
Eddie Spaghetti’s Alphabet
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail