Reforming Expectations to Save Western Rivers

The Dalles Dam. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Recently, former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt proposed an alternative to the highly controversial yet difficult-to-kill Gila River diversion project, which would dam and divert water from the last free-flowing river in New Mexico (“Damming the Gila a vampire proposal,” My View, Feb. 2).

While the Gila proposal already is on life support because of missed deadlines and waning public and political support, water managers refuse to abandon it because a legal “right” to that water remains.

While Babbitt’s proposal waves the white flag on the Gila diversion project, he suggests as a path forward stealing the 4.6 billion gallons (14,000 acre-feet) of water from another source in the Colorado River Basin — the San Juan River near Chama.

The San Juan River, like the Gila, is a spectacular Western river. It is home to a full suite of recreational opportunities, supports communities and Native cultures in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona, and it provides refuge to more than a half-dozen native fish, including the endangered Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker. The San Juan River, like almost every remaining Western river, cannot afford to sacrifice one more drop.

Babbitt claims that such a diversion will “have a negligible effect on the San Juan River.” This is simply untrue and is based on institutional climate denial. In fact, a recent study by Katrina E. Bennett, et al., found that climate change will significantly impact water supplies in the San Juan River basin and concluded that even just “meeting minimum flow requirements is likely to be a major challenge.”

The truth is any diversion project — whether from the Gila or the San Juan River — is a bankrupt deal based on the already extreme overallocation of the Colorado River Basin and climate change.

So, the question becomes, when are we going to realize that water in Western rivers is not unlimited and that the promises of the past and the expectations surrounding them for the future need to be fundamentally reformed?

The “water buffalos” — those water engineers, lawyers and politicians who built the pyramid of “entitlements” and “rights” — have created an intractable system. Rather than recognizing water and rivers as “the commons” that are held in trust for all people and the environment, water has become a commodity to be bought, sold and moved to the highest bidder in order to perpetuate this unsustainable shell game.

Instead of holding these “entitlements” — like the 14,000 acre-feet that State Engineer Steve Reynolds negotiated for New Mexico in the 20th century — as sacrosanct, we need to eliminate the demand by simply retiring the right back to the river.

This may seem like a radical idea, but climate scientists and others are starting to express this reality. Bradley Udall was recently quoted in the NM Political Report saying, “We’re going to have to look at demand and how we manage to shed demand [in a way] that does the least amount of damage to communities and the environment and our economy.”

The water crisis before us is very similar to the climate crisis that is upon us. To slow climate change, we need to keep fossil fuels in the ground. This transition will not be easy but is imperative. Likewise, to ease the impending water crisis, we need to stop taking more water from Western rivers, eliminate any remaining pie-in-the-sky entitlements and stop the construction of new dams and diversions.

To be sure, water demands over the next century will increase given population growth and climate change; however, until we learn to conserve water and live within our rivers’ means, no river will be safe from future dams, diversions and destruction.

This column first appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Jen Pelz is a river activist and lawyer working to protect and restore living rivers throughout the West. She works as the Wild Rivers Program director and Rio Grande Waterkeeper at WildEarth Guardians.