More Questions Than Answers at Colorado River Water Meetings

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Key questions resurfaced Thursday at a conference of Colorado River water managers and users from seven U.S. states, Native American tribes and Mexico who are served by the shrinking river due to drought and climate change.

Who will bear the brunt of further water outages and how quickly?

What targets must be met for voluntary cuts in water use by the seven states that depend on the river before the federal government intervenes?

How about we control the evaporation of water once the snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains enters the system and starts flowing into Mexico?

“I do not have answers. I just have questions right now,” Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, said during a Colorado River Water Users Association panel on the state of the river.

The agency manages canals that deliver water to much of Arizona, and was the first to feel the effects last year of drought-forced cutoffs in the river’s water flow.

The Colorado provides drinking water for 40 million people, irrigation for millions of acres of agriculture, and hydroelectric power in the American Southwest.

“Collective painful action is needed now,” Chuck Cullom, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, said during the same panel.

The river serves four headwater states: Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, and three lower basin states of California, Arizona, and Nevada. The tribes and Mexico also have water rights.

The talk in the sessions on Wednesday and Thursday has focused on cooperation between users to solve the shortage. But the data shows that less water is flowing into the river what is drawn from has dominated the conference. And after more than two decades of drought and climate change, the annual conference at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas has taken on a crisis mood.

“The alternative to inaction is brutal and utterly obvious,” Cullom said of a ripple effect of scarcity that would be borne first by entities with lesser water rights advancing to higher ranking ones. “We agree that all states, sectors and tribes must play a role.”

Deadlines for what to do are fast approaching, along with a deadline of next Tuesday for public comment on an effort by the Federal Bureau of Claims that is expected to produce a final report by summer on how to save around 15%. of river water now distributed to recipients.

David Palumbo, the Office of Reclamation’s deputy commissioner for operations, told the conference panel with Cooke and Cullom on Thursday that he was waiting for answers. These include assumptions about the amount of water flowing in the river; effects of changes in river flows in the Grand Canyon; how officials should administer the reductions; and public health and safety considerations.

Limiting population growth was not discussed as an option. Cooke said market forces, not the government, should dictate who moves where.

“People have the right to make a good choice or a bad choice,” he said, “and that includes moving to a place that might not have water.”

The office controls the flow of the river with waterworks that include the two largest reservoirs in the country, Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam on the Nevada-Arizona state line, and Lake Powell formed by Glen Canyon Dam on the Arizona-Utah.

Lake Mead was at 100% capacity in mid-1999. Today it is 28% full. Lake Powell, which was last filled in June 1980, is at 25%.

Water deliveries were cut off last year for the first time to Arizona and Nevada, primarily affecting Arizona farmers. under a 1968 agreement that gave the state secondary rights to the river’s water in exchange for US funds to build a 336-mile (540-kilometer) canal to its major cities.

The office could impose top-down rules that override actions states agreed to take in 1922 and subsequent agreements. However, while federal officials are due to speak Friday, including office commissioner Camille Touton and two senior representatives from the Department of the Interior, no blockbuster announcements are expected.

Recovery officials told the seven states last June they will have to cut more, and let them identify ways to cut 15% next year, or place restrictions on them. The federal government has also allocated billions of dollars to pay farmers to leave fields fallow and to help cities reduce water use.

“We are using more than we have,” Brenda Burman, former director of the Office of Reclamation, said during “Colorado River 101” on Wednesday.

“We could be seeing a lot of cuts. We could be seeing a lot of changes,” she said.

As head of the office, Burman had warned the Water Users Association four years ago that measures against drought were needed. He will replace the retiring Cooke as general manager of the Central Arizona Project.

Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, expressed her frustration Thursday that people don’t realize that water is captured in the upper basin states and then the office distributes it to the lower basin states. lower basin.

Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming “live within the media of the river every day,” he said.

John Entsminger, general manager of the Las Vegas-based Southern Nevada Water Authority, likened managing the effects of drought on the Colorado River to a national emergency like a hurricane in Florida, saying the federal government could invest national emergency funds.

Entsminger also said it’s time to plot the amount of water lost through evaporation when use and allocations are considered.

“We have not taken into account the amount of water that we are losing from the system,” he said. “Call it evaporation, system losses, call it strawberry shortcake for all of us who matter. Do the calculations and the analysis.”


Associated Press writer Peter Prengaman in Las Vegas contributed to this report.

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