Colorado River: Time for action

Posted: Dec 15, 2019

Anyone wanting to draw attention to water woes in the West couldn’t ask for a more illustrative poster child than Lake Mead. The dark, fortress-like cliffs that line the massive reservoir are marked by a gleaming white stripe of minerals left behind as the water level has dropped precipitously.

We learned this week that Lake Mead has hit a new 75-year low—it’s height above sea level is now only eight feet from the point at which water flowing to seven needy western states will have to be rationed. Since the reservoir lost 10 feet between September 2009 and September 2010, it’s not hard to imagine that such a watershed moment could come.

That’s why, when a New York Times’ editorial this week focused on the Colorado River, it seemed like the ideal time to sound the alarm. Instead the author took the opportunity to give kudos to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for recently allocating $1.5 million for a federal study to analyze three river basins, including the Colorado.

This modest rhetoric and action may be too little, too late for the Colorado’s many stakeholders. (Take, for example, the concession owners and marina operators on Lake Mead who businesses have all but evaporated.) After 11 years of continuous drought, it’s not as if the problem has appeared overnight. And as Douglas Kenney, senior research associate at the University of Colorado's Natural Resources Law Center, told the Daily Camera newspaper earlier this year, "People have known since the 1940s, if not earlier, that this river was over-allocated and that, at some point, it's going to be a major problem.

“Improvements need to be made to how we manage this river," said Kenney. The Colorado River Governance Initiative, based at the Natural Resources Law Center, is focused on those nuts and bolts; on managing river flows to satisfy water and power demands. Being realistic about supply, and tough on demand, seems the best way forward.

-Heather Hansen

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