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To save Colorado River, drastic action required now

Mark Twain once said, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” His words ring true today about another river, the Colorado, that many call the lifeblood of the West, in addition to being the main source of water for Las Vegas and Southern Nevada.

The Colorado has been named America’s Most Endangered River, and for plenty of good reasons. In some places the Colorado River is drained dry. In others its flows are so depleted and manipulated that fish and wildlife are federally listed as endangered, and in yet others more dam/diversion/pipeline projects are proposed that would drain the last legally allowed drops of water out of the river.

Today, more than 30 million people throughout the Southwest United States and Northern Mexico — including more than 2 million in Southern Nevada — depend on the Colorado River’s water. In 30 years, that total number is likely to double, and each of those new people will require water. We must innovate and think deeply about how to use water far more wisely. We also need to think more seriously about overall population growth and local growth patterns in Nevada and across the basin. Continuing to add more people in sprawling water-wasting suburbs throughout the region will tax the Colorado River and our water supplies beyond repair.

Even as our populations grow, the climate is changing. We know that drought is likely to be the “new normal” in the Colorado River basin, and scientists tell us that climate change could reduce the amount of water in the Colorado River ecosystem by 9 percent to 20 percent. Predictions of Lake Mead and Lake Powell being drained dry are a small but real part of this picture — Southern Nevada’s construction of the “third straw” out of Lake Mead is a clear example of this threat. 

To address climate change, we will have to make drastic changes in our patterns of water use — by farmers and cities across the basin — and the sooner we begin, the better. It’s time for federal, state and local governments to take a two-pronged approach to climate change: first, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and our reliance on fossil fuel extraction as much as possible, and second, build resilience into our water supply and river protection policies so we can protect people, wildlife and the river itself.

Against the backdrop of a changing climate and growing population, cities and states unfortunately continue to bark up the wrong tree — proposing dam, reservoir, pipeline and energy projects that would drain the last drops of free-flowing Colorado River and its tributaries. The new proposed dam and pipeline projects (Lake Powell Pipeline, the Gila River Pipeline, the Windy Gap Firming Project, the Moffat Project, and on and on) are last-ditch attempts to take water out of the river and send it to cities where it is mostly wasted by growing bluegrass in suburban yards. In Utah, ground zero for river-destroying schemes, a new nuclear power plant is proposed, as well as massive mining of tar sands and oil shale, all of which could use vast amounts of water. 

Instead of these water-wasting schemes, cities should be prioritizing conservation, efficiency and the innovative approaches we know can save both the river and the communities who depend on it. Our economy needs to shift to cleaner energy — solar, wind, efficiency and geothermal — as soon as possible.

The good news is the federal government has stepped up its efforts to address our endangered river. But now it’s time for Congress to get into the act, too.  Congress needs to provide more funding for water conservation programs throughout the basin, needs to support investments to increase the efficiency of water projects that are already built, and needs provide funding to promote and protect the Colorado River itself.

Gone are the days when we can build another dam or pipeline on the Colorado River and worry about its impacts later.

Today, there just isn’t any more water left — the river is endangered and denial ain’t gonna work no more.

Gary Wockner (gary@savethecolorado.org) is director of the Save The Colorado River Campaign, which provides funding for environmental organizations throughout the Colorado River basin.

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