The event hosted by the Wallace Stegner Center at the University of Utah College of Law, in partnership with the Water & Tribes Initiative, brought together representatives holding diverse views on strategies for sharing water, engaging tribes, integrating environmental considerations, and adapting to climate change.
The over-appropriated 246,000 square mile Colorado River Basin in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, and Mexico serves irrigation, municipal and industrial demands while providing hydropower production, fish, wildlife, and recreational uses.
The Department of the Interior (Department), through the Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation), has management responsibilities for the water resources of the Colorado River Basin. In particular, they led multiple efforts attempting to improve the basin’s water supply through collaborative agreements.
A Bureau of Reclamation supply and demand Study published in December 2012 attempted to analyze water supply and demand imbalances throughout the Colorado River Basin and adjacent areas through 2060. But it confirmed what most experts know. There will likely be significant shortfalls between projected water supplies and demands in the Colorado River Basin in the coming decades.[i] And the authors called for a commitment to further analysis and planning in many areas related to the Study.
In his report on the March Symposium, Brandon Loomis noted that Arizona gets more than a third of its water from the River for growing crops around Yuma and serving homes around Phoenix and Tucson. He added that the Las Vegas area gets most of its water from the River and has built a deeper pipe in Lake Mead to assure its continued access. In addition, he said that late-developing states like Wyoming use water for ranching and energy development and are hoping to continue growing on it.
Loomis said a comment by Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger, that “We’re all going to lose,” was a call to action on behalf of a river that some 40 million people from the headwaters in Wyoming and Colorado to the delta in Mexico are using up.
We’re up to the challenge because we don’t have a choice,” said Entsminger, whose agency in Las Vegas has embraced water austerity by banning most new grass lawns and golf courses and restricting new pool sizes.
During the symposium, Brad Udall, senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University said that the average annual temperature in the Colorado River basin has not dipped below the last century’s average since 2000. He added that more warming is likely, further decreasing river flows in the future.
Udall got to the real issue when he addressed the demand side of the shortage problem. “We need to remove some demands permanently, not just temporarily,” Udall said. “We have a system out of balance with more use than water, and the only lever we currently control is the demand lever.”
But Udall said finding the political will and leadership at federal and state levels to reduce demand is difficult.
“My biggest fear,” Udall said, “is that it’s easier to let the system crash than find the needed painful solutions. “He defined a system crash as letting the two largest reservoirs in the U.S. — Lake Mead and Lake Powell — empty because of an inability to respond to declining flows. Udall added that dealing with the crisis requires more than past incremental solutions.
Entsminger put the issue more bluntly in his comments at the symposium.
“To paraphrase the Dread Pirate Roberts,” Entsminger said, “the future of the Colorado River is pain. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.”
[i] Bureu of Reclamation, “Colorado River Basin Supply and demand Study, Executive Summary, December 2012 at