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Colorado pushes its use of West’s major river to the limit, new study shows

Utah Rivers Council found that diversion and climate change could worsen limited water resources across seven Western states
Water sits behind Long Hollow Dam. According to the study, Colorado can develop another 11,000 acre-feet of water from the Colorado River while staying within the bounds of its legal obligations to states downstream, a number that does not include both tribal and Mexican water rights. If those are included, Colorado is already running a water deficit of 489,000 acre-feet from the Colorado River, more than any other state in the upper basin. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

A new study released by a Utah nonprofit reveals Colorado and other upstream states are consuming too much water from the Colorado River system.

The Utah Rivers Council, a water conservation nonprofit, released a report about Colorado River shortages and climate change Monday showing that continued water development in Colorado will force the state to run an annual Colorado River water deficit that could worsen if water resources across the West continue to dwindle.

“The only reason that Colorado is not in a deficit today is because they’re using water rights which are actually owned by tribes inside the state of Colorado,” said Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council.

According to the study, Colorado can develop another 11,000 acre-feet of water from the Colorado River while staying within the bounds of its legal obligations to states downstream.

However, that number does not include unused tribal water rights and the state’s obligation to send water downriver to Mexico under the 1944 U.S.-Mexico Water Treaty.

If both tribal and Mexican water rights are taken into account, Colorado is already running a water deficit of 489,000 acre-feet from the Colorado River, more than any other state in the upper basin.

“We’re not sending enough down because we’re taking too much out,” Frankel said. “It’s sort of this pit of tribalism (where states fight for more water) that has got to end.”

The study took the Utah Rivers Council a year to put together using data from the Bureau of Reclamation. The point was to assess how reduced flows in the Colorado River from climate change affect water allocation.

Average annual flows in the Colorado River have decreased by 19%, according to U.S. Bureau of Reclamation data. However, states have continued to use water without adjusting for this decrease.

“(Colorado River) allocations were flawed from the beginning and they’re only growing more out of reach as climate change reduces flows in our rivers,” said Jen Pelz, wild rivers program director for WildEarth Guardians, a conservation nonprofit in the West.

The report was critical of new projects in Colorado, Utah and New Mexico that would pull more water from the Colorado River, noting that they would put further strain on communities downstream.

“New proposed diversions represent irresponsible spending proposals which jeopardize existing water users inside the same state,” the report read. “Proponents of such proposals must be held responsible for their ignorance about the current plight of the Colorado River Basin water supply.”

“There’s no forecast or proposal to cut water use in the upper basin. In fact, there are 400,000 acre-feet of new proposed water projects,” Frankel said. “It’s like we lost our job and we have no income, but we’re going to go buy a Ferrari.”

In Colorado, the Windy Gap Firming Project in Larimer County would create a new reservoir and pull another 30,000 acre-feet from the Colorado River, pushing the state into a water deficit with the river.

Construction on the new reservoir began in August.

“If we’re using common sense, Colorado should be reducing its divergence (projects), not increasing them,” Pelz said.

Colorado is relatively insulated from the negative impacts of its water overuse as a headwater state, but the impacts downstream are severe.

The Colorado River in Mexico has been reduced to a trickle, though it serves more than 35 million people in the U.S.

Margarita Diaz, director of Proyecto Fronterizo de Educación Ambiental, a water conservation nonprofit in Tijuana, Mexico, said in a news conference that the effects of overuse have been clear in the Lower Colorado Basin.

“I live in the Tijuana at the end of the Colorado River. Here the water crisis is not something from the future, but a frightening reality,” Diaz said.

In 2022, Mexico, Arizona and Nevada will see the first water cuts ever from the Colorado River.

Colorado will remain unaffected.

The report shows that if climate change continues to reduce water resources from the Colorado River, water deficits will swell and those cuts will eventually make their way to Colorado.

“The upper basin is at least 10 years behind the lower basin in leading its constituents to understand the new water paradigm,” Frankel said.

“A number of elected officials and water suppliers are egregiously taking us all over the cliff by failing to recognize climate change and its reduction of flows,” he said. “If we look at the flows of the Colorado River like income, there’s no wisdom in overspending our incomes. There’s no wisdom in breaking the bank with new water diversions and blaming other states for our failure to crunch numbers and do basic math.”

Both Frankel and Pelz noted that there’s no clear path forward for Colorado reducing its consumption of Colorado River water.

“If there was one silver bullet solution, we would be doing it right now,” Pelz said.

Modernizing water canals could increase water use efficiency and minimize loss during water transport. Reconsidering the water-intensive crops that farmers grow in dry areas of the state could also decrease consumption.

But neither is a panacea.

“People, water managers, public officials in Colorado all need to change the way they think about the water that starts out in Colorado,” Pelz said. “We have a responsibility to make sure that all of these downstream communities also have access and the ability to have strong economies.”


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