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Can Colorado River deal solve West's Water Worries? PDF Print E-mail
By Alison Loomis | Tuesday, 18 December 2007

A gruelling drought -- likely the worst drought in 500 years -- is plaguing the American West and its Colorado River life-line. However, even with a new landmark agreement for the Colorado River signed last week, the West is soon to face permanent water scarcity due to global warming.

According to the National Climatic Data Center, 2007 is considered to be a record-setting U.S. drought year. In the Center’s September report, about 43 percent of the contiguous U.S. fell in the moderate to extreme drought categories. With fierce wildfires sweeping across Southern California’s dry scruburban landscape, not to mention severe water shortages experienced in Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama, 2007’s lack of precipitation has devastated communities across the country.  

Unfortunately for the American Southwest, which has been severely dry since 2000,several studies have predicted that a permanent drought will set in before mid-century due to global warming, creating Dust Bowl-like conditions. A primary factor linked to drought conditions in the Southwest points to warming tropical Atlantic Ocean temperatures amongst a synergy of other climatic changes.

Already, paltry snowfall in the Rocky Mountains has yielded a host of problems. The Colorado River, the main water source for seven states, is at historic lows, while the water content in the Sierra Nevada snow-pack has reached the lowest level in about two decades.

The eight-year drought has lead to bickering over western water law created 85 years ago, and bidding wars over how to balance uncertain resources with growing demand.

Federal officials signed the new Colorado River pact last week after 2 ½-years of negotiation.   The new pact advises the seven river states, Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, on how to allocate water if the river runs short through 2026. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne called it "an agreement to share adversity," before signing the document at the Colorado River Water Users Association meeting at Caesars Palace.

The heart of the plan uses water levels of the Colorado River’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, to trigger rationing and a series of experimental conservation programs. Both reservoirs have dropped to below half-capacity due to the drought, along with curtailed hydro-power and damage to riparian habitat and recreation sites. Effects in the Colorado River basin are
worse than during the Dust Bowl years, scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey say.

Officials confirm Lake Powell and Lake Mead hold enough water to survive long dry periods, but
if the drought worsens and growth prevails, longer-lasting solutions must be found.

Environmental groups say the new management plan fails to protect the river itself, nor properly address growth issues.
According to John Weisheit, conservation director for Living Rivers, a Utah-based environmental group, the agreement sends the message to the states that growth trumps sensible water management. Mr. Weisheit further mentioned that conservation should have been emphasized and the government’s computer modeling was overly optimistic about future water supply.

Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas—all three of which are amongst the top 11
fastest growing cities in the US and dependent on the Colorado River, are far from a sufficient water footprint.  Our driest cities are notorious for the proliferation of conventional suburban green lawns and hosing down cars. In fact, Los Angeles water consumers have failed to cut back by 10%, a voluntary measure asked by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on June 6, whilst Las Vegas is threatening farmers out of business in Northern Nevada to divert their ground water to the city.

CA Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has sounded alarm bells by pushing for a ballot measure in 2008 that would allocate $4.5 billion in
bonds for new water storage in the U.S.’s most populous state, even as a federal court on Friday ordered major cuts in water exports to Southern California to save fish endangered by the massive pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Meanwhile, conditions in Australia may herald what's to come:
"water police" patrol the streets and slap fines on residents who hose down cars or water lawns more than twice a week.

Given the bleak forecast, it's only a matter of time before our own officials are forced to push for stronger conservation measures. As consumers, it's time to find ways of curbing our water use before somebody turns off the tap.


Image courtesy of Los Angeles Times 

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