Colorado River’s fate gains ground in D.C.
February 4, 2012
When Zeke Hersh headed to Washington, D.C. for meetings on Monday and Tuesday, he wasn’t sure what to expect.The owner of Frisco’s Blue River Anglers joined a contingent of six who voiced the message of Protect the Flows, a brand-new, grassroots organization dedicated to raising awareness of water supply and related jobs in the Colorado River system – from the headwaters to the delta.The group represented river-related business interests from Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada, Hersh said, adding that the group isn’t just gaining traction by sitting with legislators and leaders in the nation’s environmental governance. It’s also building a broader base, growing from 170 companies to 370 companies involved in the effort from its start in summer 2011 to today.The goal in going to D.C. was to urge the Department of the Interior and legislators to consider plans that will employ smart, common-sense strategies to keep the Colorado River flowing when they finalize the Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado River Basin Supply & Demand Study this summer.Now that the “Options and Strategies Phase” of the Colorado River Supply and Demand Study is closed, submitted proposals will be considered and evaluated through June 2012. Upon completion, the study will define current and future imbalances in water supply and demand in the Colorado River Basin over the next 50 years, and will provide adaptation and mitigation strategies to resolve those imbalances.Some of the proposals Protect the Flows considered unviable and politically or business charged were ideas to build a pipeline from the Mississippi to the Navajo River that feeds the San Juan River; carving icebergs from Alaska and allowing them to melt into a pipeline system that waters southern California; and bagging water from the Northwest to deliver to dry parts of the Southwest.The organization recently submitted a request of its own to the Bureau of Reclamation to consider the economics – the extent of jobs and areas of high recreational values – affected by the Colorado River’s flow as the agency initiates its study. Hersh said submittals were due this past week.
As an angler, a guide, and a mountain biker who likes to cruise Moab, Utah and cool off afterwards in the lazy Colorado River that flows through town, Hersh said he can help provide valuable, first-hand insight into the river’s impact throughout the West. It goes far beyond drinking water needs and agricultural impact, he said. The message of Protect the Flows is that more than 800,000 jobs in the West (107,000 and more than $10 billion into the Colorado’s economy alone) come directly from the river, and those people must be considered when the fate of the water supply is considered.Hersh said he’s seen what drought can do to the industry. He was there in 2002 when the Blue River in Breckenridge ran dry.”Any section to go dry is bad for the bug life,” he said. Insects are what drive fish populations, which are a significant draw for tourists wanting to experience Western fly-fishing.Hersh went to Yuma, Ariz. in November with Protect the Flows, where he saw a dry Colorado River delta. He walked what used to be a lush, green, braided section of river that dumped into the Sea of Cortez once upon a time. In November, he walked the dry flood plain.”A lot of people have no idea the Colorado River runs dry,” Hersh said, speaking of stories of large fish that would swim into the delta to spawn.He’s now able to take that knowledge and put it to work, raising awareness through Protect the Flows of the fate of the river with its increasing demands.”I needed to see it run dry at the Blue River headwaters and at the end,” Hersh said. “It’s a pretty stark picture.”
In D.C., Hersh used imagery to paint pictures for the legislators.He spoke of the businesses who hang photos of lush, picturesque waterways in stores and offices.”Those pictures of water may not exist in the future,” he said. “Nobody’s going to want to come to the Blue River if there’s no water or fish. No one’s going to want to come to Lake Mead or Lake Powell.”Hersh said his meetings with legislative aides and the sit-down with Department of the Interior officials – including Anne Castle, assistant secretary for water and science – went well.”I wasn’t expecting to see so many top-level people wanting to hear the story,” he said. “We gained awareness and some supporters. Most everyone was responsive.” While in DC, the business leaders asked the Department of Interior to implement a plan that will improve urban conservation, improve agricultural efficiency and provide options for existing water storage that will allow for keeping more water in the river. The coalition touts these measures as a way to balance supply and demand to continue to serve the 36 million who rely on the waterway for drinking water and protect the 800,000 river-related tourism and recreation jobs across the seven Colorado River Basin states.”Department of Interior’s keen leadership is the key to ensuring that the Colorado River Basin Study results in solutions that will benefit all parties,” said Sarah Sidwell, sales director for Tag-A-Long Expeditions in Moab, Utah and member of the Moab Area Chamber of Commerce.
Now that they’ve made friends, members of Protect the Flows are beginning to formulate direction for their organization.In D.C., they presented some viable ideas for handling the plethora of water issues facing the West, including the extremely difficult task of reworking the complicated water law.Water banks are first on the list, Hersh said. Initiated in Arizona, it allows those holding water rights to override the “use it or lose it” rule of thumb in years of excess flows. These folks can use what they need, and bank the rest for credit later. In the meantime, someone else can buy or borrow the water.They touted increased efficiencies, such as underground drip irrigation, which reduces the amount of evaporation in agricultural operations.Urban conservation and education was another key point for the group.Hersh remembers his hometown of Santa Fe, N.M., being proactive years ago toward water consumption. Signs adorned restaurants, residents paid attention to when they flushed toilets, and xeroscaped lawns became more prevalant.As Protect the Flows decides its next step, which could include being more forceful with its requests, the bottom line remains the same.”Jobs are very important right now. We do not want to lose one job,” Hersh said … as we decide how to manage the water in the Colorado River and its tributaries.
Learn more about Protect the Flows on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/#!/ProtectFlows or on their website,http://protectflows.com/.Learn more about the Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado River Basin Supply & Demand Study online at http://on.doi.gov/mKfUUB