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Riverside living: Does it need to go?

JANICE KURBJUN
SUMMIT DAILY NEWS
Special to the Daily
ALL |

The very night I stayed at a beautiful ranch along the Colorado River in Moab was the very night I learned riverside luxury living has caused drastic changes to that great, wild river.

That area flooded regularly with spring runoff, before upstream dams were put in place.

I guess I knew that, though. We all know that. But it wasn’t until last weekend’s Moab River Rendezvous and author Robert Adler’s presentation about the Colorado River’s ecosystems that it really hit home.



Adler is a law professor at the University of Utah and author of “Colorado River Ecosystems: A Troubled Sense of Immensity,” which was the foundation for his talk.

“Restoring the Colorado River’s ecosystems is an immense and daunting task,” Adler said.



As Adler discussed the river’s various smaller issues – which still draw the attention of thousands of professionals, volunteers and interested parties – he pleaded with the audience to pull back and look at the grand picture of interconnectivity.

Rethinking the way the West uses water, energy and the Colorado River Compact of 1922 are the only solutions for restoring the river, he said.

“It’s about value choices … that we still haven’t made,” Adler said, particularly in the face of a looming water shortage in the Southwest – that is, if Lakes Mead and Powell go down another 8 feet. He hinted that maybe the change we seek is becoming a strategy for survival at this point.

Adler had charts and graphs that showed the intersection of decreasing water flow and increasing populations in the Southwest, in the very areas that need water the most. He showed pictures of the way water is used in places like Las Vegas, Phoenix and Southern California. And with approximately 30 million people depending on the Colorado River, change is hard fought.

“We either need to bring a lot more water to the Southwest, or move a lot of people out of the Southwest,” he said.

Even in a shortage, the Compact will still require the Upper Basin to send its water downstream to Arizona, Nevada and California to maintain a 10-year average. But Adler’s data show the Compact was based off high-water numbers in the West in that era. It’s based off of 16.5 million acre feet of water flow. Adler estimates that 15 million acre feet is average for the century, but that number seems to be dropping with climate change. And, more entities are interested in having rights to the flow, such as Native American tribes, Mexico – even the river itself.

“It’s a very different hydrological picture than when we negotiated the compact,” he said. “Unless we do something, or unless the models are wrong, the reservoir levels will continue to go down.”

Enter the value changes Adler proposes.

In terms of energy, maybe Edward Abbey is right – blow up the Glen Canyon Dam and run that water into Lake Powell. Halving the water surface could reduce evaporation, Adler said. Instead of using that dam for energy, start to use the vast solar and wind potential in the West, he said.

He compared the Southwest’s solar potential to 5,000 Glen Canyon Dams. However, opponents would argue there are impacts to building and installing solar, too. Opponents also raise the question of the dirty sediment at the bottom of Lake Powell that would be released to charge through the Grand Canyon. Sediment is the lifeblood of the river, but not after years of deposits from upstream runoff, house boats and more.

And then there’s the question of how Westerners see and use water.

We generally like to live by it, trust it, have access to it – like being riverside at the ranch.

Adler suggested water subsidies should cease for farming in the Southwest, with the majority of Colorado River water going toward irrigation. And if Southern California and the Imperial Valley need so much water, what about desalination plants? What about changing our water system to have both gray and clear water options the way other countries have done?

All these are Adler’s examples of thinking broadly and not with tunnel vision focused on a singular problem with an anticipated outcome (for example, treating small riverbank areas for tamarisk invasion).

With severe drought becoming more common in many areas of the world — all while wet places are getting wetter – it’s time for a solution, he said.

SDN reporter Janice Kurbjun can be contacted at (970) 668-4630 or at jkurbjun@summitdaily.com.


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