A REVERENCE FOR RIVERS Luna B. Leopold, Department of Geology and Geophysics, University of California,…
Hello Friends of the Colorado River!
Secretary of Interior, Sally Jewell, provided the keynote address at the annual “Colorado River Water Users Association” (CRWUA) meeting in Las Vegas last week. It was the first time that the Secretary provided lengthy comments about the river and so we were very interested to hear what she had to say. The CRWUA meeting of 750 people is traditionally where the “water providers” — cities, agricultural irrigation districts, hydro-power administrators, etc. — all get together to discuss how the river is used (misused?) for various human purposes. This meeting usually does not provide much insight into the environmental problems the river faces.
In that light, Secretary Jewell’s comments provided a bit of fresh air. She started out by very clearly and directly discussing the fact that climate change is real and is impacting the Colorado River ecosystem by decreasing river flows and water supplies. She said this was the “new normal” on the river that we all had to deal with. Jewell also said one of her priorities as Secretary was to “Support healthy watersheds and sustainable, secure water supplies.” She also discussed the Bi-National Agreement with Mexico that was signed last year and how it would help start the ecological rejuvenation process in the Colorado River Delta in Mexico.
The biggest news that came out of the meeting was a very public discussion by Jewell and other water providers about how the water level in Lake Mead was dropping faster than anyone predicted. This ongoing drought and drop — if it continues for another year or two — would have serious implications for how the river is managed. A proposal was put forward by the “Upper Basin” states of Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Utah to drain water out of their mountain reservoirs — Flaming Gorge in Wyoming, Blue Mesa in Colorado, and Navajo in New Mexico — and run that water down into Lake Powell. The Bureau of Reclamation would then run some of that water down to Lake Mead while equalizing the level in both reservoirs to keep them high enough to make sure the hydro-power generators could continue running.
A few days before the meeting when this proposal became public, Save The Colorado sent out a press release (read it here) in which we stated: “This short-term management plan to deal with the shortage needs to support water supply security and support protecting and restoring the river’s health,” said Gary Wockner, coordinator for the Save The Colorado River Campaign. “About 60% of the river is already diverted near the Continental Divide in Colorado, four endangered fish species struggle to survive in the Grand Canyon, and the river is dry and decimated before it reaches the sea in Mexico. From top to bottom the river is in bad shape – any manipulation of the system has to address this environmental damage.”
On the last day of the CRWUA meeting, the environmental law firm, Earthjustice, also sent out a press release asking Jewell for a heightened consideration of the environment in this process. Earthjustice attorney McCrystie Adams, who has litigated to restore healthy flows in the Grand Canyon, said: “A more sustainable future for the Colorado River will require a fundamentally different approach to river management and water supply. Smart water planning means more than carefully dividing up flows—it means valuing living, flowing rivers and the natural systems that depend upon them as much as municipal and agricultural water. We urge the Secretary and all of those who depend on the Colorado River to ensure that the river is a keystone of our future and not a relic of our past.”
It remains to be seen what will role Secretary Jewell will take in Colorado River management. Her predecessor, Ken Salazar, had a strong hand in Colorado River issues and exercising the title of “River Master” that is given to the Secretary. Jewell seemed relaxed in her speech, but spent much of it reading from a script to make sure she hit all the right issues and tones to the various parties in the Ceaser’s Palace ballroom where the meeting was held. For sure, the Colorado River is an extremely complex ecological and political system, and thus any new Secretary has a lot to learn about how all the pieces operate. But it’s also true that the river has been used, abused, and drained dry, and that we humans need to change our ways to keep this river alive for future generations of people as well as for the non-human world. There was much talk at the Las Vegas meeting about how everyone needed to “compromise” to address the future threats to the river, to which we say “fair enough” but the river has already been compromised to death. It’s time for change.
We will continue to keep a close eye on Jewell’s river leadership, encouraging her to make river protection and restoration a key component of Obama’s last three years in office.
Stay tuned for more Colorado River news and updates!