Lifeblood of the West: Growing demands compete for regional water supplies

Gunnison River
The Gunnison River flows north toward Grand Junction near the Bridgeport foot bridge. The Gunnison is among the many tributaries that, along with the Colorado River, provide water for a growing population in the West.

“In the West, when you touch water, you touch everything.” — Wayne Aspinall, congressman from Colorado, 1949 to 1973

“Water: We have it, the Front Range wants it.” — oft-mentioned phrase by residents of Western Colorado

Wayne Aspinall, one of the leaders in efforts to dam and store river water in the West, offered sage advice when it comes to the importance of water in the western culture. What was true during the boom dam-building days of the 1960s and 70s, is probably even more true today.

In the years since the construction of such renowned water storage projects as Lake Powell and Blue Mesa Reservoir, demand for water has substantially increased even as supplies have remained lean, particularly during droughts.

While such cities as Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles might be the most visible opponents in Western Colorado efforts to retain enough water to thrive, the most prominent opponent in 2011 lies within Colorado borders. With the population of the Front Range expected to double over the next 40 years, that region continues to develop plans to divert more water from the western side of the Continental Divide to the thirsty eastern side of the Rockies.

One of the problems in apportioning water among western states is a lack of supply nobody seemed to foresee when the Colorado River Compact was signed in 1922. Seven western states agreed on a plan to divvy up Colorado River water based on water flows of the early 1920s. It turns out the river was roaring in the ’20s with abnormally high flows. While there was plenty of water to sustain the relatively modest population of the 1920s, there was not nearly enough to sustain the population living in the states by the 1990s. Drought years, such as one in 2002, reduced river flows into reservoirs even as the population continued to grow. Today, the mighty Colorado trickles to a dry bed where the river once flowed into the Sea of Cortez during late summer. There’s simply not enough water remaining after residents of seven states take their allotted shares. The period from 1999 to 2010 was the driest in a century of records in the West. Lake Mead near Las Vegas reached its lowest level since the 1950s in the fall.

The compact of 1922 names three upper-basin states (Colorado, Utah and Wyoming) along with four lower-basin states (Arizona, California, Nevada and New Mexico).

“Seventy percent of the water has to go to downstream states,” says Jim Pokrandt, communications and public education specialist for the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

Each state is allotted a portion of the river based on both need and seniority of water rights. People who historically used the Colorado first generally have the most senior rights, while those who came along later have more junior rights. In times of drought, senior water users are legally entitled to use what they need before water is allowed to flow into the fields and water taps of junior users.

Fortunately for residents and businesses in Mesa County, the Grand Valley has some of the most senior rights in the Colorado River Basin. Pristine drinking water flows from the nearby Grand Mesa into local domestic water systems. Some drinking water is also extracted from the river itself, and the bulk of irrigation water flowing through a maze of canals comes from the Colorado River, fed by the Gunnison and other tributaries. Such a system ensures the Grand Valley takes on the attributes of an oasis during hot summer months.

“It’s all because we get the first crack at the Colorado River,” says Steve Acquafresca, a Mesa County Commissioner who serves on the board of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

Should a drought force water providers to choose between Grand Junction and Los Angeles, Grand Junction would get priority according to current law. But in the practical world of politics, California’s multitude of electoral votes and congressional representation give it the potential clout to divert water from the Centennial State. Arizona and Nevada also pose threats due to increasing populations and, therefore, representation in Congress.

“We’re blessed with senior water rights in the Grand Valley and we’d like to protect that,” Acquafresca says.

The water needs for people and wildlife in the West encompass four major categories: the domestic needs of a growing population, the irrigation needs of agriculture and landscape, the water needs of energy companies, and the needs of recreational users.

Population is perhaps the biggest factor of the four. With about

5 million residents, Colorado has grown by more than 50 percent in the past 25 years. Demographers predict the population will double again to 10 million by the year 2050. But Colorado won’t be nearly the most populous state in the Colorado River Basin. According to 2010 data from the U.S. Census, the Southwest constitutes the fastest-growing portion of the country with a more attractive climate and more economic and outdoor recreational opportunities than the Northeast and other parts of the East Coast.

“There’s a gap in water supply,” says Pokrandt. “How are we going to meet that gap?”

Just as California dwarfs Colorado in the political arena, the Front Range of Colorado wields more political clout than the Western Slope. Through the years, the Front Range has successfully worked to divert water heading west from the Continental Divide near Granby and Frasier. Diversions send water through the Moffat Tunnel to the Front Range. Water stored in Lake Dillon near Silverthorne also is earmarked for Front Range users. There are other, less notable, diversions and there could be still more on the horizon. In recent years, discussion has focused on pumping water from Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison to the Eastern Slope.

“A lot of the diversion tunnels have more capacity,” Acquafresca says. “It’s one of the big battles today.”

More ambitious projects call for pumping water long distances to the Front Range. One plan calls for sending water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Utah through pipelines across southern Wyoming. Still another plan dubbed the Big Straw Project, would suck water out of the Colorado River west of Grand Junction and pipe it east.

Irrigation water is a wild card for prognosticators. With food prices rising and demand for commodities increasing, it’s possible more people will turn to farming in coming years and require more irrigation water. On the other hand, more people seem to be practicing conservation and local governments encourage landowners to use desert vegetation instead of grass for landscaping.

One important point to understand about irrigation is that the practice doesn’t suck up all the water applied to a field or lawn. “Eighty percent of the water returns to the river,” Acquafresca says.

Still, a report issued by the Colorado Water Conservation Board portends a grim scenario for growing crops in Colorado. Due to a growing population, 500,000 acres to 700,000 acres of irrigated farmland could dry up by 2050, according to the State Water Supply Initiative report issued in January.

Yet another wild card is the potential use of water by energy companies that extract natural gas, oil, coal and uranium. All four resources attract energy companies to Western Colorado and the businesses require water to run their operations. From water used in fracking fluid to crack open rock to water used to heat shale rock containing oil, “liquid gold” is required for operations that have nothing to do with quenching a thirst or irrigating a field.

Because the level of activity changes depending on demand for energy — and extraction technologies continue to change — it’s difficult to anticipate how much water might be needed at the expense of water for domestic use, irrigation or recreation.

Oil shale is an example of the thirst energy production has for water and of how technology changes the equation when predicting future water needs. New processes enable companies to heat oil shale in place underground. The method uses more water than previous experimental processes, but also produces a more refined product and, consequently, might use less water in the long run than previous oil shale processes.

The new scenario would produce 1.5 million barrels of oil a day in a process requiring 110,000 acre-feet of water each year, according to a model developed by the Colorado Water Conservation Board. One acre foot of water is the amount that an average family of four uses in one year. Consequently, such a system would require the water normally used by 440,000 people — three times the current population of Mesa County.

At the same time, oil shale production might result in a corresponding decrease in other kinds of energy production, so it’s difficult to calculate whether or not oil shale extraction would constitute an overall increase in water use for energy. And energy companies point out that they’re working to recycle water so they use each drop more than one time.

Recreational uses are possibly better known outside of Colorado than are other kinds of uses for water. Tourists running Class 4 and 5 rapids make for interesting pictures and are more likely to land on the covers of magazines than photographs of tractors or water faucets.

Business owners who make their living off such tourism-related activities have a political stake in protection of in-stream flows that ensure rivers run swiftly enough to lure people who use the them for fun.

“Recreation people have been out of the loop for some time,” says Tom Kleinschnitz, owner of Adventure Bound River Expeditions in Mesa County and a member of the board of the Colorado River Outfitters Association.

Kleinschnitz says recreational users weren’t considered a high priority in allocating river water until the past couple of decades. Now, he’s politically active and says recreational use is an important economic and social force in Colorado.

He says small tourism businesses need to band together to ensure recreational needs are addressed as lawmakers consider priorities for water use.

But while tourism bureaus like to tout the economic effects of visitors enjoying the Colorado outdoors, the impact pales in comparison to the other uses of the state’s water. For example, a recent report suggests that energy extraction on Bureau of Land Management property in Colorado produces $6 billion in annual economic benefits, while recreation on BLM land provides the state with about $500 million. The BLM is the largest landowner in Mesa County with more than three-fourths of the property in the county. Agriculture continues to be a multi-billion dollar a year industry. And water for a growing population results in more people being able to produce more goods and services — the base of any economy.



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