Experts agree the amount of water in the Colorado River basin has declined because of drought and climate change, and that population growth is fueling demand for water higher and higher. One result is the level of Lake Powell in Arizona, behind Glen Canyon Dam, has steadily declined and is now at 43% of capacity. Further, just last week, the U.S. Department of Interior sounded an alarm that they may have to start draining other reservoirs in Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming to try and “save” Lake Powell.
As with any water crisis, advocates and government officials work overtime to come up with solutions that will meet their narrow needs. These solutions have traditionally met the needs of the water establishment at the expense of taxpayers and the environment.
The present crisis has added a new group whose “ox will be gored” — Colorado farmers.
In addition to draining Colorado reservoirs to try and save Lake Powell, the new proposal being pushed by the water establishment, called “demand management”, would pay farmers to not farm, and instead send that farm water down to Lake Powell.
This Rube Goldberg solution is seriously flawed in multiple ways.
First, the proposed “demand management” program wants to buy just 500,000 acre feet of water from farmers to store in Lake Powell in an attempt to save the Lake. However, simple back-of-the-envelope math dictates that 500,000 acre feet of water is woefully deficient. In fact, federal law requires that an average of 8.23 million acre feet of water be released from Glen Canyon Dam every year to flow down through the Grand Canyon, which is 22,548 acre feet per day.
Thus, the extra storage of 500,000 acre feet proposed by demand management would only last 22 days when federal law requires the water to be sent downstream.
Second, and related to the previous point, Lake Powell has been losing around 400,000 acre feet of water per year for the last 20 years due to drought and climate change. Predictions this year, so far, are even more dire.
We’ve seen no indication whatsoever that leasing and storing 500,000 temporarily, just one year, would even remotely stem the tide of water legally required to be released from Lake Powell by Glen Canyon Dam.
Third, proponents of demand management – which includes the State of Colorado Water Conservation Board – constantly say that demand management would be “voluntary, temporary, and compensated”. Let’s look at each word carefully.
500,000 acre feet of water would require around 500,000 acres of farms to be dried up – do you expect to see that many farmers “volunteering” to get paid to stop farming, even if it’s for only one year?
That leads to the second point, ‘Temporary.’
No climate science or scientist that we’ve seen, heard, or read – and we pay close attention – has ever said climate change will be “temporary”. As such, the water would have to be leased year after year, or bought, to permanently buy-and-dry the farms in Colorado. Saying the program is “temporary” is climate denial at best, or an outright lie at worst.
No source of money at all has been identified – local, state, or federal – to try buy out all of the Colorado farms to send their water to Arizona to try and save Lake Powell.
Finally, at the same time that the State of Colorado and other proponents push demand management to send water downstream, the exact same people and agencies are promoting more dams and diversions in Colorado to divert more water out of the river. In fact, the same State of Colorado Water Conservation Board supports at least four new projects that would divert a new 80,000 acre feet of water out of the river every year. As such, the State is taking two steps backwards for every one step forward that tries to save Lake Powell.
Colorado farmers deserve better. They shouldn’t be singled out to carry the burden of propping up Lake Powell to meet the narrow and parochial needs of the water establishment.
The construction of Glen Canyon Dam was, and still is, one of the most controversial issues in American environmental history. Demand management is a half-baked idea to try and save an outdated dam and lake that never should have been built in the first place.
Daniel P. Beard is a former Commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Gary Wockner is Director of Save The Colorado.