The Colorado River IS Running Dry
During a recent (July 2010) discussion of water at the Aspen Institute’s Environment Forum In Colorado, former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt told a packed house: “The American Southwest is not one of those regions where there is water scarcity. It’s hard to believe, given all the hyping in the national and local and regional press.”
Photograph: Pete McBride on the parched Colorado River delta, by Jonathan Waterman
The audience and his copanelists-Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project and freshwater fellow for the National Geographic Society, and Pat Mulroy, general manager of Southern Nevada Water Authority (overseeing Las Vegas water)-were taken aback by these statements.
Throughout the Southwest, and particularly in a region that I know, the Colorado River Basin, the so called “water buffalos” (those who line their pockets with virtual water) commonly talk about this river as though it has not run dry. If only because the water continues to irrigate 2,000,000 acres of agriculture, run 336 miles into Phoenix and Tucson, 224 miles to Los Angeles, or under the Rockies toward Denver through no less than 12 tunnels. So water-related business certainly isn’t scarce. That includes Kentucky Blue Grass lawns, water-consumptive cotton, and a mega dairyshed of cows eating Colorado River grown hay to produce countless gallons of milk.
Since my well pumps water out of the headwaters of this river, and my children will inherit whatever water remains, I have spent the last three years investigating the river’s shrinking pains. Supported by the National Geographic Expedition Council and New Belgium Brewing (which relies on Colorado River water to make beer), I paddled the 1,450-mile river from source to sea. After that five-month journey, I have been interviewing officials, visiting dams, and repeatedly flying over the river and its many diversions in small planes. My goal is to better understand what the U.S. Secretary of Energy, Dr. Stephen Chu, described as a crisis in the West that will match the rising of oceans on the coasts. (Read more about Jonathan Waterman.)