Yet Another Wake Up Call for the Colorado Basin States

How many alarms can you sleep through?  Two or three, maybe?  How about ten years’ worth, or twenty, or thirty?  Over the last several decades, the weight of evidence has steadily grown that the Colorado River is over-allocated – there are more demands being placed on the river system than can be sustained over time.  The river plays a major role in the economic and physical infrastructure of all seven basin states, but the most significant collective accomplishment in recent years has been to come up with a formula for allocating shortages, rather than a strategy for averting the significant train wrecks that lie ahead.

A new report from NRDC on the potential impacts of oil shale development on Colorado River water supplies offers yet another wake up call.  The nascent oil shale industry has the potential to draw significant quantities of water from the Upper Colorado Basin – like adding a supersized version of the City of Denver – with patterns of usage that will be hard for water managers to accommodate.  As described here by my colleague Barry Nelson, the limits on the system ensure that oil shale water use can only come at the expense of other users in the basin.  Square peg meets round hole.

With or without oil shale development, the larger question of sustainable water use in the Colorado Basin will have to be joined.  Water efficiency is a strategy that, while important today, will become crucial in the years ahead – and shale development would make the need for efficiency even more acute.  The good news is that many practices and technologies for using water more efficiently provide net savings to the economy.  The challenge for policy makers is to assemble a policy framework where conservation and efficiency practices can be fully and frequently tapped, allowing current and future economic activity and lifestyle amenity to be sustained with less demand on the river system.

How will that come about?  NRDC and our partner organization Western Resources Advocates are exploring that very question.  This year, we’ve started a dialogue with other stakeholders within the basin to explore the interest in more organized collaboration on water conservation and efficiency across state lines.  We’ve found a great deal of interest, and we’re encouraged enough to plan for a deeper discussion on regional collaboration in the months ahead.  With care and attention to detail, water efficiency can expand to become the round peg most available to fill the very large hole in Colorado Basin water management.