States dependent on Colorado River consider conservation effort

SAN DIEGO — Officials in the seven states that depend on the drought-beset Colorado River expressed a cautious willingness Tuesday to join the federal government in a complex, possibly contentious effort to step up conservation.

At a meeting in San Diego, officials of the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Reclamation announced the establishment of three inter-state committees to devise plans for conservation, possibly including water reuse, desalination, water banking and the sale of water from farms to cities.

“While the solutions won’t be easy for anyone involved, the consequences of failure are too dire to ignore,” said Patricia Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

The committees have been ordered to have their recommendations ready by year’s end — virtually lightning speed for water-sharing issues that regularly take years, often decades, to resolve, if they can be resolved at all.

One committee will be composed of major municipal and industrial water users, one of agricultural interests, and one will have representatives from environmental groups. Also, the federal government is pledging to work on conservation projects with 10 American Indian tribes that have rights to the Colorado River and its tributaries.


On one point, there appears to be no disagreement: The hour is late and shortages loom as demand threatens to outstrip supply. Last year was the fifth driest on record; this year is headed to be the fourth driest.

By Oct. 1, the river’s two reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, could be at less than half of their capacity, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.

“The time for action is now,” said Jennifer Pitt, head of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Colorado River Project. “Communities that depend on the Colorado River — for water supply or as the foundation of a $26-billion recreation economy — cannot afford to wait.”

Even as they touted their past successes in conserving water, major water managers in the seven states conceded that more conservation is needed if the region is to avoid cutbacks and economic hardship.

Halla Razak, Colorado River program director for the San Diego County Water Authority, said water customers in the county have cut per-capita consumption by 30% in the last five years. Still, the agency remains “committed to working with everyone in the river basin” to find new conservation methods, she said.

Jim Lochhead, chief executive officer of Denver Water, said that although cities are willing to do their part in conservation, agricultural interests, which consume an estimated 75% of the river’s annual allocation, have to be ready to help.

“We want the agricultural and environmental interests to know that we’re in this with them,” Lochhead said.

When talk turns to the need for water conservation in the western U.S., the focus often shifts to the Imperial Irrigation District in the remote southeastern corner of California. For reasons of history and water law, the district is the largest user of Colorado River water in the seven states.

An official from the Imperial Irrigation District has agreed to serve as co-chair of the agriculture committee, along with a professor and a Bureau of Reclamation official.

But that does not signal that the Imperial district is eager to sell more water or see more acreage left fallow. It already is selling water to San Diego in the nation’s largest sale of farm water to cities.

Imperial farmers are leaving fallow 36,000 acres, soon to increase to 40,000 acres, to save enough water to sell to the San Diego County Water Authority and to replenish the imperiled Salton Sea.

“I tell people: ‘We gave at the office’,” said Tina Shields, Colorado River resources manager for the Imperial district. “We like to farm. I don’t think anybody down here is going to volunteer” for more water sales.