The Colorado River has gone from a wild, untamed river in the days of John Wesley Powell to the most dammed and controlled major river in the world today. It provides water to 38 million residents of the Southwest and 4 million acres of irrigation for farms.
But it's topped out. Flow has diminished and we've reached a point where new ideas and concepts are needed to more efficiently use this vast, but not inexhaustible, resource.
The water available to the Southwest is finite and fully in use. Our choices to obtain more water for this rapidly growing area revolve around smarter and more efficient use. We have to refine our thinking and planning, especially as it relates to conservation.
What if we could save approximately 300,000 acre-feet of water by turning some valves?
Let me explain. Today, the mighty Colorado is contained in two huge reservoirs: Lake Powell and Lake Mead each now less than half full. The reservoirs, while somewhat similar in size, sit on very different rock and soil. Each lake loses large amounts of water to evaporation.
Studies show that Lake Powell also loses a lot of water to seepage due to its location on sandstone and permeable soil. A recent study indicates that by lowering Lake Powell and storing more water in Lake Mead, some 300,000 acre-feet could be saved. How much water is that? Since an acre-foot contains 326,000 gallons, it amounts to 97.8 billion gallons.
That is what Nevada gets in total from the Colorado, enough water to supply 800,000 people. Does it harm Lake Powell? It drops the level to just above the inlets for electricity generation and reduces the surface size of the lake, but it retains recreation and protects power generation.
But what is more critical? Power, recreation, or supporting people and agriculture?
With the Colorado River and its basin reaching maximum production and usage, the seven states that take water from the river will, of absolute necessity, have to cooperate in ways never before contemplated. New demands are asserting themselves. Every one of the seven is gaining population.
California led the way and got the lion's share of water through early use. Colorado, Utah and then Arizona followed with some stunning growth and major water projects. Hoover Dam was a 1930s wonder in Nevada and allowed California its full 4.4 million acre-feet allotment. The Central Arizona and Central Utah water projects provided enormous quantities of water for population growth in those states.
Colorado's portion has enabled spectacular growth there, and now Nevada, on its relatively small share, has found a way to grow Clark County to nearly two million residents. New Mexico diverts water from the San Juan River. Wyoming takes from the headwaters of the Green River.
Every state bound by the Colorado River Compact has taken all it can. The river is now over-allocated, yet each state continues to grow.
What's left to do? Better and wiser use of the resource is essential. Each state must reduce per-capita and agricultural usage. Efficiency of water storage, transfer and delivery must increase. Inevitably, there is an end point. In order to avoid disaster, the cities and states so heavily dependent on Colorado River water will have to make do with what they have. We must plan for this time because it is not far away. Pretending otherwise is a fool's plan.
Population in the arid Southwest has limits. The filling of Lake Mead is a good first step in this plan to maximize the volume of usable Colorado River water.
Paul Van Dam is a former Utah attorney general and Salt Lake County district attorney. He is retired and lives in southern Utah.