In 1869, when John Wesley Powell explored 1,000 miles of the Colorado River Basin, he found a brawny river incising a sublime region defined foremost by aridity. He later warned of the Colorado River’s impending challenges, observing, "there is not sufficient water to irrigate all the lands which could be irrigated. You are piling up a heritage of conflict!"
A century and a half later, Powell’s words are prescient. The Colorado River delicately sustains 40 million people, but its foundation is beginning to crumble. Booming populations, soaring temperatures and record droughts are reducing critical flows. Snowpack, which supports industries as diverse as agriculture and recreation, is thinning.
The Colorado River is overallocated; more water is apportioned than exists — a situation worsened by climate change. With more warming, scientists project flow declines up to 20 percent in coming decades, threatening record low flows. Lake Mead is already shrinking, straining Nevada’s supply and forcing Arizona to cut its use. Salt Lake City’s water is also likely to suffer as temperatures rise; Denver and other economic hubs will face similar challenges.
As our climate warms, and as those challenges mount, an elephant in the room looms ever larger — greenhouse gas-intensive energy development.
Energy, water, and climate policy are deeply intertwined in the Colorado River Basin. Vast water resources are already committed to greenhouse gas-intensive energy development. Each year the Colorado River Basin’s coal-fired power plants consume upwards of 52 billion gallons of water and emit upwards of 100 million tons of carbon dioxide. Increasingly, water is also committed to oil and gas fracking. Each well typically requires 4-6 million gallons of water, and the greenhouse potency of the methane emissions far exceeds those of carbon dioxide.
This situation would be worsened by proposed oil shale and tar sands development. Poor cousins to shale gas, shale oil and Alberta’s tar sands, these "immature" fossil fuels must be mined and melted before refining, necessitating extraordinary energy inputs. To date, those inefficiencies have precluded commercial development.
The Basin’s oil shale and tar sands deposits are vast. The U.S. Geological Service, the agency Powell once ran, estimates that up to 1.1 trillion barrels of oil could eventually be developed from oil shale. Some see that as a good thing. We don’t.
Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, society has burned roughly one trillion barrels of oil. The carbon cost of producing a barrel of oil from oil shale far exceeds that of conventional oil. Scientists, led by Adam Brandt at Stanford University, predict that barrel-to-barrel, oil shale would produce 25-75 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuel. Domestic tar sands could impose an additional burden.
Development of oil shale and tar sands would also require enormous amounts of water. The U.S. General Accountability Office calculated that producing 7 percent of the United States’ daily oil demand from oil shale alone could require 122 billion gallons of water each year. That’s roughly the amount of water Denver, Salt Lake City and Albuquerque use annually.
Fortunately, some are calling attention to these issues. Last fall, Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Calif., warned, "the threat to our water supply is real. We have many challenges like climate change, decreased snowpack, increased demand, and development of alternative water-intensive fuels like oil shale."
Olympic athletes are also raising awareness. In February more than 100 winter Olympians, led by the United States, signed a petition calling on world leaders to address climate change. It’s not just skiing, snowboarding and winter recreation at stake; it’s the foundation upon which sustainable economies and our western way of life depend.
It’s time for those worried about water to pay careful attention to the climate consequence of our region’s energy policies, and to end foolhardy attempts to develop fuels that would exacerbate the ongoing drought and further strain the Colorado River Basin.
Taylor McKinnon is director of energy at Grand Canyon Trust. David M. Abelson, principal at Crescent Strategies, LLC, advises conservation organizations on national energy policy.
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