n Friday, June 6, Denver played host to Interior Secretary Gale Norton and one of the greatest public relations charades in the history of western river management. At a time when many Western states are experiencing major problems with water allocation, the Department of Interior is selling the public band-aids for gunshot wounds, says the Colorado River advocacy group Living Rivers.
Secretary Norton's initiative Water 2025 Plan: Preventing Crisis and Conflict in the West, is little more than a repackaging of management strategies Interior is already implementing, combined with a heightened push for desalinization technology. It contains no proposals for how to substantively address major water shortages, such as those looming in the Colorado River watershed.
Minor efficiency gains and conservation measures as Secretary Norton prescribes will bring about some savings, but these are merely drops in the bucket, given that the Colorado River is providing barely half the water the Department of Interior is contracted to deliver, says Owen Lammers, Executive Director of Living Rivers.
Abundant historical evidence reveals that the present drought in the Colorado watershed is far from unprecedented, and warnings from the United States Geological Survey one year ago urged water managers to be prepared for several decades of below average precipitation. Lammers notes, Water 2025 demonstrates that the Department of Interior is ignoring this responsibility.
- The Plan emphasizes Interior's long-standing tradition of acquiescing to the states for resolving disputes. However, as eighty years of conflict reveals, cooperation is rare, even in the best of times. Moreover, as California recently demonstrated, reaching agreement amongst Colorado River water users within states is problematic. This internal dispute forced federal action in January to reduce Colorado River flows into California.
- The plan's market-driven water banks and transfers from farmers to municipalities during times of shortages are laudable on a small scale, but there is no discussion of what will happen when the real crisis hits. Certainly, the 25 million people reliant on Colorado River water will not be deprived, but what will it cost? Farmers are becoming increasingly reluctant to make water transfers, as San Diego has recently experienced. Without strict federal guidelines and policies, municipalities like Los Angeles, Phoenix, Los Vegas and Salt Lake City will be forced into a cost environment not unlike what California energy utilities faced three years ago.
- Crop substitutions, which represent the greatest opportunities for water savings, are completely ignored by the plan. Nearly half of Colorado River water is used to grow water-intensive alfalfa and other forms of cattle feed. Much of this water could be saved by growing crops for human consumption.
- The plan relegates environmental stewardship as merely aspects of conflict, not as an integral part of what society now demands of its river managers. Despite the fact that all the water referred to in the plan comes from rivers integral to this continent's natural heritage, the plan does not even mention or use the word river, other than when using place names. In describing its Five Realities, the plan completely ignores the reality that the riverine ecology throughout the watershed, such as in Grand Canyon National Park, Dinosaur National Monument and the Colorado River delta, has been dramatically altered, while the public is becoming increasingly vocal about reversing the damage.
- The plan advocates maintaining and enhancing existing infrastructure. However, much of this infrastructure is responsible for the loss of up to 20 percent of the Colorado River's flow due to evaporation and seepage amongst its reservoirs. The draining of Lake Powell reservoir, for example, will eliminate enough water loss to service the municipal water needs of the state of Arizona.
- Not until the 25-page report's last 100 words does the term drought receive much attention. This should be Interior's main focus at this time. Questions Interior needs to be asking include: outlining specific federal management tactics it may employ; how farmers will be enticed or forced to release their water to preserve municipal economies, and will Interior enforce strict conservation strategies and efficiency standards?
This report is all about carrots with no federal stick, adds Lammers. Interior must begin developing water use standards and practices, as well as allocation strategies to be implemented as this drought situation worsens. Absent this, crisis is inevitable, despite Secretary Norton's report and marketing strategy titled to prevent it.