LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — The boldest strategies to save the Colorado River are coming from environmental groups, including a rising chorus of voices to give Lake Mead priority over Lake Powell.
Recommendations to decommission Glen Canyon Dam — or at least abandon hydropower production there — are part of the solutions offered in a 23-page letter signed by several long-established conservation groups. The theme is repeated by others in comments submitted to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation as it crafts new policies for managing the river, with a 2026 deadline as a previous 20-year plan comes to an end.
Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom is among the people supporting the approach written by Living Rivers and Colorado Riverkeeper, an organization headed by John Weisheit of Moab, Utah. Segerblom signed the letter in his capacity as program director of Las Vegas Water Defender, which is affiliated with Colorado Riverkeepers.
Nevada’s strongest conservation advocate through the drought, Kyle Roerink of the Great Basin Water Network, has also signed the letter. In all, nine prominent conservation groups have endorsed the approach.
The narrative on Glen Canyon Dam has been around for years, but only recently gained support outside of environmental groups when California farmers said they agreed the dam was a problem.
The “one reservoir” approach would eliminate some problems, cutting overall evaporation and increasing storage in Lake Mead. But the costs would be enormous as production of electricity for the region would be lost and the economic engine that runs off Lake Powell recreation would be devastated.
Conservationists point to flaws in the dam’s “antique plumbing” that threaten to restrict flow of the Colorado so severely that water delivery couldn’t meet requirements in the Colorado River Compact — the “Law of the River.” If Lake Powell drops below 3,490 feet, it won’t be able to produce power, and the “River Outlet Works” pipes below cannot carry enough water, according to engineering documents publicized by the Utah Rivers Council.
Another concern addressed in their letter: Conservationists fear their voice will not be heard.
“We are concerned that Reclamation will once again allow the states to monopolize the environmental review particularly in the formulation of meaningful alternatives, which in the past led Reclamation to the dismiss citizen and tribal proposals,” the letter says.
The agency has released a segment of the comments, indicating that more will come “on a rolling basis.” So far, more than 700 pages of comments have been posted on Reclamation’s website, organized by official agencies, organizations and tribes.
Massive desalination program
Another bold proposal to Reclamation promoted an ambitious desalination program to solve more than one problem on the Colorado River. But it glossed over an important factor: the cost.
Engineers Mark E. Capron and Mohammed A. Hasan propose using a desalination plant in Mexicali, Mexico, to process water from the Sea of Cortez, sending it to the U.S. in three directions:
- Pure water delivered to Arizona via the Gila River
- Pure water piped to Lake Havasu
- Seawater and “brine reject” to the Salton Sea in California
In all, the plant would produce 6 million acre-feet of water per year, with varying salt content. The sweeping proposal suggests that 20% of Colorado River water goes to municipal and industrial users who can pay more for water than farmers can. They point out that keeping water costs down for farmers will keep food prices lower.
While the plan might seem half-baked with a lot of missing details, desalination is something that many Americans believe could be the ultimate solution.
Capron and Hasan don’t stop there. They say states should gain access to desalted water based on their investment in the project, which would only promote more investment in the technology and use surrounding desalination plants. They advise Reclamation, “Seek justice and truth with honest science and engineering for post-2026 Colorado River Management.”
The engineers also suggest, “Have Native Americans decide the total amount of water that can be extracted from the Colorado River each year,” scoffing at the concept of “senior water rights” that currently exists.
St. George growth
For years, Las Vegas was the fastest growing city in the nation. But that title now belongs to St. George, Utah.
There are many similarities between the two, although St. George is at a higher elevation (2,700 feet) and right at the edge of the Mojave Desert. But while Las Vegas has enormous infrastructure for recycling water and sending it back to Lake Mead, St. George isn’t so fortunate.
Washington County, Utah, officials sent up a signal flare in their letter to Reclamation:
“The U.S. Census has identified Washington County as the fastest-growing metro area in America. The county’s population is projected to more than double by 2050. Washington County is Utah’s hottest, driest region. All major population centers are currently dependent on a single water source, the Virgin River Basin, which is reaching its full development capacity,” Zach Renstrom, general manager for the Washington County Water Conservancy District (WCWCD), said in the letter.
“The district’s 20-year water supply plan includes additional water conservation, regional reuse, local water development, groundwater optimization, and agricultural conversion. Washington County has already reduced its per capita water use more than 30% since 2000-the greatest reduction in water use in Utah-and is planning for an additional 14% reduction by 2030, using 2015 as the baseline year,” Renstrom said.
Karry Rathje, WCWCD communications and government affairs manager, said the district is pursuing all options to extend, reuse and develop water.
“The district has worked with its municipal customers to pass Utah’s most restrictive conservation ordinances for new development, institute an excessive water use fee and incentivize the removal of non-functional lawn. In addition, the district is planning for a significantly expanded regional reuse system,” she said.
Rathje said the district’s plan would cost well over $1 billion, yielding 46,000 acre-feet of water
“The plan requires the cooperative efforts of all municipal customers and water users as well as commitment to an aggressive project development schedule. Failure to implement the 20-year plan will likely result in water supply shortages. The district’s municipal customers have approved more than 70,000 new connections, which exceed the district’s currently available supply,” Rathje said.
8 News Now’s review of comments to the Bureau of Reclamation continues Monday with a look at wildlife impacts that will become a bigger story as the federal government looks for solutions on the Colorado River.