LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — With only about a fourth of Lake Mead’s water remaining and the Colorado River under attack, it’s time to change the conversation about water in the Southwest U.S., according to one conservationist.
Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, said Thursday that projects designed to solve water shortages for some despite impact on others need to be stopped “dead in their tracks.”
“Whether it’s the Lake Powell pipeline, whether it’s the Cove Reservoir proposal, whether it’s the Gross Dam expansion, whether it’s the Fontenelle, whether it’s the Green River block exchange, whether it’s the Cedar City water grab … I can go on,” he said. He named six, but he said there are about a dozen that need to die.
Take those projects off the table now, Roerink said. “They were dreamed up in a different time, and it needs to be recognized, as Yogi Berra said, ‘The future ain’t what it used to be.'”
Roerink and other conservationists have played big roles in opposing these projects, including a recent battle to stop a plan to pipe water to Las Vegas. “While the defeat of the Las Vegas pipeline — which was a groundwater exportation project going from near Great Basin National Park and Baker to Las Vegas — while we carry that victory of defeating that project in our hearts, we know that that wasn’t the only bad project on the table,” Roerink said.
“All across the Colorado River, especially in the Upper Basin states — Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico — we are seeing proposals for more dams on Colorado River tributaries, more pipeline proposals like the Lake Powell pipeline that’s still not dead in the water despite the situation at Lake Powell,” Roerink said.
That proposal would build a pipeline from Lake Powell and pump it 140 miles to a reservoir outside St. George. Not surprisingly, Utah is alone in its support of the project. A recent report from the Glen Canyon Institute indicates St. George uses 302 gallons of water per person per day, compared to 203 gallons per day in Las Vegas.
We asked Roerink to talk about his three biggest concerns when it comes to the Colorado River. “If we’re not paying attention to it, we could be making three giant mistakes.” Here’s what he had to say:
How we use groundwater is of paramount importance, Roerink said. “If we start relying on ground water, we have to understand that we’re relying on water that is there because of the Ice Age … Once that’s pumped, it won’t come back.” Changing patterns of precipitation and runoff mean we will have to adjust. “The aquifers that do get recharged from present-day precipitation, they’re not going to be recharged in the way they used to be.”
Water and food nexus
“A lot of folks don’t realize the majority of our winter produce is grown with Colorado River water in places like Yuma, Arizona, and Imperial County (California),” Roerink said. “We need to have a serious conversation about how our food is grown, with what water it’s grown, where it’s grown. And if we do decide to fallow fields in the desert Southwest, where will we be growing the nation’s supply of nutrition to offset the losses?”
A theme that runs through his answers is climate change. “If we keep ignoring the fact that climate change is water change, we are just rearranging the deck chairs on houseboats at lakes Mead and Powell,” Roerink said. “We have to understand that we have seen massive reductions and flows in the Colorado River over the past 20 years. We have seen a 20% decline. We are likely to see an additional 20% decline in flows in the coming years.”
A 2017 study by Colorado State University researchers described how climate change reduces flow in the Colorado River.
Stepping back from those big-picture responses, Roerink points to contradictions he sees everywhere in the response to climate change and questions about water.
“I am hearing inherent contradictions in everybody’s talking points on the river,” he said, citing moves in Congress to cut emissions at the same time more oil and gas leases are winning approval.
And the elephant in the room: Are cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas going to come to grips with growth? Opposing growth is a death sentence for a politician, but what are we going to say “no” to? These are questions Roerink said we must answer.
“We also need some people with some courage to tell the real estate developers, ‘We’ve got to cool it for a little while until we figure this thing out.’ “