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Western States Must Minimize Water Use

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Towing icebergs from Alaska or building a giant pipeline from the Missouri River won’t bail out the western United States from its growing water supply crisis, federal officials said Wednesday.

Instead, conservation by the region’s farms and cities offers the quickest and most cost-effective way for New Mexico and the other states of the Colorado River Basin to close the growing gap between water demand and supply, according to a new study done jointly by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the seven Colorado River Basin states.

The conclusion that conservation rather than large-scale water engineering is the most viable near-term approach to the region’s water future suggests a path forward for the basin’s often warring water users, said Jennifer Pitt of the Environmental Defense Fund. “There are a suit of solutions that have been identified in this report that are not controversial, that we can work on as a basin together,” Pitt said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

“There’s a lot of water that can be used more efficiently in the basin,” said Michael Cohen of the Pacific Institute, a California-based water policy think tank.

The problem outlined in the long-awaited Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study is stark: Demand already exceeds supply in the basin, which supplies water to some 40 million Westerners, including residents of Santa Fe and Albuquerque. With climate change sapping the river’s flows at the same time population is growing, the problem will only get worse, the study concluded. “We are on a troubling trajectory,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters during a Wednesday teleconference.

The Colorado River’s problems come as New Mexico is increasingly dependent on its water. The San Juan carries snowmelt from the San Juan Mountains in Colorado through New Mexico before delivering its water to the Colorado River in Utah. It has always been the main water source for residents of the Farmington area and the Navajo Nation. In recent years, Santa Fe and Albuquerque have begun using San Juan River water carried beneath the Continental ivide via a series of tunnels for use in the Rio Grande Basin.

But even as population and therefore water demand grows, climate change scenarios show an average flow reduction of 9 percent in the Colorado River and 12-13 percent in the Rio Grande by midcentury, Salazar said.

The study found that California, Arizona and Colorado face the greatest risks from dwindling supply, with routine shortages possible by mid-century. Because population growth and therefore water demand has grown more slowly in New Mexico and the other states of the Upper Colorado River Basin, the risk here is less severe, the study found.

But because all seven states ultimately share in the basin’s water supply, the study looked at the search for solutions on a basin-wide basis, with the idea that water added in one region could be swapped for Colorado River water elsewhere.

The study looked at a wide range of solutions for closing the gap, including the possibility of a multibillion dollar pipeline to bring Missouri River water to basin users, or towing icebergs down from Alaska. The study, Salazar said, concluded that such big engineering solutions to provide more water were “impractical and not technically feasible” because of their cost and the time it would take to complete them.

Building a Missouri River pipeline would cost four times as much as saving an equivalent amount of water through municipal conservation efforts, the study found. And the conservation savings would begin kicking in almost immediately, while it would take an estimated 30 years to build a pipeline. Other large-scale engineering solutions showed similar high costs and long delays when compared with using the basin’s water more efficiently, the study found.

Estevan López, head of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, cautioned that while conservation is a vital near-term step, the region’s water managers should not be quick to rule out long-term solutions, like the Missouri pipeline concept, that might add to the region’s supply.

“Look at this year,” said López, who participated in the study’s development. “We’re in dire straits in terms of water supply. It would be good to have some alternatives.”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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