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News & Perspective from the Center for Environmental Journalism
This item was posted on November 8, 2009, and it was categorized as Climate Change, Global Warming, Water.
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The clouds hinted at precipitation but never delivered as the Colorado River rolled west toward Moab, Utah in this picture shot in March of 2009. (Photo: Tom Yulsman)

My colleague John Fleck writes about a report showing that with the end of the 2009 water year, the last decade (2000-2009) was the driest 10-year period in the Colorado River Basin since record-keeping began 100 years ago.

Since 1999, inflow to Lake Powell — the massive reservoir that collects water from the Upper Colorado Basin — has been below average in every year except the water years of 2005 and 2008. In 1999, the lake was close to full capacity, but as of the end of October, the lake was at 63 percent of capacity. Meanwhile, reservoir storage in the Colorado River Basin overall is now just 56.95 percent of capacity, according to the Bureau of Reclamation. Yet last I looked, The Bellagio in Las Vegas hadn’t drained its massive lake and fountains, and gardens were still blooming in Los Angeles.

How long can this continue? According to recent research by Balaji Rajagopalan of the University of Colorado, if climate change reduces the flow on the Colorado by 20 percent over the next few decades — not a terribly bad bet — the reservoirs in the basin stand a 50 percent percent of running dry. And that, of course, would mean bye bye Bellagio.

But for now, at any rate, the system of water allocation we use in the West seems to be doing okay. In fact, this incredibly complex system may be better suited to dealing with water shortages than the one used in the eastern United States, according to Dan Leucke, a consultant to Dividing the Waters, a network of judges, special masters and referees who preside over western water adjudications. Here in the West, the system of water rights, based on the concept of “first in time, first in right,” was designed to allocate water under an assumption of shortage. In the East, a “riparian” system prevails, which allocates water on the principle that landowners whose property is adjacent to a body of water have the right to use it. That system has run into some problems in parts of the Southeast.

Meanwhile, the mighty reservoirs along the Colorado, combined with our Rococo system of water rights, have helped get us through the driest ten years in a century. So the tourists at The Bellagio can continue enjoying a grotesque water spectacle every evening.

But if the reservoirs run dry, no system of allocation, not even one designed to deal with shortage, is going to help us.

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This thing has 5 Comments

  1. Posted November 9, 2009 at 1:31 am | Permalink

    Tom, water consumption is “grotesque” in some places precisely for the same reason that we see grotesque energy consumption: governments getting in the way and preventing markets from presenting users with marginal costs or peak pricing. Lack of competition blunts incentives for utilities and consumers to conserve and to upgrade systems to improve efficiency.

    The right agenda on these issues is not more mandates, but greater competition and consumer choice.

  2. Steve Bloom
    Posted November 9, 2009 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    Don’t worry, Nevada will massively over-pump groundwater beyond any hope of recharging, sharply reduce water for ag and even impose residential rationing long before they impinge on the Strip’s use.

  3. Posted November 9, 2009 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    I should have pointed out that the Bellagio’s fountains recycle the water, so I’m not sure actually how much water they consume. Less than meets the eye, I suppose. That said, evaporation alone from that gargantuan lake would probably supply the City of Boulder for a year…

  4. Steve Hight
    Posted November 17, 2009 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    Tom, I live just a few miles east of where you took that photo, and I must say, you captured a magnificent moment of our western beauty. Thank you.

  5. Tom Yulsman
    Posted November 17, 2009 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    Steve: Thank you so much! You’ve made my day. No, actually my month!! (Maybe I’ll do a post of just pics. I’ve got a bunch from your neck of the woods. BTW: Do you live in Castle Valley?)

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