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Wednesday, June 9, 2004


The big river that couldn’t

Commentary by ADAM TANOUS

I once kayaked the Colorado River over the course of 21 days and then another time for 18 days. I remember thinking at the time that the place was an entire universe unto itself. The expanses, the solitude, the canvas of time written on the canyon walls all worked, and still do, to lift the river outside of our normal references of time and place.

The irony, of course, is that nothing could be further from the truth. Just about every drop of water in the river—and then some—has someone’s name on it, whether destined for a faucet in Denver or a lettuce patch in California.

The Colorado River feeds, literally and figuratively, seven states: Colorado, Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah. It runs through city taps in Denver, L.A. and Las Vegas, and onto millions of acres of farmland. Certainly it is a big river, but it still seems improbable that it can do all that it does. And the fact is it probably won’t be able to do what we expect of it in the future.

After Ladybird Johnson dedicated the Glen Canyon Dam in 1966, the artificial lake upriver of the dam took 17 years to fill for the first time. According to a recent article in The New York Times, after just five years of drought in the West the lake has lost 60 percent of its water, leaving the water level where it was in 1973, while still filling up.

Of course, tomorrow might be a rainy day. Still, whether the drought ends tomorrow or not is almost immaterial because of allocations promised by law in the Colorado River Compact. In that compact, 8.23 million acre-feet of water must be released below Lake Powell, an amount calculated—actually miscalculated—in 1922 based on average flows of the river. It turns out the average flow is less than what was calculated 82 years ago, which was no big deal as states above the dam never used their allotments. But the dynamics have changed with the dramatic growth in the West over the last 25 years. Suddenly upstream of the Glen Canyon dam there are millions of people using their water rights, which means the amount allocated is greater than is available, on average, let alone during droughts. At the current draw down, hydrologists have estimated that the turbines at Glen Canyon will come to a standstill in three years or less.

What does this have to do with us?

Growth, drought and competing water interests are putting a similar pressure on the Snake River Plain Aquifer—the 10,000 square mile, crescent-shaped water reservoir under the Southern Idaho ground. The aquifer extends from near the western boundary of Yellowstone National Park in eastern Idaho to South Central Idaho west of Twin Falls where it empties into the Snake River.

Flow measurements at Thousand Springs near Hagerman, where the aquifer is discharged, indicate that flows peaked decades ago and have been going down since. Estimates are that between 1975 and 1995 the aquifer has decreased 3 percent.

The reasons for this are varied. Among them are population growth, drought, the replacement of flood irrigation with pivot sprinklers and more efficient groundwater pumps. And the reality is that much of Southern Idaho is desert country. As in the Colorado basin, many more people are claiming and using their water rights than used to. Curiously, Idaho has the highest water use per capita of any state in the nation—somewhere near 22,000 gallons per day. The national average is 1,400 gallons per person, per day. Our small population and large farming industry may skew the Idaho numbers. Still, the basic fact remains that we use a tremendous amount of water, and the aquifer is diminishing. And given that scientists now believe the 20th century was unusually wet relative to the historic norm—not dry as we tend to assume—we ought to aggressively address the problem.

For one, water law has to be revamped. The "use it or lose it" philosophy of water rights needs to go away. How many times in the last 10 or 15 years have you seen fields of alfalfa growing in Blaine County, sprinklers blasting water into the air? That alfalfa is not there for any real farming reason. It is just a convenient way to keep water rights alive until the owner of the property is ready to develop the land. It seems absurd that people are forced to waste water in order to preserve a property right.

Another approach might be to give tax incentives to surface water right holders who recharge the aquifer through flood irrigation.

Or it might be time to create a Southern Idaho water bank, a system that allows water to be traded like any other valuable commodity. If a developer in Blaine County with water rights is not ready to build, why shouldn’t he be able to lease his rights for a given year to a farmer in Twin Falls?

On the local level, county planners and politicians need to put water higher on the agenda. Whether with landscaping restrictions, water metering throughout the county or tying building permits to the ever-changing supply of groundwater, we should be mindful of the fact that this little oasis we live in is just that.


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The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.