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
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.