Water wars come to Colorado
Chronic shortages in the West lead to rising tensions among states.
When it comes to Colorado and water, the only thing that seems to flow reliably these days is bad news.
This year, for example, Nebraska’s governor caused jaws to drop when he announced a plan to divert water out of Colorado into his state. Then last month, the once-mighty Colorado River — fundamental to the water needs of 40 million people in seven states — was named the most endangered river in the U.S.
Such unwelcome developments have become almost routine during a historic 22-year megadrought. So far this century, the Colorado River’s flow has declined by nearly 20%. In 2021, it prompted the first-ever federal declaration of an emergency water shortage.
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And in March, water at supply reservoir Lake Powell dipped toward levels where it could no longer generate electricity — a once-unthinkable prospect. On all fronts, it appears the water supply is drying up.
Which brings us to Nebraska. Gov. Pete Ricketts, who recently proposed a $500 million project to redirect millions of gallons of water to his state, using a series of canals that would be built on Colorado land. (This may seem unlikely, but small print in the 1923 South Platte River Compact between the two states allows for it.)
The governor’s reasoning is simple: Nebraska sits downstream from Colorado, meaning it’s second in line for any water. Meanwhile, Colorado has almost 300 development projects underway within the South Platte River Basin, and the state’s population is projected to climb sharply by 2050.
“You can see why Nebraskans are nervous,” said Tom Bellinger, an Environmental Science professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver. But he said they shouldn’t be unduly worried about losing water supplies critical for the state’s farms, cities and upstream hydropower generation.
“Basically, any compact between states regarding rivers that cross borderlines, including the 1923 South Platte River Compact, is strictly binding,” he said. “Colorado must honor all its obligations to its downstream neighbor.”
And he doesn’t think this will be the last time we’ll hear such a story. “As competition increases and water levels drop further in the future,” he said, “it’s very likely we’ll see more interstate water-rights disputes.”
If most people don’t yet realize just how serious the water crisis has become, that’s largely because the U.S. has been good at managing its dwindling supply, to the extent that people haven’t had to worry about it.
But Jennifer Riley-Chetwynd, co-director of MSU Denver’s One World One Water Center and director of marketing at Denver Botanic Gardens, said those days will soon be over.
“There’s no doubt that things are now getting much worse,” she said. “But honestly, this was a long time coming.” She points to population growth and the impact of climate change as primary causes, with the latter meaning not only less precipitation but unpredictability. It’s not just that the region is getting hotter; the weather patterns are changing.
“Once, you could count on mountain snowpack consistently releasing enough water downstream for our needs and be assured that depleted reservoirs would eventually fill up again,” she said. “Now, you simply can’t.”
While the water crisis feels very now, this problem has been decades in the making.
Almost exactly a century ago — the 100-year anniversary takes place this November — seven states signed the Colorado River Compact, which dictated how much river water each state would get.
But it was overly optimistic. Created during a time of unusually high water flows, the compact built unrealistic expectations and overpromised to all the states, which grew accustomed to having an excess supply.
But climate change significantly changed the equation.
“We shouldn’t be shocked by any of this,” Riley-Chetwynd said. “The compact predates the rise of packed cities such as Phoenix and Los Angeles, the population boom across the Southwest and, of course, the addition of Mexico to the compact in 1944.”
As water demands have grown exponentially over the past 100 years, she said, supply has steadily decreased, putting a massive and unsustainable strain on the compact.
Although the outlook remains grim, there are still concrete actions people can take to conserve water and help avert the looming disaster.
One obvious way to save water is by converting your thirsty lawn to a water-smart native landscape. But Riley-Chetwynd also recommends something else: bearing in mind what she calls the water-energy nexus.
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“Basically, it’s not always the water you can see that’s the problem,” she explained. “Most everyday energy sources are incredibly water-intensive, so probably the single greatest thing you can do is to be mindful in your own domestic actions — turn down the A/C, use LED lights, switch off the lights and run energy-efficient appliances.
“This is something people don’t really think about,” she said. “But if a million people across Denver all started doing their part, believe me, that would make a heck of a difference.”