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The Bad News Keeps Flowing For The Colorado River

Falling water levels at Lake Powell threaten electricity production at Glen Canyon Dam, warns a new federal report on the health of the Colorado River.
Associated Press

Falling water levels at Lake Powell threaten electricity production at Glen Canyon Dam, warns a new federal report on the health of the Colorado River.

Federal officials project more bad news for the drought-stressed Colorado River, which provides water to Las Vegas and much of the Southwest.

The Bureau of Reclamation issued a report last week saying there is a high likelihood over the next few years that California, the river’s largest water user, will join Nevada, Arizona, and Mexico in seeing cuts to its allocation.

"This is not breaking in the way that something just changed to make it happen," said Alex Hager, who covers the river for KUNC, "but it is incredibly serious news."

"The projections are not painting a particularly rosy picture for years to come," he told State of Nevada, "but I will say, in talking to folks around the basin, it seems like there is a lot of contingency planning for this. But no one is creating more water. No one is bringing more water into this basin."

In August, the government issued its first-ever water shortage declaration for the river, which has endured two decades of drought. Nevada saw its share cut, but annual usage remains below the new, lower number.

An official representing Southern California agricultural interests, which produce much of the nation's winter vegetables, said the spate of attention-grabbing bad news might have an upside for river stakeholders.

"Ironically, the silver lining here is that the worse the situation is getting, it's driving people closer together to work toward actually solving these problems in the long term," said John Brooks Hamby, a director for the Imperial Irrigation District.

“There are a lot of demands on the Colorado River for food, for the environment, for power production, and for cities,” Hambry said, “but it's really important that we start to rethink what a sustainable picture looks like in the future on the river.”

In the wake of the grim forecasts, the head of a water conservation group says “people are really starting to pay attention in a way that they never have before,” but awareness is not action.

“My takeaway from last week is that there is no plan for climate change,” said Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network. “Talk about reservoir levels and things like that doesn’t really get at the heart of the issue of what are we going to do maybe 20 years from now when there is significantly less water flowing in the river than there is today.”

Roerink said the region needs to rethink the “suburban manifest destiny that big-moneyed interests are pushing throughout the desert Southwest.”

He said that includes the effort in Congress to open more public land in Southern Nevada to development, a proposal his group is skeptical of.

“If I were to be out there saying there needs to be a moratorium on all economic development, I'd get laughed out of the room,” Roerink said, “but I think what we're saying is business as usual is not going to serve the public interest in the long run.”

John Brooks Hamby, director, Imperial Irrigation District; Kyle Roerink, executive director, Great Basin Water Network; Alex Hager, Colorado River reporter, KUNC

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Zachary Green is the Coordinating Producer and a Reporter for KNPR's State of Nevada Program. He reports on Clark County, minority affairs, health, real estate, business, and gardening. You'll occasionally hear Zachary Green reporting and fill-in hosting on the State of Nevada program.
Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.