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Climate Change and Renewable Energy: Saving Our Planet for Future Generations


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The Law of the River: Over Allotment of the Colorado

The Colorado River

The Colorado River is over allocated.

“The Colorado River has been over allocated from the beginning.”

By Linn Smith
September 11, 2018—-The Law of the River is a Colorado River Compact formed in 1922. It’s an agreement between 7 states in the Colorado River Basin. The upper division is Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming and the Lower Basin states are Arizona, Nevada and California. All management of the river is called the “Law of the River.”

High Precipitation in 1922

Tree rings have been studied from 1922 which show that the flow of the Colorado River during the original signing was at an all time high. The 3 years around the establishment of water rights were very wet years with high precipitation. Therein lies part of the problem of over allotment of the Colorado River. The river was at peak flow in 1922, allowing more than enough water for all.

The colorado river

Actions we can take to help preserve the Colorado River.

The Law of the River

The Law of the River declares the upper basin states should not deplete the flow of the river below 7,500,00 acre ft. (An acre foot would be equivalent to an acre of land being flooded with 1 foot depth of water) during any 10 consecutive years. But rainfall was at an all time high when the Law of the River pact was signed. With the rainfall patterns of 1922, this would have allowed for a roughly equal flow between the upper and lower basins and enabled widespread irrigation of the arid southwest to grow fruits, and vegetables, as it continually had done with very few problems in the 20th century.

Water depletion

Irrigation in the Southwest U.S.

The Colorado River and Population Growth

Today the population of states along the Colorado River has increased, requiring greater demand on the river, which has decreased, causing many legal water disputes. Over 40 million people, 18 million in lower basin states, depend on the Colorado river for water and the power it creates. Hoover Dam generates, on average, about 4 billion kilowatt-hours of hydroelectric power each year for use in Nevada, Arizona, and California – enough to serve 1.3 million people! Without the Colorado River and the power it generates, millions of people would have a greater dependency on fossil fuels.

Since the development of the river compact, California has been using the surplus water that other states haven’t used in the lower basin. But with population growth both Arizona and Nevada are claiming their water allotments, forcing California to resort to greater water conservation policies. Growth in the other lower basin states will not allow the surplus flow to California.
(see, https://planetearth5.com/2018/08/26/irrigation-and-water-depletion-in-the-southwest-united-states/)

The Colorado river

Farmers in the Southwest are left little water for irrigation.

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The Drought in the Southwest

The Colorado River has been over allocated from the beginning and the flows were overestimated. The estimation was 17 million acre ft a year, but the flow has been much less for most of the years since the signing of the compact. Forecasts state that the Colorado river will only carry about 43% of the allotted water into Lake Powell in the future, as the drought in the Southwest has been taking place for the past 18 years, which some say is a permanent shift at least in part due to global warming.

Conserving the Colorado River

Kim Mitchell of Western Resource Advocates states, “People in the seven S.W. states must learn to live with less water. Unless we take decisive proactive steps now, farmers, cities, business and environment all will lose water….they must understand that more water is being pulled out of the river than is being replaced. The problem is compounded by a long-term drought and climate change.” U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Aug 15, 2018, anticipates declaration shortage in Sept 2019 that would trigger reduced water releases from federal reservoirs in the lower basin states.

Recently the Upper Basin states accused CAP, Central Arizona Project, of manipulating its share of water to keep Lake Mead low enough that the upper basin is required to send extra water, but high enough to avoid mandatory cutbacks in lower basin consumption. The water wars will continue!

Adoption of additional water conservation measures now is the best approach to protect the Colorado River as continued long-term solutions are developed.

Depletion of the Colorado River

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Irrigation and Water Depletion in the Southwest United States

Water depletion

Irrigation in the Southwest U.S.

“We need to work together to feed the world, but we also need to work together to save and monitor our water resources.”

By Linn Smith

August 26, 2018—- On the farmland of my youth in the Midwest, my brothers and I spent much time baling hay for our cattle, but water was plentiful and plants thrived with no irrigation. Cows were in green pastures in the summertime and in winter months we fed hay when grasses died.

Farming in the Southwest

When traveling to southern New Mexico and southern Arizona, I often see hay and cotton fields in the middle of the desert and semi arid terrain. It seems an unlikely place to grow crops that have high water needs! 

Today the Southwest is water-stressed with many lawsuits taking place, both privately and between states, over water rights. The projection is that reduced precipitation by mid-century will result in reduced runoff into the water basins that feed irrigated fields.

I recently heard a local resident from Arizona say that Saudi Arabia was buying land in Arizona and California’s arid landscape for growing hay and shipping it back to their country. The export of hay (grasses grown for feeding animals) is booming in the U. S., with the amount of hay leaving the west coast ports increasing yearly. In 2017, the total exports of alfalfa and other hay reached 4.2 million metric tons and is continuing to grow.

The fact that hay and cotton are being exported is healthy for our economy, as many U.S. farmers are growing and exporting this commodity, mostly from states that require little irrigation for agriculture. The issue is growing crops in the desert Southwest in what is fast becoming an area where water is not replenishing itself in the rivers and reservoirs.

The Colorado river

Farmers in the Southwest are left little water for irrigation.

Depletion of our Water Resources

What is healthy for our aquifers and rivers when they are not replenishing? Doug Kenny, Director of the Western Water Policy Program at University of Colorado, says about potential water shortage. “Right now, it’s the effort to maintain the levels of water stored in the big reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell. They’re about half full, which is about as low as they can go before mandatory cuts in water deliveries. It’s a math problem—managing water coming in vs. water going out. So far this century, people have pulled more water out than consistently flows in. That has to change.”

Saudi Arabia and the Southwest

 Most crops will only thrive with irrigation in the arid Southwest.  Saudi Arabia is confronting a major depletion in its aquifers which has brought its wheat and hay production to a halt. They have bought 1,000’s of acres in arid parts of the U.S., Arizona and Southern California (and several other countries), allowing them to take advantage of the U.S. water laws. The Laws of the Colorado River are currently under scrutiny by the Upper and Lower Basin states because of continuing depletion of the river and Lake Mead, which supplies water to the lower Colorado river basin states. Most crops will only thrive with irrigation in the arid Southwest.

The drought of Southwest U.S.

Lake Mead depletion

Southern California: Irrigating Crops vs Urban Use

In Southern California the Metropolitan Water District pays landowners to fallow their land, letting it lay without planting crops so that water is freed up for urban areas. Since 2005, over $200 million has been paid to farmers not to grow crops on this program. This allows water to be directed to Los Angeles and other cities in Southern California.

Has this program enabled corruption and profit from drought conditions? A single recipient, Fisher Ranch, owned by a board member of the operation, has received over $27 million a year since 2005 for leaving his land fallow.

Colorado River

Depletion of water for crop irrigation

The Water Crisis

As I continue to study depleting water conditions in the Western U.S., I realize in 20 years, if not sooner, we are going to be facing a water crisis due to climate change and over allotment of water rights and usage. We need to ask ourselves what changes are necessary today to alleviate the impending crisis.

Water shortage is going to be a complex problem in the future requiring many people to make sacrifices. We need to work together to feed the world, but we also need to work together to save and monitor our water resources. Education and awareness is a place to start.

The Southwest Water Crisis

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