Options issued for shrinking Colorado River


Sacramento — The U.S. Interior Department Wednesday unveiled sweeping strategies to cope with shrinking supplies of water out of the Colorado River, ranging from an eye-popping plan to float in icebergs from Alaska to more realistic conservation measures that include capturing rainwater and lining leaking canals.

“We’re in a troubling trajectory,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said, emphasizing that the river is not keeping pace with demand. “This is a call to action.”

The implications for the San Diego region are great. The San Diego County Water Authority relies on the Colorado for a majority of its annual imported supplies, either directly from water transfer or canal lining contracts with the Imperial Irrigation District or through deliveries from the Metropolitan Water District.

Halla Razak, who tracks river issues for the authority, said many of the options on the federal list have been standard fare in the region for some time. But she said it was important to develop a comprehensive look at all of the various alternatives.

“Each option had its shortcomings,” she said. “If one would just look at just the cost of conservation it is the least expensive. But you can’t conserve your way out of the gap we have.”

The Colorado River system — spanning seven states from Wyoming to California — is already mired in a 12-year dry spell. Salazar said he expects states will need 3.2 million more acre feet of water than what will be available in 2060 if nothing changes. Moreover, population in those states is expected to continue to climb, from 40 million in 2015 to 49.3 million in 2060, assuming a slow rate of growth.

The most realistic portfolio of projects studied in the report would produce 3.7 million acre-feet a year by 2035 and as much as 7 million acre-feet annually by 2060. An acre-foot is enough to serve two average households a year.

The Colorado provides water for 40 million residents, is used by millions of businesses and irrigates 5.5 million acres of farm land while at the same time generating electricity for cities from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. It is also a critical source for fish and wildlife, as well as national parks.

Three years in the making, the mammoth report does not offer any firm recommendations. It will be circulated for 90 days before the Bureau of Reclamation brings together dozens of major water user to discuss the next steps.

Salazar quickly dismissed some of the more ambitious proposals as impractical — politically, financially and technically. Those include towing in icebergs or giant water-filled balloons. Instead, Salazar focused on some of the most obvious ways to ease water shortages across the West: conservation, farm-to-city transfers, canal lining, desalination, storage and turning wastewater into drinking water. Most of those are common practices in Southern California, including San Diego.

Costs vary widely, according to the report’s figures. Desalted seawater could run up to $2,150 an acre-foot; wastewater conversion, $1,800; canal covers, $15,000; and converting power plants to air-cooling, $2,000. In contrast, the San Diego water authority pays $794 an acre-foot for treated water today.

The report immediately drew criticism from agricultural interests worried that they will be pressured to sell more water to cities and idle land.

“Our experience has been these complicated and sweeping transfer agreements have worked out better on paper than in practice,” said Kevin Kelley, general manager of the Imperial Irrigation District, a national breadbasket and the largest user of river water in California.

Other projects in the report include: cloud seeding, storage, better management of watersheds and piping more water into the Colorado from other rivers. (Sacramento Bee)