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The Crisis on the Colorado River

By John McChesney, Director of the Rural West Initiative

With Lake Mead at 39 percent capacity and Lake Powell at around 59 percent after an 11-year drought, there’s no question that there is a crisis on the Colorado River, and, experts predict, climate change will make things worse. With 30 million people dependent on the river, the outcome of disputes on distribution of Colorado River water is critical for the West. Researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography say Lake Powell has a 50 percent chance of becoming unusable by 2021. Some experts say that within the next 15 years, the Central Arizona Project, which supplies Phoenix and Tucson and the agricultural lands between them, may become the testing ground to see what happens when the water runs low. Is the 1922 Compact still the best law of the river?

“We need more and better and different conversations now, rather than waiting for litigation and empty reservoirs later.”  

Doug Kenney, Director of the Western Water Policy Program & Senior Research Associate, Natural Resources Law Center, University of Colorado.

We join the conversation on the Colorado River crisis by posting a provocative speech given by Doug Kenney at the December, 2010 meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association (CRWUA) in Las Vegas. He recently authored a report for the Western Water Policy Program entitled, Rethinking the Future of the Colorado River. He called his speech at CRWUA a "Reader’s Digest" version of that report.

Download the full text of the report: http://www.rlch.org/archive/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/CRGI-Interim-Report.pdf

Kenney doesn't believe the law of the river needs to be tossed out, but he says it should be revised. Kenney stresses that the 11-year drought is not the most important problem on the river; the game changer, he says, is that demand now exceeds the river’s supply, and climate change will likely make matters worse.

As part of our Rural West Initiative, we are examining the crisis on the Colorado River, with a close eye on its impact on rural communities, and the past, present, and future of agriculture in the Colorado River Basin.

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Last modified Wed, 8 Feb, 2012 at 14:15