Boondoggle on the Colorado River

By Gary Wockner

You’d think the Earth shook recently when the three states of California, Arizona and Nevada announced they’d reached a deal with the federal government about how to manage the drought-stricken Colorado River. It felt like a replay of President George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech.

Because within 24 hours, a more jaundiced — and realistic — picture emerged.

For starters, the Colorado River has not been saved. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton told a U.S. Senate subcommittee last year that two to four million acre-feet of water per year had to be permanently conserved in the river to protect the Colorado River system.

But this new deal amounts to conserving just one million acre-feet of water per year for the next three years. That makes only a tiny blip in the perilously low water levels at Lake Mead and Lake Powell reservoirs. And Glen Canyon Dam — the doomed dam that should’ve never been built, and which is partly the cause of the crisis — gets “saved” for at least 3 more years.

Moreover, the Lower Basin farmers and cities reaching the agreement had to get paid to reach it. The administration said that 2.3 million of those lost three million acre-feet of water will be “compensated” by the federal taxpayer through the Inflation Reduction Act. News reports suggest this particular inflation reduction could cost U.S. taxpayers $1.2 billion.

What helped push the river to the brink of collapse was those exact same farmers and cities, who have taken more water out of the river than the river could provide, given the region’s extended drought. Now, the Biden administration is paying them to stop doing what they should have corrected on their own.

The agreement also does nothing to address over 20 proposed new dams, diversions and pipelines in the states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico. Those withdrawals from the Colorado would drain even more water out of the dwindling river, totaling about 500,000 acre-feet per year.

So at the same time that the federal government is paying farmers in southern California not to farm, it’s not acting to block permits in the Upper Basin that would further drain the river, thus probably requiring more payments to farmers to not farm.

The flow of water through the depleted Grand Canyon also does not improve as compared to the last two decades.The ecological health of the river in Grand Canyon has been eviscerated and this deal keeps eviscerating it.

Endangered fish will continue to struggle on life support, maintained only by a “forever” breeding and stocking program. The flow of water into Mexico and down to the Sea of Cortez will continue to be so minimal that the river never meets the Sea.

As for Lake Powell, its vaunted salvation over the next three years is merely a stopgap.

What this deal does do is set the precedent that the American taxpayer will backfill any and every financial loss caused by a changing climate. It has been estimated that the Colorado River’s water generates $1.4 trillion in economic activity per year. As climate change further depletes the river, will the U.S. taxpayer always be on the hook?

This so-called historic agreement offers little that is sustainable, equitable or environmentally sound. It’s more a historic boondoggle — one that merely kicks the can down the road.

Gary Wockner is a contributor to Writers on the Range,, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He leads the Save the Colorado nonprofit.

Glen Canyon Dam, Courtesy Bureau of Reclamation

This column was published in the following newspapers:

06/05/2023 Park Record Park City UT
06/05/2023 Vail Daily Vail CO
06/06/2023 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Grand Junction CO
06/07/2023 Kingman Daily Miner Kingman AZ
06/07/2023 Sterling Journal-Advocate Sterling CO
06/07/2023 Lake Havasu News Lake Havasu City AZ
06/07/2023 Explore Big Sky Big Sky MT
06/08/2023 Yahoo sunnyvale ca
06/08/2023 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
06/07/2023 Wallowa County Chieftain Enterprise OR
06/09/2023 Wenatchee World Wenatchee WA
06/11/2023 Summit Daily frisco co
06/08/2023 Moab Times Independent Moab UT
06/05/2023 Explore Big Sky Big Sky MT
06/10/2023 Herald-Journal Logan UT
06/10/2023 Wyoming Tribune Eagle Cheyenne WY
06/09/2023 Boulder Daily Camera Boulder CO
06/11/2023 Aspen Times Aspen CO
06/04/2023 Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City UT
06/10/2023 Idaho Mountain Express Ketchum ID
06/11/2023 Las Vegas Sun Las Vegas NV
06/09/2023 Greeley Tribune Greeley CO
06/09/2023 Alamogordo Daily News Alamogordo NM
06/13/2023 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
06/08/2023 St. George Spectrum St. George UT
06/13/2023 Taos News Taos NM
06/13/2023 Idaho Statesman Boise ID
06/09/2023 Sierra Nevada Ally Carson City NV
06/14/2023 Delta County Independent Delta CO
06/14/2023 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
06/16/2023 Sky-Hi News Granby CO
06/16/2023 Tucson Star Tucson AZ
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I think not long ago I wrote about this… – “Summer is the season of inferior sledding” – Inuit proverb
1 year ago

[…] June 5, 2023Martha Kennedy Leave a comment Boondoggle on the Colorado River […]

Christine Mallaband-Brown
1 year ago

Very interesting, I live in the UK and we are having problems with the way our rivers are being managed.

1 year ago

Great nutgraf at the bottom. In the spirit of Marc Reisner.

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