HOOVER DAM — With the concrete towers of Hoover Dam in the background and the depleted waters of the nation’s largest reservoir below, an unlikely group of allies — conservation activists, businesspeople and officials representing cities and farming communities — on Thursday called for halting all plans that would take more water from the shrinking Colorado River.
The 10 people who spoke at the news conference said they’re part of a new coalition demanding a moratorium on new dams and proposed pipelines, including a proposal to transport Colorado River water to sustain urban growth in Utah.
They said they aren’t opposed to new development but that water supplies need to be identified first, especially as the reservoirs on the river have declined to new lows. The coalition also declared that the shortage-sharing efforts Western water officials have undertaken to date have been a failure. They said the status quo is no longer viable and the Colorado River needs to be managed differently as climate change and drought take a worsening toll on the watershed.
The speakers condemned plans for Utah’s Lake Powell Pipeline, saying it makes no sense to draw more water from a river that’s already overused far beyond what it can support.
“While the Lower Basin is going on a diet of cutting its water use, we should not let the Upper Basin go on an all-you-can-eat buffet,” said Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, which has been fighting plans for the pipeline. “It’s akin to someone losing their job and going on a spending spree to buy a Rolls Royce. This madness must stop. It is irresponsible.”
Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, said the rapidly declining level of Lake Mead at Hoover Dam shows the seriousness of the crisis.
“It’s hot as Hades right now and we know what that means for the Colorado River. We shouldn’t be seeing the ‘bathtub ring’ growing like it is,” Roerink said, referring to the discoloration of rocks around Lake Mead that mark the decline in water level.
The dropping water levels of both Lake Mead and the upstream reservoir Lake Powell brought together what Roerink called a “strange bedfellows coalition.” This coalition is demanding that lawmakers and federal water managers cut back on “wasteful” and “irresponsible” diversion projects along the Colorado River and its tributaries.
“We’ve got farmers. We’ve got enviros. We’ve got businesses. We’re the type of coalition that they say can’t be put together. But we’re here to say, damn the status quo. No more business as usual,” Roerink said to the gathered crowd. “Why? Because we’re failing. It’s plain and simple.”
The last few months have seen the river’s reservoirs reach historic lows.
Lake Mead now stands at just 35% of full capacity, with its surface about 158 feet below the high-water mark. The lake has dropped to its lowest levels since it was filled in the 1930s following the construction of Hoover Dam.
“If I had only been a river guide for a few years, I wouldn’t have recognized any of the changes. But because I’ve been a river guide for over 40 years, all I can recognize are the changes,” said John Weisheit, conservation director of Living Rivers, who has been a river guide on the Colorado River since 1980. “If we were to tone down our demands and live more balanced lives, we could make it through the 21st century. As it stands now, we’re not and we won’t.”
For the first time, the federal government is expected to declare an official shortage at Lake Mead in August. In 2022, that shortage will trigger the largest water cutbacks to date for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.
Arizona is in line for the biggest reductions under the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan, which was aimed at reducing the risks of Lake Mead falling to critical lows.
Despite the cutbacks under the deal, the Colorado River’s largest reservoirs have continued to decline dramatically over the past two years as the watershed has been hit by some of the hottest and driest conditions on record — an especially severe dry spell in one of the watershed’s driest 22-year periods in centuries.
The river supplies farmlands, cities and tribal nations from Wyoming to Mexico. But it has been chronically overused, and scientific research has shown that hotter temperatures caused by climate change are playing a big role in worsening the drought and contributing to the shrinking flows of the river.
“This is the most important decade of this country’s existence,” Weisheit said. “We need to ask ourselves: How are we going to respond? Are we going to do the right thing or not?”
While this new coalition is still in its early stages, Weisheit says it’s bound to “enlarge automatically.”
“With all of these voices and opinions, the voice becomes louder,” Weisheit said. “It shows our government a united front that’s speaking out because the people that are supposed to be benefiting from this system are being disappointed.”
The coalition is opposing a list of proposed dams, diversions and pipelines across the river basin, which they argue would worsen the water crisis. The Lake Powell Pipeline, however, is one of the proposals the coalition’s members are most concerned about.
The pipeline is one of the largest new water diversions being proposed in the Colorado River Basin. The roughly 140-mile-long project would transport water from Lake Powell to southern Utah and supply cities like St. George and Washington. At full capacity, the pipeline would deliver up to 84,000 acre feet of water a year.
“This 140-mile long, $3 billion water project represents the boondoggle of our past,” Frankel said. “At some point, we have to stop this schizophrenic, mad policy that the federal government has been on to advance the Lake Powell Pipeline.”
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Joel Williams, assistant director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, said the pipeline has “been in the planning stages for more than 20 years” and that when operating at full capacity it will use less than 1% of the Colorado River’s average natural flow.
“Utah is the fastest-growing state in the country and has not developed all its Colorado River water rights,” Williams wrote in a statement. “The project will be paid for by water users in Washington County, one of the fastest-growing communities in the U.S., that needs the water.”
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Members of the coalition said that building new diversions, like the pipeline, would lead to a cascade of consequences for other communities relying on the river.
J.B. Hamby, vice president of California’s Imperial Irrigation District board, said the way the Colorado River has been managed in the past “is not how it should be managed in the present or in the future.”
“In a time of unprecedented drought, it must be recognized that the Cadillac Desert dreams of urban sprawl across the southwestern landscape — a sort of suburban Manifest Destiny — threaten the current and future sustainability of this river and the communities that depend on it,” said Hamby.
The irrigation district holds the single largest water entitlement on the river, and Hamby spoke about defending the interests of agricultural communities and the environment, and not letting the interests of unchecked urban growth take precedence.
“In an era of limits, we need a moratorium on dangerous and reckless projects that would tap the Colorado River even further, and instead manage the future development based on sustainable and identified sources of water,” Hamby said. “An already over-tapped Colorado River cannot be tapped dry.”
Representatives of cities near Lake Mead also voiced concerns.
“We’re seeing levels here that we’ve never seen. To try and say, ‘Well, in a few years it’ll all be back to normal,’ is probably not a realistic assumption,” said Kieran McManus, mayor of Boulder City, Nevada, located next to Lake Mead. “We have to do something about this, and we have to do it very soon. We are all dependent on this Colorado River and we need to be very wise about how we use it.”
Just under 100 miles downriver of Boulder City is Laughlin, Nevada. The economy of the small resort town is dependent on the tourism that streams from the river.
“If we don’t have the flow of the Colorado River, we don’t have a future in Laughlin,” said Brea Chiodini, who owns and operates Laughlin River Tours. “If we continue business as usual, we will ultimately destroy these communities and hundreds of businesses like mine.”
To illustrate her point, Chiodini brought posters to the coalition meeting that showcased Laughlin’s declining water levels. In neon yellow, the signs read “Our future flows on the Colorado River” and “No Flow, No Future.”
“We all rely on the flow of the water,” Chiodini said. “We want to call on elected officials and the (federal Bureau of Reclamation) to consider a moratorium and oppose any new dams or diversions and help us protect the future of the Colorado River.”
Besides local businesses and small towns on the river, members of the coalition said low-income communities in western cities that are using more water to fuel sprawl are also at risk.
“The consequences coming from the Colorado River will hit low-income communities and communities of color first,” said José Silva, an environmental justice organizer with the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.
These consequences will hit people’s wallets first, Silva said.
“Down the road, if water levels keep falling and water bills keep rising, communities of color are going to struggle with those expenses,” Silva said. “We’re still just coming back from a pandemic and people had to dive into their coffers and savings to survive it, and not everyone is back on their feet with a job.”
The consequences of these water levels will be felt by these communities regardless of where they are along the river, Silva says. One of the reasons he felt so strongly about joining the coalition is because of how future water shortages and cuts may affect Mexico.
“I’m of Mexican descent. I was born in Mexico, my parents are Mexican, and it hurts me knowing that while I’m in Las Vegas able to survive off the water supply here, there are people in Mexico that look exactly like me that don’t have access to that water. Either because it’s too expensive or because there’s simply not enough,” Silva said. “It’s a quality of life issue that as a Mexican-American hurts me especially, and it hurts even more to think about the folks like me that live in Arizona, Texas, New Mexico and California.”
By bringing together the coalition, Roerink hopes to see more people represent their own voices in conversations about water management in the U.S.
As Congress negotiates its infrastructure bill and federal funds are allocated to address post-pandemic recovery, Roerink says it is especially important for people to speak out now.
“I grew up learning about the Hoover Dam as a tourist destination. The older I got, the more I learned that the dam is a foundation for the way we exist in this country and symbolizes so much more than just American ingenuity in the late ‘20s and ‘30s,” Roerink said. “It represents who we are today and that bathtub ring is probably the most salient representation of who we are because, right now, we’re a people living beyond our means.”
Reporter Ed Komenda of the Reno Gazette Journal contributed to this story.
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