Colorado River crisis requires confronting sacred cow

Colorado River crisis requires confronting sacred cow
Photo by Yaroslav Muzychenko on Unsplash

by Dana Gentry, Nevada Current

LAS VEGAS — A cap on the size of swimming pools in Southern Nevada, intended to reduce water lost to evaporation, will save about 10 acre feet a year – compared to the millions of acre feet Colorado River states must agree in the next month to conserve to avoid federal intervention. 

“We’re talking about needing to save millions of acre-feet on the Colorado River,” says Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network. “The Southern Nevada Water Authority is making up for lost time.”  

The vast Colorado River Basin provides water to some 40 million people in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

Colorado River states and tribal users have until late August to come up with a plan to cut 2 to 4 million acre feet of water use in 2023 or face federally-imposed restrictions.  Users divvy up 15 million acre-feet of water a year. Nevada receives 300,000 acre-feet – less than 2% of the total allocation. It is losing 7% this year because of emergency mediation steps. 

Lake Mead is at a record low depth of 1,043 feet, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Intake has been less than half of “normal” for three of the last four years, John Entsminger, general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District said Tuesday as the district’s board contemplated capping the surface area of pools at 600 square feet. 

“If we continue to get years like we have in the last three, Hoover Dam will stop generating power by the end of 2025,” Entsminger said. 

Even as the population has increased, Southern Nevada has reduced its water use by 26% in the last two decades. But conservation alone is not enough.  

“Water scarcity is our natural disaster in Southern Nevada,” Entsminger said. “The point has been made that this is a relatively small amount of savings.”

Andrew deCoriolis, executive director of Farm Forward, an organization that promotes conscientious eating, reducing farmed animal suffering, and advancing sustainable agriculture, says the water saved by the swimming pool cap “is insignificant” and that doing enough to stave off a water disaster will require confronting the elephant, or in this case, cow in the room. 

A report published by Nature says 79% of water in the Colorado River Basin is used for irrigation, and about half of that is for “alfalfa hay and haylage.”  

“I’m not suggesting that farmers stop farming,” Entsminger testified before Congress in June. “But rather that they carefully consider crop selection and make the investments needed to optimize irrigation efficiency.”

The Drought Contingency Plan, approved in 2019 by the Colorado River states, ten tribes, and Mexico, made cuts to water allocations for some 500 farmers.   

Patrick O’Toole is president of the Family Farm Alliance, a group formed to “ensure the availability of reliable, affordable irrigation water supplies to Western farmers and ranchers” in 17 states.

O’Toole cautioned federal lawmakers in June that taking water away from farms would increase the amount of food the United States needs to import from other countries.

“We are about to do with agriculture what we did with manufacturing and let it go overseas,” O’Toole testified.

Not just a drought

Intake at the upper basin of the Colorado River has decreased by 20% since the turn of the century, with about half of the decline attributable to man-made climate change. 

Some scientists project a drop of another 20% to 30% by the middle of the century. 

“The Colorado River Basin is likely experiencing aridification, the gradual change of an area from a wetter to drier climate,” Entsminger said. “Since the turn of the century, the river has been imperiled.”

The river system has a history of over-allocating water, especially to cattle ranching

“The only lever we control right now in the river is the demand lever,” Brad Udall, Senior Water and Climate Research Scientist for Colorado State University, told CBS News’ 60 Minutes earlier this year.  “We have no control over the supply. So, we have to dial back demand.”

The favored method of dialing back demand for forage crops is by forking over cash. 

Thirsty alfalfa grows in abundance along the banks of the Colorado River in Blythe, California.  The federal government currently provides incentives to some farmers there and in the Imperial Valley who agree to let their fields temporarily fallow. 

But the program is voluntary, for now.  And with a ton of alfalfa worth close to $200, it’s costly. 

Fifteen percent of the irrigated land in Blythe is owned by a Saudi Arabian company that uses Colorado River water to grow alfalfa that is shipped monthly to Saudi Arabia, where it is used to feed cattle, the Guardian reported in 2019. 

Colorado River states raise roughly 14 million cattle per year, which amounts to only about 15% of the cattle supply in the U.S.

“It’s a tiny percent of the nation’s cattle production,” says deCoriolis.”And it’s a massive amount of water from some of the largest and fastest growing metropolitan areas in America.”

He says cattle breeding can be restricted to areas where grazing is enabled by rainwater. 

“The idea that we would continue to dump precious and limited resources, you know, into a small number of ranches just doesn’t make sense,” he says. “We’re not talking about food security. We’re talking about a very small number of cows, a premium luxury product.” 

“So far, the biggest cuts on the river have largely been borne by agricultural communities,” says Roerink of one million acre feet cut in the last year. He says farmers integrate food crops with forage, so it’s hard to know exactly what crops are affected most.  

“In the coming years, we’ll see an effect on the food market, whether you’re talking about row crops, like lettuce or broccoli, or you’re talking about cattle feed,” he says, adding it’s more complex than demanding “we rip out all the alfalfa and leave my carrots. Water rights are a little more complicated.” 

Roerink says the real discussion should be about “what is causing anthropogenic climate change. It’s futile to have a discussion about water cuts without talking emission cuts.” 

He notes that Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s bill to facilitate more development in Southern Nevada is proceeding through Congress, despite the water emergency. The Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act trades protection of some sensitive lands in exchange for sprawled development. And more pools.

Water District Chairwoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick says the Water District board has considered but discarded the possibility of a halt on building permits, adding “we have a responsibility to keep the economy going.” 

That hasn’t changed as the water emergency has escalated, she said via text.

“We have to maintain a balance,” she wrote. “We have a lot of folks that work in the construction industry.”

The Southern Nevada Water Authority votes Thursday on whether to expand the pool size cap to Henderson and North Las Vegas.  

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