Water from Rocky Mountains strains state relations in America’s West

Last summer, drought conditions and water shortages dominated headlines in America’s West, and 2022 has seen some half a dozen states ramping up to fight over the water they want and need coming from America’s biggest mountain chain, the spectacular Rocky Mountains.

The Rocky Mountains run some 3,000 miles (about 4828 km) from the state of New Mexico deep into Canada, and literally divide North America — rivers on the west side of the Rockies flow to the Pacific Ocean, and east-bound rivers eventually find the Atlantic, Xinhua news agency reported.

Surface water accounts for 55 per cent of America’s water use, according to the US Department of Agriculture, which says water from the Rockies makes more than half of Wyoming’s water yield and 70 per cent of the public surface water supply in Colorado.

In no place in the United States is water more vital for survival than the parched southwest, where a historic, 1,200-year drought has dried streams, rivers, reservoirs and lakes, and left politicians scrambling for solutions.

In January, the governor of Nebraska announced a $500 million plan to build a canal to divert water from Colorado, which was opposed by the Centennial State.

“Colorado will continue to aggressively defend our water rights for the Eastern Plains, our farmers and ranchers, and all of Colorado,” and will “oppose attempts to divert Colorado’s precious rightful water resources,” Colorado’s Governor Jared Polis said in a statement recently.

“This canal to nowhere would clearly be a huge waste of Nebraska taxpayer money and is unlikely to ever be built. There remains time for thoughtful Nebraskans to avoid this boondoggle and focus on meaningful water policy working with partners like Colorado,” Polis added.

Even water experts who teach at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have pointed out that it is uncertain how much water Nebraska could actually get out of such a canal, local media outlets have reported.

Meanwhile, divergence was quite apparent in states west of the Rocky Mountains.

The Colorado River, runs 1,397 miles (about 2,248 km) from Grand County, Colorado, to the Gulf of California, provides water for over 40 million people, irrigates 2 million acres (around 8,094 square km) of land, and creates 4,000 megawatts of hydroelectric capacity, according to data from propublica.org.

More than 75 per cent of the river’s water comes from melted snowpack in the high Rockies.

In December, the states of California, Arizona and Nevada, announced a voluntary agreement to scale back their use of the Colorado River, according to Deseret News.

The cooperation, however, did not deter Utah’s governor from finger pointing.

California, Arizona and Nevada have “drawn too much water over the years. The lower basin has been overusing their portion of the Colorado River for years,” said Utah Governor Spencer Cox in December, “everyone knows that.”

However, a report released by the Utah Rivers Council alleges that Utah is actually using more water than it was allowed under the century-old Colorado River Compact.

The 1922 agreement, signed by Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, is a loosely-defined agreement limiting excessive river water use by states, and defined the “lower (Colorado River) basin” states as Arizona, California, and Nevada.

“The upper basin states have absolutely been underutilising their amounts compared to the lower basin states, and California being the most egregious example of that,” Cox has said.

The Colorado River is severely threatened by human overuse, environmental issues, and poor river management technique. As an extremely over-apportioned water resource, the water quality of the river is jeopardised by agricultural overdraw, which increases the salinity of the river, the Utah Rivers report noted.

In 2021, the federal government made the emergency decision to send water from reservoirs in Colorado and other states to Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border, which had dropped to its lowest level on record, Colorado Public Radio reported.

Last week, Lake Powell was sitting at only 3,529 feet (about 1076 meters), only four feet (around 1.22 metres) above the minimum threshold. The latest projections from the US Bureau of Reclamation show there is a chance that Powell could dip below this critical level by the fall of 2022 if conditions remain historically dry, said the report.


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