Environmental heavyweight Ken Salazar stopped by his old stomping grounds of Colorado College on Monday evening to weigh in on students’ findings that the Colorado River Basin is in danger of severe water shortages in coming years if preventive steps aren’t taken soon.
As President Obama’s appointed U.S. Secretary of the Interior, the San Luis Valley native and 1977 CC graduate is familiar with the problems associated with what’s often called “the hardest-working river” in the nation.
“The Colorado River is already a water-short river — more water has been allocated than what that river has today, not only along southern states but with the treaty with Mexico,” Salazar said during the 2012 State of the Rockies Project conference, which continues Tuesday.
But Salazar assured the hundreds of conference attendees that his department is working on the issues and hopes to announce a new allocation agreement with Mexico soon.
At the same time that demand for municipal, agricultural, industrial and recreational water use is increasing, supply is decreasing due to drought, rising temperatures and other factors.
The river supplies about 25 million users with drinking water and irrigates 2.5 million acres of farmland, according to Marcia McNutt, director of the U.S. Geological Survey, who also addressed conference goers.
This is the ninth year for CC students to research issues affecting the environmental, social and economic health of the Rocky Mountain region. Since last summer, students have been studying the sustainability of the 1,400-mile Colorado River, which starts in Wyoming, winds through seven southwestern states and flows into Mexico to what’s now a dry delta.
The river is ruled by a compilation of decrees, rights, court decisions and laws that together are referred to as the “Law of the River.” The keystone is the 1922 Colorado River Compact, an interstate agreement for general water allotments, which Salazar said overestimated by 2 million acre feet the annual amount of water that could be extracted from the river.
In response to a question from the audience, Salazar said he doesn’t think the Compact will ever be opened up for negotiation: “The legacies that have been created over 89 years are so embedded in the Law of the River,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean issues such as water shortages, environmental needs, recreational activities and dealing with areas downstream, such as Mexico and the river’s dry delta can’t be solved, he said.
“I’m optimistic no matter how hard these problems are, we can solve any one of these problems,” he said.
Salazar also seized on the connection between the dwindling water supply and the energy industry, deriding the push by U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, for expanded oil shale development.
“We need to let the world know how much water would be required to develop those oil shale resources — the estimates I’ve seen are over 1 million acre feet and some at 2 million,” Salazar said. “Where would that water come from? What’s going to be the consequences to the ranchers and farmers dependent on the Colorado River?”
Gov. John Hickenlooper will be the keynote speaker at Tuesday’s conference. He will discuss how the natural resource can be managed for future generations. The presentation starts at 11:45 a.m. at Armstrong Hall, 14 E. Cache la Poudre St., on the CC campus. It’s free and open to the public. For the conference schedule, go to http://www2.coloradocollege.edu/stateoftherockies/.