Bleak outlook for future of Colorado River

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Bad news this week for anyone in the American Southwest who enjoys drinking water now and then: Demands on the Colorado River will far outstrip supplies by 2060.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released the prediction Wednesday in a study that has been in the works for three years.

"It will become increasingly difficult for the system to meet Basin resource needs over the next 50 years," according to the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study.

The river is the lifeblood of the American Southwest, keeping alive cities like Denver, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles.

Demand will rise to 18 million to 20 million acre-feet by 2060, the report predicts. That's a big problem for a river that, in a good year, carries 15 million acre-feet of water.

As a rule of thumb, one acre-foot serves the needs of two suburban families.

The study considered hundreds of scenarios for supply and demand of water, both with and without shortages projected by global climate change.

To increase supply, the study considered options that range from common sense to science fiction. It looked at things Colorado is already doing, like conservation and sharing farm water with cities.

It also looked at more dramatic steps, like pumping water from the Missouri River in the Midwest and the Columbia in Washington, or towing icebergs to Southern California.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar admitted that not all the options were realistic.

"There's no silver bullet to solve the imbalance between the demand for water and the supply in the Colorado River Basin over the next 50 years - rather, it's going to take diligent planning and collaboration from all stakeholders to identify and move forward with practical solutions," Salazar said in a statement released by the White House.

Jennifer Gimbel, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, was singing the same tune in a statement she released.

"There is no silver bullet, or easy answer to the supply and demand imbalances on the Colorado River. The way forward is through cooperation with our neighbors, holistic management of the river, and a varied portfolio of strategies," Gimbel said.

However the country addresses the shortage, it will be expensive. Annual costs for meeting the increased demand by 2060 ranged from $2.5 billion to $5.8 billion in current dollars, according to the study.

In general, options that cost less and were less environmentally disruptive led to more secure supplies for Upper Basin states like Colorado. But those options were not as good for the populous Lower Basin states, and every option had trade-offs between cost, effectiveness and environmental impact, according to the report.

The Bureau of Reclamation plans to discuss the report with officials from the seven states and many Indian tribes in the Colorado basin early next year.

On the Net:

Read the Colorado River report at