The Colorado River and Economic Sustainability

An article by Brandon Loomis [@brandonloomis] on AZCentral this morning reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend over the weekend about development in Scottsdale. My friend lives in San Diego, and in Southern California residents are more aware (though not enough in my opinion) of the limitations of the fresh water supply than in the desert of Arizona, ironically.

My friend’s question related to the sustainability of development in Scottsdale given the (likely) shrinking water supply here. I’ve had this discussion with other folks recently, and in-part our lack of awareness is driven by the mandate of our main water supplier, Salt River Project.

SRP is a quasi-governmental agency not unlike the Tennessee Valley Authority where I grew up. SRP’s charter is to deliver water to users (primarily SRP was formed to serve agricultural interests in the Valley) as inexpensively as possible. This does not permit SRP to regulate water use via increases in fees.

Loomis’ article [Colorado River named ‘most endangered’] refers to the tapping of the Colorado River by adjacent western states via mechanisms like the quasi-governmental Central Arizona Project Canal.

One quote in the article particularly caught my eye.

American Rivers also targeted a proposed Lake Powell pipeline to St. George, Utah. The Washington County (Utah) Water Conservancy District wants to build a 139-mile pipeline to siphon 86,000 acre-feet to southwestern Utah — a region that in the last decade boomed in an echo of Las Vegas.

Conservancy Associate General Manager Barbara Hjelle said it’s Utah’s water by right, and it’s needed. Opponents in Utah say St. George wastes more water than Phoenix and others, though Hjelle calls the comparison unfair because her relatively small city relies heavily on hotels and other big water users that drive up per capita water use.

That last reference to skewing per-capita consumption by counting hospitality users is one that should be of great concern to Scottsdale residents and hoteliers. And, water used is water used…regardless of whether residents or visitors are the consumers.

On a larger scale, however, I have in the past observed that the Colorado used to be a navigable inland waterway and connected to the Pacific Ocean via the Gulf of California. In doing so, it not only brought commerce upstream to and beyond Ft. Yuma, it also supported a vibrant and diverse ecosystem at the Colorado River Delta where Port Isabel was located.

Now that US agricultural interests and municipalities have tapped the river for most of its capacity, the delta wetlands are a shadow of their historic size and ecological value.

Hopefully that will change. A letter to the editor of the Republic back in December documented some progress on an agreement between the US and Mexico on

On Nov. 20, the United States and Mexico signed a historic agreement to combine resources and become partners in managing and sharing the waters of the Colorado River. The agreement has been hailed as the one of the most significant developments since the 1944 Colorado River Compact, and among many innovations, restores much-needed water to the parched Colorado River delta region.

As the owner of an ecotourism company that provides guided birdwatching trips in southern Arizona, my business depends on healthy ecosystems and a healthy river system extending all the way to the Colorado River delta in Mexico. The delta is a critical habitat for more than 380 bird species and a stopover of the Pacific Flyway, a major continental migratory route for birds. The Santa Clara wetland, the largest remaining wetland in the Colorado River delta, hosts thousands of migratory and native bird species, including our local endangered Yuma Clapper Rail.

However, demand on the river’s water now exceeds its supply, and the river’s ecosystem has become endangered as a result. I have become increasingly concerned about the future of the region and the river’s ability to thrive and support the birding opportunities that people from around the world come to experience.

Birding has become one of the most popular outdoor activities in the nation. A 2006 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey shows that birders spent more than $12 billion nationwide on travel and equipment expenses such as cameras, binoculars and bird food.

Sadly, for decades the Colorado River has been unable to make its way to the Sea of Cortez, and the birds, fish and other species are struggling to survive.

Without a change in the management of the river’s water from our federal leaders, this trend paints a gloomy picture for the future.

Thankfully, the U.S.-Mexico binational water agreement may change that for the river, the birds, my business, and the some 36 million people that depend on a healthy river system.

The agreement is the world’s first-ever commitment between two nations to set aside water to protect a river’s health and is an important step in restoring ecological balance to the region.

This agreement implements flexible management policy to improving water conservation, and it results in habitat restoration for the river in Mexico and Arizona while simultaneously improving water availability for users in both countries. It sets a precedent by demonstrating that we can balance the health of the river with our water consumption needs. I want future generations of birders to be able to spot the Yuma Clapper Rail and all of the other birds that the Colorado River supports. I’m hopeful that this agreement puts us on the right path.

The binational water agreement also provides an opportunity to focus on how we can designate environmental flows in the many other strained stretches of the Colorado River system throughout the Southwest. Increased demand on the river because of population growth and the unknown consequences of climate change present difficult challenges to meeting our water needs in the region.

We need to continue to bring common-sense balance to river policy by practicing basic and easy-to-implement conservation measures that improve the efficiency of water use in our cities and on our farms.

The Colorado River is a major economic driver in our state and the West.

Southern Arizona is one of the top three birding destinations in the country, and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. To continue this prosperity, we must take care.

We must protect the river that sustains the future of businesses like mine, and all of us that depend on a bountiful Colorado River for our livelihood.

John Yerger is owner of Adventure Birding Company in Tucson.

Here’s another article from Loomis that appeared in the Republic in November 2012:

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