Saturday, January 3, 2009

Death of the Colorado River: Inevitability of Human Progress?

In the face of climate change, global warming and urban sprawl, will the Colorado River gain a new lease on life via a well-planned water management scheme?

By: Vanessa Uy

Ever since that fateful hot September day in 1540 when García Lopez de Cárdenas, scouting around what is now northern Arizona for the great Spanish explorer Coronado accidentally discovered the Colorado River, the river’s future has always been dependent on how the incumbent human civilization uses its waters. From the major dams that harnessed the power of its massive flow of water to the fertile farmlands around it that uses 80% of its waters, the Colorado River has indeed made possible the settlement of the otherwise arid desert of the state of Nevada. Given that urban sprawl around what is now Las Vegas, Nevada has always been inevitable, will a planned water management scheme provide a new lease on life before the Colorado River inevitably dries up?

After the long drought of the American Southwest reached its 8th year in 2008, the long-term future of the Colorado River has never been so perilous. Especially when the city of Las Vegas has been hogging the water resources provided by the Colorado River ever since it got rich on the gambling revenues of the past 50 years or so. Add to that the army of workers needed to run the myriad casinos plus the facilities needed to house them all demand a dependable supply of water from the mighty Colorado.

Given that global warming / climate change is now in full swing due to our current inevitability to wean off from our fossil fuel addiction, the future of the Colorado River has never faced a threat more serious since the end of the Ice Age. The Colorado River has always been fed by the dependable snowfall on the snow-capped Rocky Mountains and iconic for carving out the Grand Canyon. During the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s, the Colorado River has been harnessed – via large dams like the Hoover Dam - to turn the desert around it into productive farmlands to maintain America’s food security. Plus the relatively cheap electricity generated as a bonus.

When it comes to the “questionable use” of the water provided by the Colorado River, the blame has always been pointed at the city of Las Vegas, Nevada. Where the golf courses, fountains, man-made waterfalls, and suburban lawns exert a tremendous ecological impact of the land’s naturally arid ecosystem. As of late, legislation had been set-up to ease water demand by residential lawns by shifting to the use of ornamental plants that are better adapted to the arid climate of Las Vegas. Even granting households tax-breaks if they change their ornamental plants to those varieties that are adapted to the desert climate of Las Vegas. Thus minimizing water being diverted to irrigating sprinkler use.

Even though many residents saw the “draconian” measures of water conservation seem a bit extreme, progress has been made. During the last 5 years, the population of Las Vegas – the long-term residents not tourists – increased by 400,000 people, the city’s overall water consumption dropped by 18%. If Las Vegas adopts measures to utilize the waters provided by the Colorado River in a sustainable manner, the river might gain a new lease on life despite the threat of drought caused by climate change and / or global warming. A well-formulated water management strategy will indeed decide the future of the Colorado River.