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Bureau of Reclamation releases more Colorado River supply & demand data

As I've noted in previous posts, the Bureau of Reclamation will release the results of a multi-year study of the Colorado River this summer. In the run-up to a comprehensive release of findings the Bureau is publishing interim data including last week's “Technical Memorandum C – Quantification of Water Demand Scenarios” in the Colorado River Basin.

The River is the primary source of water for over 40 million residents of the seven-state Basin, and with the region again suffering the impacts of drought, and competition for the fruits of the Colorado rising to the level of a pitched-battle in some cases, the Bureau's study is widely anticipated in water circles if not the business community and population at large.

This will likely change as communities come to grips with the scope of the water challenge in the West.

The Bureau has already provided a glimpse at where the data will lead. Anticipating an “imbalance” in supply and demand, public proposals to address a Basin-wide shortfall have already been collected and published. I wrote about some of those last month.

The release of the technical memo sheds new light on projected demand by states and the industry throughout the Basin through 2060. The study incorporates six different demand scenarios, and even in the most conservative usage forecasts, the results are predictably bleak. The Bureau's press released summarized top-line results this way:

“The scenarios provide a range of about 13.8 to 16.2 million acre-feet (maf) of Colorado River water demand by 2060. The range changes to about 18.1 to 20.4 maf in 2060 when factoring in Mexico’s allotment and losses such as reservoir evaporation. When comparing the demand scenarios to the median water supply projections that incorporate climate change information, the long-term imbalance in future supply and demand is projected to be greater than 3.5 maf in 2060. This is consistent with previously published information.”

When first reading this, I was encouraged, as 13.8 to 16.2 million acre-feet of demand still falls within a supply range that many estimate the river can support – on average. In 2011, a record year, more than 20 million acre-feet of water flowed in the River, though volume in 2012 may not even be half that. But over a million-acre feet a year evaporate from the massive reservoirs along the river and treaty obligations are no less real. Climate changes may diminish the River even further. My initial optimism was short-lived.

We'll know more about supply as the Bureau releases additional information, but for now, a 3.5 million-acre foot shortfall forecast by 2060 should only heighten concern in the Southwest, not provide solace for planners and the business community who may incorrectly surmise we have 50 years to solve the problem. If supply numbers for 2012 are as grim as widely believed, we're well into a Basin-wide, systemic crisis now.

Planet-Profit Report will co-host a Colorado River conference this fall to review the Bureau's Supply & Demand study, but more importantly, discuss the implications of the data and its impact on business and the economy in the southwest United States. Contact me for more information.


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Bart Taylor

Bart Taylor is the publisher of ColoradoBiz magazine. E-mail him at btaylor@cobizmag.com.

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