As waterways go, the Colorado River doesn’t get anywhere near the publicity it deserves. Great todo is made over both the Mississippi and Missouri rivers on a continual basis. They are revered in songs and poems as well as in movies and on stage. Mark Twain based almost his entire literary career on writing about life along the Mississippi. Yet the Colorado gets hardly mentioned. Which is unfortunate because the lives and livelihoods of tens of millions of people living in the Western United States, indeed their very existences, depend upon the clear, cool waters of the Colorado River.
The Colorado begins in the northern Rockies and wends its way through 7 states-Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado to the north, and New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and California to the south- and then flows into northern Mexico, and finally empties into the Gulf of California. Some 30 million people along the way, are dependent upon its waters. Major cities like Las Vegas (almost 2 million people in the Las Vegas valley) and Phoenix, Tucson, San Diego and Los Angles (population almost 13 million in the greater L.A. area) depend almost solely on the Colorado for their drinking water. Los Angles and Phoenix use the river’s waters to generate much of their electricity. And of course, vast ranches, farmlands, industries and hotels along the way would not exist if not for the Colorado’s life-sustaining flow. The vast Central Valley in California from whence most of the nation’s produce and beef comes, would soon become a desert without the Colorado’s waters. So why is this noteworthy at this time? Because the Colorado River is slowly but steadily beginning to run dry, and a time will come in the not too distant future, when it can no longer sustain life in the west, or for our country, as we know it.
A good example of the water problems we face in the west (except for the Pacific Northwest) is right here in Las Vegas, which is one of the driest places on the entire planet. In a good year, the sky may dribble out about 3.5 inches of rain. Basically Las Vegas is a desert, and was certainly never meant to sustain life for almost 2 million people. About 200 would be more like it. Technically, L.V. gets its water from Lake Mead, which in turn gets it from the Colorado River. But water levels in Lake Mead have been dropping faster than Michele Bachman’s popularity ratings when she ventured into presidential politics. Besides over-population, a good part of the problem is the severe drought that the southwestern U.S. has been experiencing for over 15 years, with no end in sight. Droughts can sometimes last for 25-50 years or longer, and this one shows no sign of abating. Nevertheless, people party-on in Las Vegas as if the water-scarcity problem never existed. I guess they will do so until one day, they’ll turn on the water facet and nothing will come out. It’s just human nature to live for the short term.
The Colorado gets most of its flow from the winter snowfall in the Northern Rockies. In the spring, when a heavy snow accumulation from the winter starts melting, the river’s waters are replenished. Unfortunately, snowfalls in most recent winters have been paltry, leading to a continual reduction in river flows. The most immediate problem for those of us living in Las Vegas, is the fact that water levels in Lake Mead have been dropping so rapidly, that the intake piping that transports the water to the city will be above sea level. So the county has been feverishly trying to build new intake piping at a far lower sea level, and have it completed by 2013, when it’s estimated that water levels will go below today’s water intake system. Meanwhile, this fall’s weather in the northern Rockies, as well as here inLas Vegas, has been exceptionally mild, with nary a snow flake in sight. But, as I’ve said, everyone continues to party-on, without a care in the world. Living for the short term.
Compacts have been written and signed by the 7 states involved, allocating to each, as well as to Mexico, its share of the Colorado’s precious waters. But these allocations become more difficult with each passing year as the river flows become less. There is a new book out called “River Notes” by Wade Davis explaining all this in much greater detail, for those of you that may be interested. In the book the author goes into other factors that are draining the river’s water supply, such as the 100-plus golf courses in Phoenix ( plenty of them here in Las Vegas too), and the 250 million western acres devoted toward raising 500 million head of cattle. It takes mind-boggling amounts of water to grow alfalfa fields for the cattle to feed on. Even my own development here in L.V. wastes considerable water. Private lawns, as well as common areas, still grow grass which necessitates an enormous amount of watering in 110-115 degree summer heat. The author concludes that unless there is a drastic shift in western life and industry, the Colorado River will decline to a point where it can no longer sustain that life style.
There are only 2 good things that I can find about growing old. One is, that past the age of 70 you normally don’t have to have colonoscopies anymore. ( You may laugh, but for us seniors, that’s huge.) The other is that past a certain point in age, one doesn’t have to make long range plans. Thus, if the Colorado runs out of water one day, there’s a good chance I may not be around to experience the ensuing hardships. As for my children and grandchildren, they all live on the East Coast or the Pacific Northwest where water is not a problem. So let’s party-on like there’s no tomorrow which there won’t be sometime in the future. Hopefully past my time on this planet.