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A new report confirms what we should already know: The Colorado River is in deep trouble



Longtime Las Vegans collect lists. Terrible, horrible lists of ways in which Las Vegas and Nevada are the worst or nearly the worst in every terrible, horrible, dangerous or sad way. Bottom of every good list, top of every bad list, etc.

Add one more to our litany of headaches. The river that supplies 90 percent of Las Vegas’ water supply is now officially the No. 1 Most Endangered River in America, according to the national American Rivers organization. American Rivers released its annual assessment this week with the Colorado River, which feeds the dwindling Lake Mead, on top of the bad list.

The problem is simple. There’s more water coming out of the river than is going into it. That’s been the situation for about a decade, but climate change and drought are exacerbating the imbalance.

“The Colorado River is indeed the No. 1 most endangered river in America this year,” says Matt Rice, Colorado River program director at American Rivers. “The threats have been well documented. … The Colorado River is running dry, from its headwaters to the Delta, where it no longer reaches the sea.”

Part of that documentation comes from the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which last year released a detailed picture of the supply and demand issues. For a more dramatic view of the problem, head down to Lake Mead and you can see the water levels falling, to about half of its full capacity.

“That study made it very clear that right now is the time to act,” Rice says. While he says there is no single “silver bullet” that will save the Colorado (and Las Vegas) from drying up, Rice says full federal funding for water conservation programs and re-evaluating the way we use water along the whole length of the river, from Wyoming to the country of Mexico, would be good starts.

According to the American Rivers report: “A century of water management policies and practices that have promoted wasteful water use have put the river at a critical crossroads. To address ongoing drought and increasing demand for water due to climate change, and to put the Colorado River on a path to recovery, the U.S. Congress must support robust funding of critical programs like WaterSmart that address water supply sustainability in the Colorado River Basin and across the West.”

“There’s a lot at stake here,” Rice says. And not just for Las Vegas. Some 36 million people, 4 million acres of agriculture providing 15 percent of the nation’s crops and a $26 billion recreation economy are dependent on the Colorado and its tributaries.

“We can’t solve this problem in one year, but we want a commitment from the administration and Congress to begin our recovery,” he says. “There is a long history in the West of using our resources to the end. Our laws reflect that, when it comes to water, anyway. One of the main purposes of this report is to create an awareness of the importance of shifting that approach.”

What won’t solve the Colorado’s problems will be more dams, reservoirs that allow water to evaporate and expensive pipelines, he says. Cost-effective conservation and efficiency for all users, agricultural and municipal, will be the key to addressing the issue. Las Vegas has done some important conservation work that other users should emulate, he says — Denver, which also relies on river water, is now instituting the time- and frequency-of-use rules that Las Vegas has had for a decade — but Southern Nevada can still do more.

The report from American Rivers doesn’t go into one issue in detail that also threatens the river — pollution, especially from the development of mining and oil production in the river basin. Last week, state regulators and industry officials gave us an Earth Day present, one week early: They reported that 10,000 gallons, maybe much more, of liquefied natural gas products, including benzene, a known carcinogen, spilled and contaminated groundwater near a tributary of the river in the state of Colorado. Oil and gas development has been proposed throughout much of the river basin.

Rice says that the danger of pollution is magnified by the already precarious condition of the river. “If you have a river on the margins, on the tipping point because it’s been tapped and diverted to its max, it’s not going to be able to respond to pollution events like the Parachute Creek event,” he says, referring to the affected tributary.

American Rivers is not alone in its effort to highlight threats to the Colorado. Organizations that are participating in this week’s press conference, scheduled to be held in Las Vegas, include conservation groups such as Save the Colorado and Protect the Flows, organizations representing agricultural interests such as the National Young Farmers Coalition, and Nuestro Rio, an organization that brings Latino and Hispanic communities to the table.

“Latinos and many others Westerners are passionate about the Colorado River. It has been at the center of Latino life in the West for centuries. An endangered Colorado River is not only a threat to our drinking water, farming and recreation, it is a threat to our very heritage,” Andres Ramirez, Nevada state director of Nuestro Rio, says. “We are ready to do whatever we must to help manage the supply and demand imbalances we face, and bring our beloved river back to vitality for our health and enjoyment, and for future generations to enjoy as we have.”

In an interview in his downtown Las Vegas offices last week, Ramirez says Latinos get the issue. Since the Nuestro Rio campaign kicked off a year ago with an East Las Vegas event, people of Hispanic heritage have told him that the issue is clear: The river needs help, and we need to supply that help.

It’s not, perhaps, as clear to the rest of the community.

Ramirez says there’s room for hope. Interstate water-sharing and banking agreements, including an agreement with Mexico, a river user, to bank water in Lake Mead last year, are easing some of the worst impacts of drought and overuse. Meanwhile, other users among the seven basin states are finding ways to cooperate and preserve water.

But the positive work hasn’t ended the threat, Ramirez emphasizes “Worst case scenario? We do nothing. The river runs dry. And we have economic collapse.”