Democracy at work in Colorado River fight, professor says
The Colorado River isn't the nation's biggest or longest, but so many people depend on it that it is becoming increasingly crucial, according to a USU assistant professor in the geography and earth resources department.
Jack Schmidt spoke Monday to students and faculty about the future of the Colorado River.
The use of the river's water and surrounding lands are a source of controversy across the West, he said. About one-half of Utah is in the Colorado River system, said Schmidt.
Managers and the public will have to make some important decisions in the next few years.
"What contributions might you make?" he asked students.
Much of the controversy has arisen because of high population growth in the lower end of the Colorado River basin. Phoenix, Las Vegas and Tucson, are among the largest and fastest growing cities in the country, he said. Primary use of available water is not for these cities, but for users out of the system in southern California, said Schmidt.
The Colorado River is not one of the 25 largest rivers in the country, Schmidt said.
"What's important is so many people depend on it, and it flows through some of the grandest country on earth," Schmidt said.
The first canals on the Colorado were built at the turn of the century near Mexico to bring water back to the Imperial Valley in Southern California, he said. At that time, people lived by the "first in time, first in right" water management policy. This meant that those who used the water first (with the exception of native Americans) were given prior appropriation, Schmidt said.
Many people in Utah have traditionally blamed California, he said. "This is a view that is becoming increasingly outdated," he added.
Californians were the first to use the water, but gave up their prior appropriation with the building of Lake Mead, he said.
Hoover Dam was the first large dam built on the Colorado river during the Depression. It was also the beginning of the first wave of dam building across the nation, said Schmidt. California's voluntary loss of prior appropriation is known as the Colorado River Compact of 1927, when Utah and other states negotiated water rights with California, he said.
California is now fighting to get much of its water back. They have the population and votes that may be needed to change the Colorado River Compact.
"That's democracy," said Schmidt.
The water that is diverted into California is mostly used for agriculture, he said. The water there is used to grow tomatoes, lettuce, and other food products. Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado use their share of water for alfalfa.
"Which (of these) is more important," Schmidt asked.
Reallocation of water is just one of the many issues surrounding the Colorado River system. Environmental issues are often the most controversial and is where the media is focusing its attention. "We would have more dams today if it wasn't for national environmental groups," he said. "The Sierra Club has fought against dams throughout the Colorado River basin."
"We are still arguing about how to operate the dams," he said referring to the 1996 artificial week-long flood out of Glen Canyon Dam on Lake Powell. Artificial floods are used to simulate what would naturally occur if the dams did not exist throughout the river.
A lot of local interest has been placed on Lake Powell, with the proposal to remove Glen Canyon Dam, he said. Glen Canyon produces 10 times more electricity than Flaming Gorge Dam in northern Utah, Schmidt said.
Some 30 to 40 percent of all electricity in Logan comes from the Federal System of Dams, with 75 percent of that electricity coming from Glen Canyon, Schmidt said.
"A lot of people use that electricity," he said.
"We're in the middle of making a tremendous number of changes in how the Colorado system is managed,"Schmidt said. Mangers will need to understand all users and the history surrounding the Colorado River.
"We are no longer under the tyranny of engineers (dam builders) telling us how we should use our water, " Schmidt said.
"The issues of the Colorado River are infinitely complex, if we don't understand this then we will never be able to make the contributions we need to," he said.
Archived Months:September 1998