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Why New Infrastructure Is a Smart Investment for the Colorado River

Innovative projects are key to improving the resilience of water supplies in the basin’s seven states, writes Ted Kowalski of the Walton Family Foundation’s Colorado River basin initiative.

Written by Ted Kowalski Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Bruce Wilcox of the Imperial Irrigation District looks down at cracked, exposed Salton Sea lakebed near Niland, Calif., in April 2015. The lake’s shrinkage has exposed about 25 square miles of salt-encrusted lakebed since 2003, with more likely to come. The resulting dust is often blamed for exacerbating respiratory illnesses in the region.AP/Gregory Bull

The Colorado River flows 1,500 miles (2,400km) – through rises and rapids, valleys and deserts, all the way to Mexico.

But this river of critical importance to our country is facing incredible challenges.

The Colorado River provides water to almost 40 million Americans, but it is still reeling from the impacts of a 17-year drought that has drained most of Lake Mead and left Arizona and Nevada on the brink of imposed shortages.

The struggle we face to protect the Colorado River basin is one of necessity, not choice.

Every drop of the river is already accounted for, and due to a variety of factors – including a growing population and rising temperatures – the river’s flows are projected to decline 20 percent by 2050. Five of the top 10 fastest-growing states in the country are within the Colorado River Basin, and they depend on a reliable and healthy Colorado River.

If we are to avert a crisis and ensure a healthy and secure water supply for the years to come, we need to have a serious discussion about how best to manage the finite water we have available.

Through the Walton Family Foundation’s Colorado River basin initiative, my colleagues and I seek creative solutions to ensure the Colorado River basin has the water supply it needs. We know that smart, innovative conservation solutions benefit both the environment and the economy – and what is good for the Colorado River is good for its people, too. Because when the river benefits, so do the communities and economies that rely on it.

This means that we must enter a new phase of collaboration, innovation and flexibility when it comes to how we use and manage our water – one that must include robust support for smart water infrastructure projects.

There has been a lot of talk recently about the critical need to fund infrastructure projects in the United States. But amid all of the talk – from the Trump administration and Democratic leaders alike – politicians have put too little focus on the importance of smart water infrastructure to the people and economy of the West, and the Colorado River basin in particular.

To elevate water infrastructure in these ongoing discussions, we developed a white paper on the Colorado River’s Critical Infrastructure Needs.

Each of the projects highlighted in the paper offers benefits for both people and the environment. They can create jobs and enhance local communities, prevent hazardous situations from developing because of aging infrastructure, and underscore the importance of using water efficiently. These projects, if funded and implemented effectively, can improve the resilience of water supplies both within the basin states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, as well as across the entire West.

The infrastructure projects span sectors and communities and include support for ongoing projects – especially those connected with tribal water rights settlements. A great example is the Gila River Indian Community Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project, a water delivery system designed to allow full use of water belonging to the Gila River Indian Community for irrigation of lands within the reservation in south-central Arizona.

Much of the community’s traditional agricultural economy has suffered from loss of both surface and ground water supplies over many decades. The construction and completion of the irrigation project will provide more reliable supplies for existing agricultural land, address natural resource concerns including water conservation and soil and water degradation, allow for re-irrigation of lands historically farmed by community members that have fallen fallow as a result of water scarcity, and replace inefficient, leaky existing facilities. Critically, the project includes habitat restoration components and can help restore the Gila River, the community’s namesake.

Other projects highlight partnerships among multiple stakeholders, like the Salton Sea Management Program. The Sea (a misnomer – the body of water is California’s largest manmade lake) is a looming human health and environmental crisis. As water recedes due to rising temperatures and reduced water flowing from the Colorado River, the dry lake bed is exposed. Years of accumulated fertilizers and other agricultural chemicals that leeched into the sea from nearby farms are being released into the air as dust. The toxic pollution is plaguing nearby communities and has caused an asthma crisis among residents.

The proposed Salton Sea Management Program provides a road map for the state of California, local agencies, national conservation organizations and the federal government to ensure that essential dust suppression and habitat restoration projects will be completed within the next 10 years. That timeline is necessary in order to protect the public’s heath, maintain the region’s natural resources and safeguard the region’s farming economy.

The Gila River Indian Community Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project and Salton Sea Management Program show how conservation can help preserve economic security and quality of life. Conservation solutions that make economic sense are often the most practical and impactful. In the Colorado River basin, we know that implementing these solutions is possible. We’re committed to helping to support their success.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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