Settlers crossing the plains and mountains to get to the gold fields of Nevada had to find a way across the Colorado River, named for the thick red silt it carried from Wyoming to the Gulf of California.
Those early pioneers quipped that the Colorado was “too thick to drink and too thin to plow,” as noted in this week’s newspaper column, available online at The Ely Times and the Elko Daily Free Press.
According to Wade Davis’ recently published book, “River Notes: A Natural and Human History of the Colorado,” the region was then most inhospitable.
In 1857, Davis recounts, the War Department sent Lt. Joseph Christmas Ives up the Colorado from the Gulf of California in a stern-wheeler. He eventually ran aground in Black Canyon just south of where Hoover Dam is today.
Ives wrote of his experience: “The region is, of course, altogether valueless. It can be approached only from the south, and after entering it there is nothing to do but leave. Ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality. It seems intended by nature that the Colorado River, along the greater portion of its lonely and majestic way, shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed.”
Then came the dams, whose still waters gave the silt a chance to settle out and leave drinkable water. The question then was how to divvy up that water among the inhabitants of the booming West.
In 1922 the seven states along the Colorado formed the Colorado River Compact. Nevada was allowed only 300,000 acre-feet. Today the state has a population of 2.7 million with 2 million of those in Clark County alone, but the water allocation from the Colorado is still 300,000 acre-feet.
To create a safety net, the Southern Nevada Water Authority laid claim to 84,000 acre-feet of groundwater a year from four rural valleys in Lincoln and White Pine counties, creating a controversy that is expected to play out for years to come.
Davis writes: “Farmers in the Imperial Valley pay for water only $17 an acre-foot, allowing them to grow cotton, alfalfa, and rice in a desert where temperatures hover for days above 120°F and less than three inches of rain falls in a year.”
Therein lies the rub. The total costs for the SNWA water grab could reach as high as $2,000 an acre-foot.
A Bureau of Reclamation study released in December projects the demands on the Colorado will outstrip supply by 3.2 million acre-feet by 2060. The report looked at options for resolving the shortfall — including ocean and brackish water desalination, wastewater reuse and importation options. “Future planning will require careful consideration of the timing, location, and magnitude of anticipated future Basin resource needs,” the study breathlessly proclaims.
The Colorado has been named America’s Most Endangered River, reports Gary Wockner, director of the Save The Colorado River Campaign, breathlessly in an op-ed piece for the Las Vegas newspaper earlier this week. In some places the Colorado is drained dry, he claims, while in others its flows are so depleted fish and wildlife are endangered.
Wockner bemoans projects such as the Las Vegas water grab, as well as proposals for dams, reservoirs, pipelines and energy projects that he says will drain the last drops of the Colorado.
“The good news is the federal government has stepped up its efforts to address our endangered river,” Wockner cheers. “But now it’s time for Congress to get into the act, too. Congress needs to provide more funding for water conservation programs throughout the basin, needs to support investments to increase the efficiency of water projects that are already built, and needs provide funding to promote and protect the Colorado River itself.”
Not once do the aforementioned government study, Davis’ book or Wockner’s op-ed even hint at the most obvious solution: The free market.
Allow the municipalities, industries, farmers and ranchers with existing water rights to buy, sell and trade in an open market. Why would a farmer continue to grow rice or cotton with his $17 an acre-foot water, when he can sell it to the water authority in Las Vegas for, say, $200? Instead of allowing that allotment to flow through the dams and canals to Yuma, Las Vegas could take that share from Lake Mead.
No need for a water grab. Problem solved.