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July 30, 2014

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Coalition of conservation groups dubs Colorado ‘America’s most endangered river’

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Steve Marcus

A view of the Las Vegas Boat Harbor at Lake Mead Wednesday, April 17, 2013. American Rivers, Nuestro Rio, Protect the Flows, and the National Young Farmers Coalition held a news conference at the marina to announce the Colorado River as America’s #1 Most Endangered River of 2013.

Colorado River Most Endangered of 2013

A view of the Las Vegas Boat Harbor at Lake Mead Wednesday, April 17, 2013. American Rivers, Nuestro Rio, Protect the Flows, and the National Young Farmers Coalition held a news conference at the marina to announce the Colorado River as America's #1 Most Endangered  River of 2013. Launch slideshow »

Bob Gripentog is watching the snow reports in the western Rockies closely, and it is not because he wants to slip in one last ski trip before the season ends.

In a conference call with a Bureau of Reclamation official on Tuesday, the owner of the Las Vegas Boat Harbor on Lake Mead said he was alerted that water levels could drop significantly next year if there is no more snow before summer.

“If we don’t get more snow on the western slopes, Lake Powell won’t reach certain levels. That means we could see a 25-foot drop in Lake Mead next year,” Gripentog said.

So, it was no surprise that Gripentog played host Wednesday to a coalition of water conservation advocates at the boat harbor for a news conference in which American Rivers named the Colorado River America’s most endangered river in a report it puts out annually.

“Today the river is so dammed, drained and diverted that it dries up to a trickle before reaching the sea. Overallocation and drought have placed significant stress on water supplies, river health and fish and wildlife. To underscore the immediacy of the problem, the basin is facing another devastating drought this summer,” said Matt Rice, Colorado director for American Rivers.

In December, the Department of the Interior released a long-term study showing that current and future demands on the Colorado River far outweigh projected water supply.

With a basin that winds its way through seven states, the Colorado River is one of the most vital sources of water in the western United States and northern Mexico. The river once emptied into the Sea of Cortez, but today it dies out before reaching a previously thriving fishery there.

The river and its tributaries provide water to approximately 40 million people for municipal use and also supply the water used to irrigate approximately 4 million acres of land. At least 22 Native American tribes, seven national wildlife refuges, four national recreation areas – including the Lake Mead National Recreation Area – and 11 national parks depend on water from the river.

Alison Gannett, of the National Young Farmers Coalition, owns Holy Terror Farm in central Colorado and said that if the water outlook for next year does not improve, her family may have to shut down the farm, which it also uses to grow all its own food, for a season.

“There is the whole premise that it’s use it or lose it,” Gannet said of water rights in Colorado. “Last year was a very big drought year and our water commissioner would come by and be like: ‘You guys are using enough water.’ My thought was that I would leave some in the basin for the next farmer, or for the fish, the wildlife.”

But the water commissioner told Gannet that if the farm did not use all of its allotted water, another farmer could apply for the water and it could be reallocated.

“There is no incentive to use less water; in fact there is a disincentive,” she said. “A good strategy would be more flexible and give people the opportunity to return excess water (into the system).”

Gripentog echoed Gannett’s thought on the need for banking of water rights, and he also pointed out that thousands of jobs depend on the river’s health.

If Lake Mead were to fall an additional 25 feet next year, Gripentog said his marina would have to be moved farther out into the lake in a series of 10 steps costing roughly $100,000 each.

“We are definitely taking some steps in the right direction. But is more needed? Absolutely,” he said. “We need programs in the Southwest that get people to think about using water more cleanly and with less waste.”

Gripentog represented Protect the Flows, a network of businesses that depends on the Colorado River, and the coalition also included Nuestro Rio, a conservation advocacy group that focuses on the importance of the river to the Hispanic communities in the Southwest.

“Yes, we are in a drought. Yes, water levels are low.” said Nuestro Rio state director Andres Ramirez. “But we have the opportunity, we have the ideas, and we have the wherewithal to be able to change this.”

As part of the initiative American Rivers and the coalition members are driving a campaign to urge Congress to support conservation in a variety of ways, including providing “robust” funding of Bureau of Reclamation's WaterSmart and Title XVI Water Reclamation and Reuse programs.

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