LAS VEGAS -- Rising demand and falling supply have water managers in the arid West projecting that the Colorado River won't be able to meet the demands over the next 50 years of a population of 40 million people and growing.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued what he termed "a call to action" Wednesday, along with a three-year study of the river and its ability to meet the future needs of city-dwellers, American Indians, businesses, ranchers and farmers in seven Western states.
The study found the population in the West could double, while today's drought-stricken Colorado River is expected to recover only about 85 percent of its historic flows.
"We are in a troubling trajectory in the Colorado River basin, as well as the Rio Grande basin," Salazar said about the findings of the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study.
"We need to reduce our demand through conservation," he said.
The government's top water official dismissed some ideas in the study as politically and technically impractical, including piping water from the nation's heartland and towing Arctic icebergs south to help thirsty cities such as Denver, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix.
But Salazar and Bureau of Reclamation officials warned that the Colorado River's historical 15 million acre-feet per year flow has been reduced by 12 years of drought to about 12 million acre-feet. An acre-foot can meet the water needs of up two families per year, officials say. The study projects that by 2060 the river flow could be 3.2 million to 8 million acre-feet short of regional needs.
Water interests and the states of Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming together lay claim to all the water in the river, and then some. Mexico also has a stake. Officials set new rules last month to share Colorado River water and let Mexico store water in Lake Mead, near Las Vegas.
Even before the report was released, some advocates criticized it as "fundamentally flawed" and based on inflated projections. "States cooked the books to show higher demand for water consumption to set up a federal bailout on expensive water projects," said Molly Mugglestone, director of advocacy group Protect the Flows.