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Colorado River Day: Major Fail by Media and Conservationists

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Last Friday was Colorado River Day, as I was reminded by an email from Save the Colorado. So I have some interesting observations on the small flurry of media coverage, particularly with the recent news that Lake Mead hit a record low level (39% of capacity) this summer.

According to the Colorado River Day website, “This is a day on which people come together across divides in support of maintaining a sustainable Colorado River.” Yet as I perused a litany of opinion pieces and news stories, I found no mention of the unsustainable behavior that, unchanged, renders the myriad plans to “save the Colorado” mere band-aids that will not, over the long-haul, result in a sustainable river.

Gary Wockner is a wonderful Coloradan who heads a group called Save the Colorado. A review of the group’s messaging tells me it assumes the forecast population growth in the American West is a foregone conclusion. Population growth is mentioned rarely, and never filters into a discussion of solutions.

This deficit afflicted every news story I read. A very nice New York Times video by Carrie Halperin and Sean Patrick Farrell informs us that California is considering expanding the state’s reservoir system and desalinating seawater. No mention is made of the role of population growth in all this, or of the fact that California so far hasn’t even considered revising its growth-based economic development strategies.

Western Resource Advocates and American Rivers just released a “Groundbreaking Report Recommending Innovative Solutions Eliminating Western Water Shortages in the Colorado River Basin.” From the announcement:

“There is a widening water gap creating 3.8 million acre-feet of additional water needed to meet the needs of the growing population of the West. This is an enormous amount which, if not carefully managed, could deplete the river and dramatically alter the landscape of the seven basin states,' said Matt Rice, Director of Colorado Basin Programs for American Rivers."

Glory be. “Growing population” actually gets mentioned. But the report offers 5 major categories of solutions, none of which is to wean Western cities and states from growth addiction. The report estimates enough water can be saved to meet the projected growth in water needs in the 7 Colorado River basin states “for the next half-century.” Woo-hoo! If we manage the river PERFECTLY, and Mother Nature doesn’t surprise us too much, we can keep growing AND keep water in the river for another 50 YEARS. Now THAT’S SUSTAINABILITY! (Hopefully my sarcasm is over-the-top obvious.)

Everything I’ve read in recent weeks, even years, about the Colorado River would indicate that journalists, conservationists and policymakers are all blind to the growth addiction putting this major river at risk. I struggle to come up with a useful analogy. It’s like a drug addict who realizes the challenges and risks of his addiction, so he responds by seeking a job that pays enough that he can buy the drug, making sure he uses new syringes, and having a friend watch over him in case he ODs.

From one Save the Colorado email:

“At the same time that Lake Mead and the Colorado River are stretched beyond the breaking point, State officials in Utah still want to move forward with a massive new diversion out of the river to fuel and subsidize growth in Southwest Utah.”

Clearly Wockner recognizes the folly of such a plan. But does he address Utah's crazy idea that continued growth is a sustainable prosperity strategy? It could be that the idea of population stabilization or reduction is avoided because all the conservationists, all the policymakers, and all the journalists are under the mistaken impression that this is not possible. If that’s the case, we need a bold journalist to break the logjam. Head over to the website of World Population Balance and read Overpopulation is Solvable. Check out community planning consultant Eben Fodor’s study, Relationship Between Growth and Prosperity in 100 Largest U.S. Metropolitan Areas and write a story about how archaic economic development strategies are dooming us to future freshwater crises. Come on, write something new. Investigate. Be a journalist.

In an EcoWatch piece, Drought Drains Lake Mead to Lowest Level as Nevada Senator Calls for Government Audit, Save the Colorado’s Wockner wraps up with this rather obvious conclusion:

“…something needs to change to address the water supply threats, and something must change as soon as possible to arrest the continual decline of the health of the Colorado River. The system, and the health of the river itself, cannot be sustained the way it’s currently operated."

Is it ignorance, denial or political correctness? Why won’t he tell us the river cannot be sustained if Western cities and states continue to pursue and gauge their success by population growth?

Please vote to reflect your level of disdain for all this beating around the bush. And join the conversation; comment below. Maybe even kick in a tax-deductible contribution to sustain this non-profit project.

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  • Brian Sanderson
    Brian Sanderson Tuesday, 29 July 2014

    Dave, you ask:
    "Is it ignorance, denial or political correctness?"
    I don't know. But I suspect that it has something to do with the human capacity for delusion. The tendency for some (many, most?) people to believe what they prefer to believe rather than an inconvenient truth that stares them in the face.

    How do you overcome a delusion? Richard Dawkins had a go with "The God Delusion" and Christopher Hitchens with "God is not Great" --- but both of these authors knew very well that they were farting against thunder.

    The delusion that I object to is the one that tells us to "be fruitful and fill the earth" but offers no advice as to how "followers" should know when the earth has been filled... Perhaps the Pope might have a word with his boss and ask for some guidance on this matter?

  • Dave Gardner
    Dave Gardner Sunday, 03 August 2014

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