Lords of Yesterday and Colorado River Basin water

Glen Canyon Dam

Be grateful if you live where there is ample water. Here in the American Southwest, there is less water due to climate change, more people, and continued battles over who gets what water from the all-important Colorado River. The good news is residents of the Southwest are using much less water per capita and overall. Cities like Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Tuscon now use less water in total than two decades ago, despite much larger populations. Vegas is a world leader is reusing water and has been toilet-to-tap for years. Conservation works. However, old ways of thinking still hamper changes that must happen.

The great Charles Wilkinson, in his book Crossing the Next Meridian, called them “the lords of yesterday”, an outdated set of resource extraction ideas stubbornly resistant to our new realities. The “lords” are embedded in outdated laws that allocated more water than the river has, and in outdated expectations by communities around the basin that the water promised by those laws will someday trickle through their irrigation headgates or flow from their taps.

At the scale of the Colorado River Basin, we have largely abandoned the lords, in long and difficult revisions to the old “Law of the River” rules that, if we can actually figure out how to implement them, will bring the basin’s water use more closely into line with hydrologic reality.

Op-ed by Daniel P. Beard. He served in several Democratic administrations, is former former Commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation author of “Deadbeat Dams: Why We Need to Abolish the Bureau of Reclamation and Tear Down Glen Canyon Dam.” He agrees that the lords of yesterday need to be replaced, and proposes radical solutions.

Even more absurd, our water leaders have become obsessed with the dwindling water level in Lake Powell, which serves as a water storage facility for the states of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. This reservoir – created by Glen Canyon Dam – was conceived and built back in the 1940s and 1950s when the law, science, and flow of water in the Colorado River was radically different. Seventy-five years ago, there were no American environmental laws to protect the Colorado River, the science of climate change did not yet exist, and the flow of water in the Colorado River was much higher.

We propose taking three bold actions:

Double-down on water conservation, which is fast, cheap, and easy, and won’t result in an environmental group suing to stop cities that are trying to build new river-destroying dams and diversions.

Stop all the new proposed dams and diversions in the Colorado River basin. As the old saying goes, “when you’re in a hole, stop digging.”

Finally, we should recognize that Lake Powell is no longer needed. The lake should be drained and the water sent downstream to Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam, which is now less than 40 percent full. In addition, we should permanently remove Glen Canyon Dam.