Environmental Law Enforcement Helps Avert Shortage on the Colorado River

Gary Wockner, Executive Director, Save The Colorado River Campaign

Gary Wockner, Executive Director, Save The Colorado River Campaign

News reports this week celebrated as the federal government announced that there would not be an official “shortage” on the Colorado River in 2016 or 2017 that would force California, Nevada, and Arizona to divert less water out of the river. Several journalists pointed to “water conservation” as the reason that this shortage was averted, and that is partially true. The lower basin states have made some good progress on their collaborative plan to take less water out of Lake Mead, thus helping to avert the shortage.

But what was completely missed in the news coverage was the role of good old-fashioned law enforcement by environmental groups to also help avert the shortage. Over the past five years, Save The Colorado has led or supported multiple law enforcement activities that helped keep dramatic amounts of water in the Colorado River. For example.

1. Flaming Gorge Pipeline: In 2013 and 2014, we helped lead a coalition of groups that enforced laws that helped stop the permitting process for this project that proposed to take 250,000 acre feet of water out of the Green River before it flows into the Colorado River.

2. Fontenelle Dam Re-Engineering: In 2015 and 2016 Save The Colorado has been bird-dogging this proposal by the State of Wyoming to divert a new 125,000 acre feet of water out of the Green River. Members of Congress are trying to move a bill that would allow WY to divert more water; Save The Colorado will be working to stop the project if it moves into the permitting process.

3. Moffat Collection System Project: Over the last few years, Save The Colorado has helped lead the fight to stop this Denver Water project as it moves through the permitting process with the Army Corps of Engineers. Proposing to take a new 15,000 acre feet out of the Colorado River, the project violates federal laws and would pour tens-of-thousands of tons of cement across South Boulder Creek in Boulder County, Colorado.

4. Windy Gap Firming Project: Over the last few years, Save The Colorado has led the fight to stop this disastrous project that proposes to divert a new 30,000 acre feet of water out of the Colorado River to slake the thirst of bluegrass lawns in Northern Colorado.

5. Gila River Diversion: Save The Colorado provided support to the groups in New Mexico that are fighting this proposed diversion of 12,000 acre feet of water out of the Gila River before it flows into Arizona and meets the Colorado River. As the project moves through the permitting process, we will stand by to support our New Mexico colleagues again.

6. Lake Powell Pipeline: Save The Colorado has supported and joined a broad coalition of groups in Utah to help stop this proposed project that would take a new 86,000 acre feet of water out of the Colorado River. As the project moves through the permitting process, we will be joining our Utah colleagues, locking arms to protect the river and stop this project.

7. Green River Nuclear Power Plant: Save The Colorado has provided support to HEAL UTAH and other groups in Utah that are fighting this project that proposes to divert a new 53,000 acre feet of water out of the Green River.

8. Colorado Water Plan: We’ve also bird-dogged several additional proposals including large new diversions that are being discussed in the Colorado Water Plan process.

Americans are very lucky. In the 1960s and 1970s our forefathers and foremothers in Congress had the extraordinary vision to create and pass exceptional environmental laws to protect the public’s health and environment. Those laws — including the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act — gave the public not just the right, but the responsibility, to enforce the law as these types of water projects move through the permitting process. Further, if we the public believe that the federal government has broken the law, Congress gave us the right and responsibility to enforce the law in federal court.

By bird-dogging every one of these projects through the permitting process, Save The Colorado is proud to be a law-enforcement organization as our forefathers and foremothers envisioned. We intend to continue our law enforcement activities as long as the laws continue to be threatened or broken.

Yes, a shortage on the Colorado River was averted in 2016 and 2017. But, let’s tell the whole story — if every project above would have been permitted and built, at least another 500,000 acre feet of water (that’s 162 billion gallons, equaling 5 feet of water in Lake Mead, every year) would have been diverted out of the river and not flowed into Lake Powell and potentially Lake Mead. The facts are clear: Environmental law enforcement helps avert a shortage on the Colorado River.

Gary Wockner, PhD is Executive Director of the Save The Colorado River Campaign. Contact: Gary@SaveTheColorado.org

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