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He adds that he and other council members “have stood up to the developers” by requiring them to pay fees to expand the city’s fire and police departments.
The fast-growing area east of the city of Riverside has developed groundwater problems because of intensive use, including that in San Jacinto, confirms Peter Odencrans, spokesperson for the Eastern Municipal Water District, which supplies a half-million people, a number expected to double. To combat falling water levels and degrading aquifers, the district is purchasing water from the Metropolitan Water District to refill depleted underground aquifers. The water comes from both Northern California and the Colorado River. Only Northern California water will be used to refill the aquifer under San Jacinto. The district also has been investing in facilities expensive to build and operate that remove salt from groundwater that has gone brackish due to overuse.
Even so, he notes, the district has been appealing for voluntary conservation to prevent pressure drops from occurring on the hottest days of summer, when water demand peaks. “We’ll probably ask for conservation this summer,” he says.
High in Grand County, Colorado, the river begins on the western slopes of Rocky Mountain National Park. In spring, the water melts off the snow-covered mountains, producing a sheet of water that flowed underfoot when I hiked there above the tree line.
Yet even here at the source, the river and its high mountain tributaries have long been dammed to supply water to the fast-growing Front Range cities that lie along the end of the nation’s high plains and at the eastern base of the Rockies.
Looking out from his office in the small town of Fraser, Colorado, Kirk Klancke sees the snow piled high. He manages the Winter Park West Water and Sanitation District, which services a town that swells in population when skiers come in the winter. Despite the snow, he is doubtful that the drought has ended. “Denver is dry as a bone,” he says.
Klancke, however, is most familiar with the Fraser River, which flows into the Colorado. He not only manages the town’s water along its banks, but is himself a recreational trout fisherman and has seen the changes in the river through his lifetime.
He thinks that the whole Colorado River system has become over-allocated in a relatively short time. Sixty percent of the water in the Fraser River, he says, is now piped to the Front Range cities. Across the western slopes of the Rockies, ranchers, farmers, small-town residents and local water managers are fighting to prevent further outflows over the mountains.
Recalling a time when President Eisenhower fished for trout in the streams and rivers of Grand County, Klancke says that all the water that fell in the Fraser River basin moved downstream to the mighty Colorado.
“Eisenhower fished in 100 percent flows,” he says. “At 60 percent [piped over the mountains], we can barely keep trout alive." Not enough water flows to scour deposits of silt off the river bottom, smothering the freshwater invertebrates that trout feed on. In addition, the lower flows have resulted in warmer water, which leaves trout struggling to survive.
With the Denver region expected to grow by 2 million people over the next 15 years, according to Klancke, it will be necessary for cities there to take drastic steps to conserve water, including changes in landscaping and outdoor water use. “Denver uses so much water to water Kentucky bluegrass,” he says. “We will be in a drought year every year because of the population increase.”
Along the Gunnison River, which flows into the Colorado at Grand Junction, farmers and ranchers live in increasing fear of a call on the river by lower-basin states should drought persist.
A call likely would require ranchers to thin herds and farmers to cut down orchards, says Steven Glazier, who directs the High Country Citizens Alliance. Recovery, he says, would take years because new cattle would have to be bought and raised and new fruit trees planted.
Even without a call, he notes, the state of Colorado is projecting that demand for water will outstrip supply statewide by 20 percent within 20 years. “Colorado has a similar dynamic to California,” says Glazier.
The river begins in Colorado, but ends in Mexico, and here is where the increasing overuse of water is most apparent. To learn how the lack of fresh water is affecting people in the Mexicali Valley and on the river delta, I travel to Yuma to meet Francisco Zamora, who has a doctorate in resource management and works for the Sonoran Institute in Tucson. The Mexico City native has worked on issues related to the river delta since 1998 and has been trying to obtain increased freshwater flows across the delta to promote wetlands and native-vegetation restoration projects that would help wildlife flourish and could boost the tourism economy for the Mexican people.
I follow Zamora west along Interstate 8 through the low desert, where tourists race all-terrain vehicles up and down the sand dunes. Zamora and his colleagues are trying to promote a new brand of “geo-tourism” in which people experience nature in a gentler way than what we see from the freeway. We enter Mexicali, where there is little vegetation.