Posted on Nov 22, 2023
At our meeting on November 22, RCFC member Dave Stewart gave us the world premiere of his video “Can Rotary’s 4-Way Test Save the Colorado River?”  The video resulted from a District/Club grant of $4000 which was grown to $50,000.  The video can be seen on YouTube at this link: or search for Crisis on the Colorado (the title of the video) or Dave Stewart Colorado River.  Dave’s vision is that the video will be offered to the 3000 Rotary Clubs in the Colorado River Basin along with the assistance of experts (either by Zoom or on-site) to move forward with addressing the crisis.
In the video, a suite of experts, including Dave himself, outlined the issues affecting the Colorado River including availability of water in the river, the size and diversity of uses of water from the river (the amount of water being drawn from the river exceeds any reasonable expectations of future replenishment), the possible solutions to that problem, and the various knock-on effects of the various solutions.  It is obvious that some of the uses are going to have to be reduced either by increased conservation and more efficient use or, without a series of compromises, elimination of some of the uses.  The video concludes with the suggestion that Rotary’s 4-Way Test can provide a framework for arriving at the compromises that will be necessary. 
Some take-aways from the video: 
The Colorado River Compact, agreed on in 1922 (in negotiations between one negotiator and one engineer from each of the seven states), was based on the understanding that they were dealing with a river with some 21 million acre feet of water per year.  Unfortunately, the negotiations excluded the Native Tribes who depend on the river, Mexico, and the environment.  Also, the river now has about half that volume. 
With the reduction in summer precipitation from the current megadrought, the soil dries out in the summer so that about half of the meltwater from the spring thaws now soaks into the ground rather than running off into the river. 
Of the water from the Colorado River, some 80% of it is used in agriculture so a reduction in use of some 2 – 4 million acre-feet per year (which is the amount that is currently being requested) will have to come significantly from agriculture.  The Doctrine of Prior Appropriation (First in Use, First in Right, the present approach in the basin) complicates the issue of making needed compromises. 
One of the first, and perhaps easiest, approach to addressing the issues is conservation.  One spectacular example is that the city of Las Vegas, over a span of a few years, reduced usage from 135 gallons/person/day to 35 g/p/d.  One of the experts in the video suggested that the 9 million acre-feet per year available is enough water, we just need to manage it better. 
The thought is that using the 4-Way Test as a framework guiding negotiations will result in everyone benefitting. 
Would it be possible to move significant agriculture to a wetter place, say Missouri?  Dave did not address issues of soil quality, climate, and other issues associated with that kind of change.  He did suggest that farmers are being encouraged to change to higher-value crops that use less water.  He also said that, of a glass of water consumed in Fort Collins, 50% of it came from the Colorado River; that’s some 250,000 acre-feet per year. 
What about piping in water from the East (since oil is routinely piped over great distances) or increased desalination?  Basically, moving water those distances is too expensive.  Desalination, while also expensive, has become much more efficient so that, whereas it used to be 60% efficient, it is now around 98% efficient. Dave commented that some oil-field water can be treated and augmented to be used for some purposes. 
What about increasing the use of desalinated water for agriculture?  Although some of that is going on, and much of agriculture can use water with some 2000 to 2500 parts per million salt (compared with maybe 30 ppm in potable water), the use of such salty water reduces production but uses more expensive water. 
What impact do wet years have?  They actually contribute to making the problem more difficult to solve since the reduce the apparent urgency. 
What is the relationship between surface water and ground water?  In the four upper-basin states, ground water is treated as tributary to surface water so usage can be treated across the board.  In the three lower-basin states, ground water is treated separately from surface water and use of ground water is essentially unregulated.