The Colorado River District held the 2023 Annual Water Seminar. The seminar title inferred that they were seeking durable solutions for the Colorado River, yet they never asked the attendees for their durable solution suggestions.
It seems that the goal of the seminar was to present durable solutions focused on conservation which they have developed. The apparent secondary goal was to pat their own backs about their accomplishments and how much money they are spending.
Durable solutions focused on conservation are nice but are not really a solution. Conservation is just a method of enduring the problem, but does not fix the problem, so is not a solution. None of the discussion touched on fixing the root cause of the problem. So, in this page we will look at the root cause and how it can be resolved.
Root cause analysis (RCA) is a method of problem solving used for identifying the underlying causes of faults or problems. The goal is to prevent the reoccurrence of problems by addressing these underlying issues rather than just treating the symptoms.
Root Cause Analysis.
Before a solution to a problem can be enjoined, one must understand the cause of the problem. The flow of the Colorado River was predictable for decades, but now the river seems to be diminishing. It is not producing the same amount of water as it used to.
Dry tidal estuary of the Colorado River delta in Baja California, Mexico, on Thursday, 23 June 2022.
Human interference in the river is the root cause of this problem. The entire flow of the river is being diverted for human use. Much of the water is being transported out of the watershed, and every drop of the river’s water is being used which leaves the Colorado River dry at its delta. The Colorado River Delta was once a verdant 9,000 square mile oasis in the Sonoran Desert. This delta is now a 9,000 square mile desert wasteland. Gone is the lush green space and also most of the life associated with it. All that is left is sand and the limited, hardy life suited for dry conditions. This is manmade Climate Change on a micro level which has the domino effect of exacerbating Climate Change in the southwest USA.
As expected, creating a 9,000 square mile desert is going to affect the local weather. But unexpectedly it also broke a major hydrologic cycle which supplied water to the Colorado River. Over simplified, this water cycle begins in the Colorado River Delta where the Colorado River kept Laguna Salada, Baja, MX supplied with water. Water evaporated from Laguna Salada and moved north to the Salton Sea, where it again evaporated and moved north to Death Valley. Once in Death Valley it circulated around the Great Basin, eventually settling in the Great Salt Lake. Evaporation from the Great Salt Lake seeds the snow and rain for the Colorado, Green and Snake Rivers. The snow sent to the Colorado River watershed then supplied the river with its water which ultimately refilled Laguna Salada.
A Side Note.
The headwaters of the Colorado River are fed by multiple hydrologic cycles. All of them are needed to continue the historic river flow. With one of them broken, changes in the river’s flow are evident.
Stop taking water out of the Colorado River. That is obvious. If overdrawing water from Colorado River caused the broken water cycle, just stop doing it. Well, if that occurs a few billion people will be upset. Their lives and livelihood are contingent on that water being available just as it has been for the last 100 years. Yes, the water can be replaced with desalination plants, but the number of them needed is staggering, and the energy draw is huge. This seems unworkable as a solution.
Conservation! Yes, conservation is a good idea, but it is an interim fix, not a real solution. Conservation will make limited resources stretch further, but when the limited resource is diminishing, conservation is nearly futile. In this situation we have more and more people requiring water to live and work. The population of the region is growing from births, longer life, immigration, and relocation. It may seem obvious to move out of a water starved place, but people do not leave their homes easily, and new people just keep coming. So, the demand will increase while the supply is decreasing. Conservation can only accomplish limited relief and delay the inevitable.
Solution #3. The Real Solution.
Repair the Water Cycle. But how can man repair the water cycle without discontinuing what broke it in the first place?
Every hydrologic cycle is an engine which needs fuel to operate. The fuel for a water cycle is water, wind, and heat. The type of water is immaterial, so ocean water will work just as well as fresh water. Ocean water is in plentiful supply, but not in the right place to be of value, but we can move the water to a different place and make it work.
Laguna Salada, Baja California, Mexico, 2019
Move the Water! Step #1.
The optimum first phase is to refill Laguna Salada. Laguna Salada was once automatically refilled by the Colorado River, but since the water diversion began in the 1930s the water in Laguna Salada has been diminishing. The death of Laguna Salada was assured when California began diverting water meant for the Salton Sea, sending it west to their coastal cities. In 1999 Laguna Salada became officially dry and has had only limited water since. I think it is not a coincidence that the mega drought began in 2000. Because the water cannot be replaced from the Colorado River, a new source for water to fill Laguna Salada is needed. That source is the ocean, which is only 60 miles away, and a canal already exists. The flow direction of the Coyote Canal must be reversed so that ocean water will fill Laguna Salada. Once it has water it can begin to restart the broken water cycle.
Move the Water! Step #2.
The logical second phase is to refill the Salton Sea by extending the Coyote Canal from Laguna Salada to the Salton Sea.
The water in the Salton Sea is diminishing. This is not a new situation and is being encouraged by two things.
First, some of the water needed to fill the Salton Sea comes from rain and snow which is developed from evaporation from the south, from the Colorado River delta (virtually dry since 1940) and from Laguna Salada (virtually dry since 1999). Since both of these places are virtually dry, this moisture no longer migrates toward the Salton Sea.
Second, some water needed to fill the Salton Sea comes from farm runoff, but that has been diminishing since the 2003 Quantification Settlement Agreement. The settlement calls for the farmers to receive 20,000 acre-feet less each year. In 2013, about 100,000 acre-feet of water was diverted; in 2018, about 130,000 acre-feet of water was diverted; and by 2026, it will be 200,000 acre-feet of water being diverted per year. By diverting this runoff water from the Salton Sea, the Salton Sea will diminish.
California seems intent on drying up the Salton Sea. Over the last few decades, proposals have been presented to California, and pressure has been exerted on California to open a sea-water intake and increase the Salton Sea surface level back to the 1950s norm. All the proposals have been rebuffed. Instead, California has implemented dust mitigation projects which have the secondary effect of evaporating the water more quickly. All hope appears lost for those in the Imperial Valley whose lives are impacted by the diminishing Salton Sea.
California has allowed many lakes to go dry over the years, each one is an ecological disaster. To avoid another dry California lake, the Salton Sea can be saved by sea water importation via an extension of the Coyote Canal from Laguna Salada. This water path does not currently exist but is possible with about 30 miles of construction. There is one 150-foot hill in the way, but such things are easily surpassed. After that hill, it is all downhill to the Salton Sea. This type of construction is commonplace as is obvious while traveling America’s highways where rock-cuts abound.
Once the Coyote Canal is extended the level of the Salton Sea can be returned to its 1950s level. This increased surface level will encourage much more evaporation which will have multiple benefits. Some can be called Climate Justice because increased rain will be available for local indigenous peoples. By refilling the Salton Sea to its historic level, the local environment will be improved, but the saline level of the Salton Sea will not be greatly affected. Step #3 will reduce the salinity levels and make the Salton Sea a vibrant lake again.
The above steps #1 and #2 are inexpensive to implement and cost effective to operate. Once installed the water flow is all powered by gravity at no cost to anyone. Step #3 is not the same.
Pumping water great distances is not a new thing. It is done and has been done for many years. The difference is that this time it will help heal the environment.
Move the Water! Step #3.
Step #3 is the construction of pipes with pumps to transport Salton Sea water into Death Valley. This is an expensive project, but the costs can be funded by fees on water diverted from the Colorado River. Those who have been diverting water from the Colorado River have been doing so at no charge for decades. They have been misappropriating the natural resource and have caused damage to the climate as a result. Now is the time to begin charging a fee for Colorado River water. That fee can be used to fund the repair of the hydrologic cycle which they broke.
By pumping water into the Great Basin, the water cycle will be repaired. The Great Basin is an arid desert as a result of the Rain Shadow effect. Adding moisture into the Great Basin will cancel out the effect of the natural rain shadow and encourage the Great Basin to bloom. The additional moisture pumped into the Great Basin will circulate within the Great Basin and eventually make its way to the north and east sides of the Great Basin where some of it will migrate out and stock the snowpacks which create the water for the Colorado, Green, and Snake rivers. With the snowpacks once again full, the flow of the Colorado River will return to its former glory. The hydrologic cycle will have been repaired and the billions of people who rely on that water will be saved and secure for decades to come.
Durable Solution for Colorado River.
So, this is the best durable solution for the Colorado River. It repairs the root cause for the diminishing water supply. It repairs the broken water cycle. It will return fresh clean water to the headwaters of the Colorado River using mostly natural processes. All the costs, construction and operational, will be obtained from the users of the Colorado River Water. The operation can be managed by the Reclamation Bureau. This solution is durable because it will continue to operate as long as water is placed into the Great Basin.
Secondary Benefits Of This Durable Soultion.
There is a high number of secondary benefits to this durable solution.
The Cucapás are a group of Native Americans from Baja, California. The name translates to “cloud people,” which originated from the fog on the Colorado River. Cucapás were big on agriculture and also relied on fishing, hunting and gathering food.
Laguna Salada is the homeland for some Mexican indigenous people. The loss of the inland sea caused a loss of one of their livelihoods: Fishing. Refilling Laguna Salada with ocean water will return a food source to them. The refilled inland sea will also cool the local climate and return fresh clean rainwater to them. The increased rain will allow for increased farming in their local area.
During the 1950s and ‘60s, real-estate developers were touting the Salton Sea as a ‘miracle in the desert’, comparing it to the French Rivera. Multimillion-dollar yacht clubs, summerhouses, hotels and restaurants sprung up along the lake, transforming the area into a thriving waterside resort that welcomed 1.5 million tourists each year.
Increasing the level of the Salton Sea back to its 1950s level will have some great benefits. Like Laguna Salada, the refilled inland sea will cool the local climate and return fresh clean rainwater to them. The increased rain will allow for farming with less irrigation, and also better availability to drinking water for the inhabitants of Imperial Valley. A boon for Imperial valley is expected return of tourist trade related to water sports on the Salton Sea. Investment in the Salton Sea location was heavy in the 1950s and that could be expected to return in full force once the Salton Sea level is stabilized and the salinity is reduced. The water pumped out of the Salton Sea will reduce the salinity and move the salt and other pollutants into the Great Basin.
The Great Basin
There will be huge gains for the Great Basin. The added moisture will change the desert into fertile land over time. This will not be instant, but rather a process of flushing the gathered salt from the land and the infusion of plant matter into the soil as the new moisture encourages new plant growth. Some human efforts will be required to slow the flow of water to encourage water infiltration of the soil. The indigenous people living in the Great Basin who now have water trucked into the reservations will be able to collect rainwater and later draw water from the ground as the aquafers refill. The Gret Basin could become a new breadbasket for the USA as the increased moisture encourages farming.
Where southern Idaho is now very arid, the increased moisture in the Great Basin will easily migrate up to Idaho. The snake River Aquifer will be refilled because there will be less demand for drawing its water as a result of the increased rainfall. The farming opportunity in southern Idaho will be greatly improved.
The Rio Grande River begins in Colorado, like the Colorado River. Both begin in the same mountains.
Rio Grande River.
Yes, even the Rio Grande River will have increased flow because of the increase of water in the Great Basin.
Move the Water!
This durable solution, this ditch digging project, this engineering project, will have multiple benefits for billions of people.
Spread The Word.
Spread the word that the Salton Sea must be saved and refilled to its historic level. This will benefit the people of Coachella Valley as well as all the people in Southern California who live and work downwind of the Salton Sea. By refilling the Salton Sea many benefits will be delivered, including a positive attack on Climate Change.
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