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Why Water Infrastructure Investments are Essential to the Colorado River

June 7, 2017
Barry D. Gold
White paper identifies key projects to protect environment and economy of the West

The Colorado River is a place of unimaginable beauty – it flows furiously through rises and rapids, valleys and deserts 1,500 miles all the way to Mexico.

The river provides water to more than 30 million Americans and supports billions of dollars in economic activity across the West. But it is facing incredible challenges that, left unmet, put communities and the environment at unacceptable risk.

It is still reeling from the impacts of a 16-year drought that brought its basin states to the brink of shortages and is under constant pressure caused by population growth and climate change.

The struggle we face to protect the Colorado River basin is one of necessity, not choice.

While there has been a lot of talk recently about the critical need to fund infrastructure projects in the United States, these conversations so far have put little focus on the importance of water infrastructure to the people and economy of the West, and the Colorado River basin in particular.

As a way to help start the much-needed conversation on infrastructure, the Walton Family Foundation has released a Colorado River Critical Infrastructure Needs White Paper.

Each of the 15 projects highlighted creates jobs and enhances local communities, prevents hazardous situations from developing as a result of aging infrastructure, and underscores the importance of using water efficiently for the benefit of multiple purposes. They range from a groundwater replenishment project in Arizona to a project that would increase stability and storage capacity at a reservoir in Wyoming.


The projects are impressive in their diversity:

Municipal and Agricultural Projects
Several projects from the municipal and agricultural sectors will benefit urban and rural communities. For example, the Los Angeles Regional Recycled Water Program will provide drinking water to one of the country’s largest municipal areas by reusing wastewater and decreasing the region’s reliance on imported water from the Colorado River basin. In Utah, the Steinaker Service Canal Enclosure Project will rehabilitate infrastructure constructed more than 50 years ago to install a pipeline to convey irrigation water to farms with increased efficiency and improved water quality.

Ongoing Projects and Tribal Projects
The white paper underscores the importance of completing ongoing infrastructure projects – especially those connected with tribal water rights settlements. Those include the Gila River Indian Community Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project and the Navajo Gallup Water Supply Project. Completing these projects will: 1) provide necessary drinking and irrigation water to communities that need them; and, 2) ensure the security and stability that the tribal water rights settlements provide.

Aerial view of the Salton Sea and Imperial Valley, California.
Aerial view of the Salton Sea and Imperial Valley, California. View towards the north.

Multi-Use Projects
Certain projects highlight the valuable partnerships among multiple water use sectors, including conservation organizations. The Salton Sea Management Program is a good example of the complicated situation Southern California faces as the Salton Sea gradually recedes and becomes more saline. The Salton Sea is an important flyway for migrating birds and is located in an area with one of the nation’s highest levels of asthma due to poor air quality. Increased efforts by the state of California, local agencies, national conservation organizations and the federal government are necessary to ensure that essential dust suppression and habitat restoration projects will be completed within the next 10 years.

On a smaller scale, at the Wines Ditch in Colorado, a private landowner has teamed up with conservation organizations and the state of Colorado to rehabilitate a water diversion structure to allow continued delivery of irrigation water and increased recreational opportunities and restoration of riparian habitat.

Projects Supported by Public-Private Partnerships
The white paper shows the diversity of funding programs that are available and the broad variety of potential partnerships that can be developed. Federal funding from existing programs at the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture is essential for these projects to continue to protect the national benefits that derive from improved water infrastructure.


New and evolving programs such as the Bureau of Reclamation’s recent Public Private Partnership (P3) Request for Information provided insights into potential funding opportunities for some of the projects listed in the infrastructure report, including the rehabilitation of the Yuma Desalting Plant in Arizona and the replacement of the Colorado River Salinity Control Program’s Paradox Valley Unit in Colorado. Importantly, these projects can be developed in ways that support or improve the environment.

These projects can be constructed to generate stability and sustainability in the Colorado River basin for municipal, industrial, agricultural and recreational uses and for the natural ecosystem.

Taken together, the white paper identifies critic infrastructure work that has the potential to do enormous good for the environment and the economy – and to ensure the Colorado River basin has the water supply it needs for the future.

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