Land & Environment

Colorado River Conservation Efforts 'Too Disjointed' says USU Scholar

USU Professor Jack Schmidt is among authors of the Colorado River Research Group's newly released report citing 'disjointed’ management of the beleaguered river’s environmental resources.

Environmental protection of the Colorado River would be much more effective if existing multi-million dollar conservation programs treated the 1,450-mile-long river as a single, integrated system.

That’s the conclusion of a newly released report, “Prioritizing Management and Protection of the Colorado River’s Environmental Resources,” by the Colorado River Research Group, which includes Utah State University professor Jack Schmidt.

“We need a basin-scale strategy, rather than the incomplete patchwork of largely uncoordinated efforts that’s currently in place,” says Schmidt, professor in USU’s Department of Watershed Sciences. “With an integrated effort, we can meet water supply needs and have a much healthier and restored river.”

In its report, the CRRG, a non-partisan group of scientists that describes itself as an “independent, self-directed team of veteran Colorado River scholars,” says the river is managed like a “plumbing system.”

“Basically, we’re withdrawing water to meet the needs of cities and agriculture and confronting the impacts of climate change on water supply for people, but treating the river’s ecosystem as an afterthought,” says Schmidt, who recently completed a three-year stint as chief of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center in Flagstaff, Ariz.

Nearly 40 million people in the southwestern United States and Mexico rely on the Colorado River and its tributaries for critical water and power. Originating from headwaters in the Rocky Mountains, water crosses the Colorado Plateau and winds southwesterly through the Grand Canyon to Mexico’s Sea of Cortez.

Currently, four federally funded programs, the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, the Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation program and the San Juan River Recovery Implementation Program focus on saving endangered species in upper reaches of the river system, while the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program concentrates on mitigating environmental impacts in the Grand Canyon and other areas downstream.

“But each of these programs implements environmental mitigation measures as secondary to meeting the large needs of agriculture, cities and industry,” Schmidt says.

He and fellow report authors assert consideration of environmental needs of the river as a primary consideration would allow river resources to be protected and enhanced at the same time human needs are considered.

“Since the construction of dams, the Colorado River will never be the same,” Schmidt says. “We need scientifically based restoration efforts and cooperation to save what’s left, and we need to work together with water supply problems to address all the issues of the river.”

Schmidt is a featured speaker during USU Research Office’s 2016 Sunrise Session Presentation Series in Salt Lake City. He presents “Utah and the Colorado River: The Past, The Present and the Future” Friday, Nov. 4, 2016.

Related links:

Contact: Jack Schmidt, 435-797-1791, jack.schmidt@usu.edu

Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517, maryann.muffoletto@usu.edu

Water from Lake Powell gushes into the Colorado River from Glen Canyon Dam during the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's 2008 high-flow experiment. USU scientist Jack Schmidt is among USGS scientists who designed the restorative floods. David Walsh/USBR.

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Rivers 72stories Conservation 44stories Restoration 30stories

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