For hundreds of years, the Colorado River has provided vital water supply for seven states in the Western U.S. Wyatt sits down with USU researcher Jack Schmidt, Professor of Watershed Sciences and Janet Quinney Lawson Chair Member at the Center for Colorado River Studies.
Dr. Schmidt explains the essential functions of the river in the state of Utah and its role in the development of urban western areas. We discuss how it got the nickname "The River of Law," and dive into the past, and future of the Colorado River.
The Center for Colorado River Studies
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Wyatt: [00:00:00] The interview in this episode about the Colorado river was recorded on May 19th, 2020, if you would like to listen to content relevant to the current events surrounding the death of George Floyd. My team has selected some episodes from other podcasts. There are links in the description.
My name is Wyatt. And in this episode of, instead I interview Dr. Jack Schmidt, he's a professor in the department of watershed sciences at USU. He is the Janet Quinney Lawson chair in Colorado river studies and the leader of the Utah state university center for Colorado river studies. Maybe I should have watched more PBS.
So growing up, because I didn't know much about the Colorado river. Luckily Jack Schmitt is definitely the right researcher to answer all my questions. You know how they do controlled flooding, billowed, Glen Canyon dam to help improve the sandbars. He's one of the people who developed that idea. You might've seen some news articles in the past year about a possible pipeline being built.
It would take water from Lake Powell and provide it to St. George and the growing surrounding area. There's a lot of controversy around this possible pipeline. If you're anything like me and you don't understand the story, don't worry. Jack's going to fill us in today. You'll also learn the role of the Colorado river plays in Utah and the Southwest.
The future effects that could come from development and a changing climate. Jack helps me to understand the context of the environmental concerns people have about the river. And he also shares what gives him hope in the river's future. There's also been some incredibly ambitious ideas to bring more water to the Colorado river.
Jack talks about these two. All right. Get excited because you're going to learn so much. Here's my conversation with Dr. Jack Schmidt. So tell me a little bit about what the center for Colorado river studies does.
Jack Schmidt: [00:01:57] The center Colorado river studies was organized about four years ago. We support scholars.
We support graduate students either to obtain masters or PhDs in relevant science and social science activities related to the. Colorado river and its future. We undertake research primarily supported by foundations and, uh, governments to provide insight about the Colorado river and how it's managed.
We run outreach programs, uh, throughout the state to empower citizens. Of the state of Utah and surrounding areas to be more informed so that they can be more effective in voicing their opinions about how the river ought to be managed. So
Wyatt: [00:02:50] why does the Colorado river deserve the center? Like we don't have one for the Jordan river.
Jack Schmidt: [00:02:57] Sure. Um, Well, the Colorado river is certainly one of the iconic rivers of the world. And certainly of the United States, the amount of water flowing in the river is modest. It isn't even as large as well-known East coast rivers, like the Susko HANA or the Delaware or the Connecticut river, for instance, but it is.
Completely used 40 million people depend on the Colorado river for water supply water from the Colorado river is diverted to Southern California, central Arizona Southern. Nevada. It therefore provides water to some of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States, as well as being diverted to Mexicali and Tijuana in the winter between November and April, probably 90% of the green vegetables and salad greens consumed in the United States and Canada are grown in the far distant.
Southern end of the Colorado river basin, but at the same time that the river is a critical water supply. It also flows through some of the most iconic landscapes of the world. Certainly that. Uh, is the case with grand Canyon Canyon lands, national park, dinosaur national monument. And, um, the Southern Colorado plateau is the densest accumulation of national park units in the United States.
The river is critical habitat for fish. Uh, that live nowhere else on the planet. So it is this and it's reservoirs Lake Mead and Lake Powell are amongst the most popular recreational reservoirs in the United States. So it's a real. Collision between a critical water supply and a valued natural resource I'm from
Wyatt: [00:05:10] Idaho.
So I don't know a lot about the Colorado river. What kind of things do people, even in Utah, like, especially up here in Northern Utah, where we don't interact with it very often, what kind of things do we forget about or not realize
Jack Schmidt: [00:05:23] about it? Half of the state of Utah is within the Colorado river basin.
Flaming Gorge reservoir is among the most popular fishing waters in the state of Utah. That's on the green river, which is the largest and most significant tributary of the Colorado, um, St. George. And the growing areas of Southwestern Utah are on the Virgin river. The Virgin river flows into Lake Mead for Moab sits on the banks of the Colorado river.
A full-on half of the state is in the Colorado river base. And then additionally, some of the water supply. Of Utah County, salt Lake County, the Heber Valley Wasatch County. Part of that water supply comes from the Colorado river diverted into the Wasatch front through tunnels under the continental divide from strawberry reservoir and from the headwaters of the Dushane river.
Wyatt: [00:06:25] So I know that river are complicated and there's lots of things that are studied, you know, hydrodynamics, soils, erosion, the many species that live in it. What is your piece of researching rivers
Jack Schmidt: [00:06:38] in at this a long time? I did my dissertation research on how sandbars form along the Colorado river in grand Canyon national park and how they're affected by operations at Glen Canyon dam.
When I came to Utah state in the early 1990s, I began a research program on the green river, focused on the effects of Laming Gorge dam on the river, especially in dinosaur national monument. My expertise is essentially in a branch of river science related to the geological sciences. And I work in sediment, transport in the form of rivers and how the form of rivers changed.
About eight years ago, I took leave from the university for three and a half years. I served as chief of the us GS grand Canyon monitoring and research center. The primary science agency that provides guidance to how. Glen Canyon dam is operated a returned to the university in early 2015, which is when I created the center.
And now I lead a big program, work with a number of colleagues here and elsewhere on a project called the future of the color of river.
Wyatt: [00:07:58] The Colorado river. What things are you thinking of? What things are you concerned about? I guess that's a huge question. Yeah. Yep.
Jack Schmidt: [00:08:04] No, it actually, what drives it is actually pretty, um, pretty basic.
We know that with a warming atmosphere, the general climate of the planet is changing in a general sense. Wet areas are getting wetter and dry areas are getting dryer. Indication that the amount of water flowing in the river is decreasing. And every study that projects the future of the Colorado river projects, that there will be less water flowing in the river.
And it will progressively decline with time. So we have a river that is fully used, not one drop of water, makes it to the ocean. If there were more water in the river. More people would use it. You essentially have a pie that more people want pieces of the pie than the pie can provide. And yet the pie is going to get smaller.
The enormous issue that has a full attention of every water manager in the Colorado river basin is how do we allocate new agreements for the river in the face of a declining supply?
Wyatt: [00:09:25] In me oversimplifying this my brain. It feels like on one end, you have environmentalist who want to restore the river back to what it could be completely.
And then you, on the other end, you have industry and populations and development that want as much water out of it as possible. And you're stuck somewhere in the middle. How do you navigate that tricky ground?
Jack Schmidt: [00:09:46] I appreciate what you're saying. And I would suggest that it's not quite that simple. There are odd alliances of common values that exist in strange places.
If we sort of take a step back, the Colorado river is of course the river of John Wesley Powell, John Wesley Powell. Led a crew who had the wrong boats in the wrong place to explore the river. Uh, the last part of the lower 48 to be explored. So every river runner shirt carries with them. Pals journals.
And imagines the river. That was, I don't think there's really anyone who could conceive of turning the clock back to that time. In the late 18 hundreds, you would essentially have to depopulate Arizona and Southern California. So the real question is what kind of an environmental future can we have while also meeting society's needs and.
How much of a sacrifice would we have to make for some of those needs for environmental gains? What are those environmental gains? We want? The other grand complications are first. It's a binational river. We share this river with Mexico, and secondly, we share this river with many. Indian tribes and those native peoples are only now beginning to articulate their desires for how water is used and allocated.
And so it's a very complicated mix.
Wyatt: [00:11:35] There's lots of States in a row. I mean, what keeps one state from taking it all? What's the advantage of being upstream?
Jack Schmidt: [00:11:43] No, no, no. That's, that's. So, so two observations from a hundred years ago, the very first effort to quantitatively measure. Sure. And describe the Colorado river basin was a study by the U S G S published in 1916, which observed that more than 90% scent of the rivers flow at its downstream end comes from the far upstream.
Distant headwaters. So the Colorado river is first and foremost, a melted snow from the Rocky mountains flowing across the Colorado plateau to the deserts of the South. Uh, John Wesley Powell wrote that the Colorado river flows from the land of snow to the land of sun. Another old descriptor is that for more than a century, the Colorado river has been called America's Nile.
And that is exactly what it is. It is an exotic river that carries water from a distance source down to the deserts. When you think about your question, what does it mean to be upstream or downstream? And the basin think about the Nile. The Egyptian civilization is 4,000 years old. It's a civilization that entirely developed entirely dependent on developing the Nile river for agriculture and to create that powerful.
And multi-med millennial culture. Uh, the upstream. Areas where the water is generated. In that case, E equatorial Africa don't participate in the culture of Egypt at all, but the culture of Egypt and the foreign policy of Egypt has always been to make sure that all the water Egypt needs comes down stream to them in the.
Colorado river. The very first place that the Colorado river was developed was around 1905. When water began to be diverted from the river down near Yuma to be diverted into a dry clothes base and bring water there. The place was overrun by settlers and a place became the Imperial Valley. The most distant downstream end of the river is what was diverted first.
And so if we then turn to another sort of basic legal principle of water use in the West, the rules that we live by in the state of Utah is the rule of what we call prior appropriation first in time, first in, right. And it doesn't matter where. You live along the river? Well, in the early part of the 20th century as California, which was the most.
Economically powerful, fastest growing economy in the region set about developing the Colorado river. The upper basin States where all the water came from realized, Oh my goodness. If the rules for the Colorado river are the rules that we live by here in the state of Colorado. Or the state of Utah, we won't get to use any of the water because California will have all of the senior water rights.
So essentially, even though all the water comes from far upstream, If we live by the rules that we live by in Wyoming, that we live by in Colorado, that we live by in Utah. The rules that we all think are good enough for all of us. If we live by those rules, we wouldn't be using the Colorado river at all here.
They will, all those waters would go to California because California developed the river first. So essentially the Colorado river compact was an agreement that overturned the rules that everybody lived by and said, no, we're going to do things differently at the large scale of the Colorado river. And we're going to say that the upper basin States that developed far slower.
We're going to reserve the right and the opportunity to develop the river in the future because California had its entire infrastructure in place. By the 1940s, California was Egypt and California said about developing the Colorado river because it forms the Eastern boundary of the state and California had the economic ability to develop it.
Wyatt: [00:16:30] what percentage of the river. Does California soak up today.
Jack Schmidt: [00:16:34] So California uses about 30% of the natural flow of the river, California, as a, as a watershed contributes virtually zero to the flow of the Colorado river.
Wyatt: [00:16:48] So. Do you think they got the raw end of the deal or,
Jack Schmidt: [00:16:52] you know, everybody thinks they got the raw into the deal and there is a long history of the negotiation of the future of the river.
And what piece of the pie? Every state. Has gotten, uh, issues related to the Colorado river have gone to the Supreme court. Many times the Supreme court has ruled at many times. I, yeah, I'm not sure that I can answer that question, but California did get a substantial share.
Wyatt: [00:17:22] You've talked about that your kind of research background is in sediments.
It seems like your involvement. Also involves a lot of people and history and law. Um, how do you think of the science that you do or the work that you do with all of these intersections?
Jack Schmidt: [00:17:40] Full disclosure? I'm a recreational river runner. Some of my happiest days are, are running a boat down. One of the canyons in one of the river courses of the Colorado river.
I have. Uh, my own personal preferences, I view my values and my personal interests in sort of driving some of the questions that I choose to ask as a river scientist. I. Try to figure out how to make relevant, uh, measurements. I collaborate with federal agencies all the time and release reports that I hope are provocative and make people think.
And expand people's horizons about how to view how the river can be managed. I guess said I view my science as trying to be provocative and I have been very lucky. To work on a number of important issues. Um, I was part of a team of people about five of us who can sieved of the idea that releasing floods from Glen Canyon dam in a controlled way to rebuild sandbars would be a good idea.
And I was lucky enough. Uh, to be at the base of Glen Canyon dam when secretary Babbitt released the first controlled flood in March in 1996, controlled floods have been something that I have been part of, both in working with a few friends to just dream up the idea in the first place and then figure out whether that idea worked.
Wyatt: [00:19:35] Um, so these controls. Floods sounds like as big of an experiment as maybe somebody can have. Um, if I was imagining a before and after picture of the river, what kind of would be the difference?
Jack Schmidt: [00:19:50] You know? Uh, let me go back and tell you that in the mid 1990s, A couple of us organized a river trip. We took veteran river runners from decades before down the river, just so we could interview them about what the river looked like.
We called it the old timers trip. And we had, we had people in their eighties, um, who had run the river in the 1940s and 1950s and 1960s. I thought the most eloquent observation was when somebody said, well, you know, the river that I'm used to the old river was a river. Of Brown and RIT. And the river that of today is a river of blue and green.
The river is now crystal clear blue, rather than turbot Brown. The river used to be a river and a star Canyon of rock, you know, muddy. Roiling water. And now it's crystal clear blue, and it's got a healthy green corridor of riparian vegetation. Much of that vegetation is non-native, but it's very different.
And there are certainly, some people would say the river of today is more desirable than the river of old. And it's the river. And the river of old is a river that the national park services and trusted in to maintain and create. Um, the difference between the river, the river of the post dam era blue and green is it was blue and green was small declining, and always eroding sandbars.
Now it's a river of blue and green with big sandbars in different places that people camp on. Now, there are retails in that image that I just painted that. I'd have to take you down the river to show you that actually, you know, there are still things we're learning that it's not quite right. We need to manipulate the flows we need.
We still have precious little amount of sediment in the river, but, um, it's sort of the contrast.
Wyatt: [00:21:57] Yeah. So you teach a course called the future of the Colorado river. Um, yeah. What does that future look like with things happening like the pipeline to St. George and stuff like
Jack Schmidt: [00:22:05] that? The course on water resource management and the Colorado river, I jointly teach, uh, with Dr.
David Rosenberg, who is a professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering. And so it's a course that combines natural resources, history, politics, river science, with modern river engineering, about how one plans, the. River Inn and what are the tools that one uses. And so we explore, um, that complicated history and those complicated politics and that complicated science.
And then also try to share with students how to, how those, how those complications are incorporated into water resource models. Specific to proposals, um, to develop new water, um, diversions, uh, such as the Lake pal pipeline. It's fair to say that every proposal to take new amounts of water out of a river whose total flow is decreasing is an extremely controversial action.
Essentially, the only thing that everyone knows is the pie is getting smaller. You could think about this and say way back in 1922, during the Colorado river compact, each state negotiated a size of the. Their slice of the pie, but their size of the pie that they thought they were negotiating was based on assuming the pie was of a certain size.
It was a 12 inch diameter pipe pie tin. Well, now that pie tins only 10 inches in diameter. And so as the different States consider new developments. Some States choose to ignore the fact that the pie is getting smaller or act like, well, we can't guess how small the pie tin is going to get. So we'll just make agreements based on the old size of the pie.
And other States are saying, we know the pie's getting smaller. We know our slice of the pie is going to get smaller. And so we need to make decisions based on that. I think that the extreme disagreements and, um, uh, considerations in arguing the, uh, whether the Lake pal pipeline is a good idea or not, is partly based on what your perception is of what the size of the pie tin will be.
86,000 acre feet, a year of water, which would be the capacity of the pipeline is a relatively small number. It is a small number in comparison to the total amount of water in the river. But if one considers the principle of death by a thousand cuts, every small additional diversion from the river is taking yet a little bit more water out of a river that doesn't have enough water as it is.
But the other controversies that surround Lake Pell pipeline don't necessarily have to do with water. It has to do with the citizens of Southwestern, Utah, trying to decide how big a community they want. How many people do they want to live there? Obviously the other extremely controversial point about the Lake pal pipeline, again, to has less to do with water.
And has to do with finances. Who's going to pay for it. One of the most distinctive attributes of the use of the Colorado river are the long snaking canals that take water from the river to someplace else. There's a pipe in a canals. That take water all the way from the Colorado river, all the way to Los Angeles and all the way to San Diego.
That's a long ways to take water all the way to Tijuana on the Pacific ocean to take water all the way to Phoenix and Tucson. There are. More than 25 tunnels underneath the continental divide in the state of Colorado, that transfer water from headwater streams to the other side of the divide to Fort Collins, Denver, Colorado Springs.
There are tunnels underneath the divide, the take water to salt Lake city and Provo that take water to Albuquerque to take water to Cheyenne, Wyoming. So building a canal. Or a tunnel or a pipeline to take water along waves. And the river is not a new idea. So the CA we've done it many times before. So doing it again is simply more of the same.
The issue is. The pie that the size of the supply is decreasing. That's the most, that's the first important point. And then the second point is who would pay for it in most, every one of those tunnels and projects that I just described, the federal government subsidize the construction, the only set of canals that were built.
With local money where the canals and tunnels and pipelines that transferred water to Los Angeles and San Diego, the metropolitan water district paid for those facilities. But the rest of the cases, federal handouts were received and taxpayers and Michigan and Maryland and Massachusetts paid for help pay for those.
And so. The issue in St. George and Southern Utah is whether people who live in Northern Utah are going to help pay for what's going on in Southern Utah. That's a reasonable thing to debate. And how is water used in the state of Utah? What is the relative mix between using water for agricultural development and irrigation versus using water for houses and lawns and people.
That will become an important issue in the future, because if we retired lots of ag land, we would have lots of water. There's no question about it. The other issue is that there are really only a very few new projects you want to, the other pipeline that is being completed as we speak is. The, uh, construction of a pipeline from the San Juan river, South to Gallup New Mexico that would provide water supply to much of the Navajo Indian reservation.
Now again, you could say, well, that's a bad idea. There isn't enough water in the river. I mean, every argument that I just made applies there too, except that some absurdly large number 50% of all Navajos, 30%. It's it's a very big number. Have no water. They're having a massive outbreak of coronavirus on the Navajo reservation.
They have the highest per capita infection rate on the Navajo reservation outside of New York city. And they have no water. How do you keep your hands clean when you have no water? Well, it doesn't sound like such a bad idea. To give native peoples poverty stricken on a large reservation access to water supply.
And so the way you view these pipelines that are now being proposed also stems from one's perspective about legitimate economic growth, the desire of communities to grow and expand their tourism industry or the legitimate needs of poor. And underprivileged native peoples on economically destitute reservations to have access to water supply.
So your view of this also gets complicated in a big web of social and economic justice.
Wyatt: [00:30:40] These things are stressful and scary in some ways. Um, what gives you hope
Jack Schmidt: [00:30:47] for the future? The geography of the Colorado river and the fact that there are significant consumers of water at the far downstream and guarantees that most of the river will always have water.
And that means that the Colorado river has much more Pope. If you will then. For example, the Rio Grande, where there are enormous users of water at the far upstream end and the river is dry for much of the time. The Rio Grande in central New Mexico is about to go dry right now in may. So the Colorado river has hope just.
Because of geography, but even if you look down at the Delta in the far downstream end, uh, there's hope because there are common values. I am. Motivated by the fact that I choose to think about what brings us together as citizens of seven States of two countries who all want to have a secure water supply and an environment, uh, that is inspiring a river environment that is inspiring.
By and large, that's what most everyone wants. And there is a real effort to, uh, seek out, uh, solutions that are, that bring out common goals and common successes, um, that, that help that it's not. And environmental and a utilitarian perspective, and you can only have one and it's, it's a pitch battle. We're trying to find solutions that help both we're in.
I think that what gives hope is we're in one heck of a crisis and. In crisis is opportunity because we can't do business as usual. The way the river's been managed over the last a hundred years is not the way forward. And I think that the crisis and the changes that are coming are going to be so extreme that they're going to force us to be innovative.
And that gives me some hope in a river. That's still has water for much of it. And. You know, much of the Colorado river is an incredibly inspired place. I've spent much of my life, uh, recreationally, floating the river, and it is inspiring to be there every time. And that gives you a reason to want to keep working on his behalf
Wyatt: [00:33:34] when it comes to technical logical solutions or AIDS to the river, what kind of long shots or pipe dreams, or are there.
Are there any, um, things that might actually show some promise,
Jack Schmidt: [00:33:48] all those young engineers out there, somebody please, uh, develop batteries, battery storage would obviate the need for hydro electricity where at least for peaking power water conservation. And the conservation of water use is enormously important.
So landscape architects, landscape designers are critically important in using water efficiently in urban and suburban areas. Using water more efficiently by agriculture is enormous. 70 to 80% of all the water used by the Colorado river is used in agriculture, not by cities. And so, um, irrigation engineering, arrogation technology is an enormously important field of study, uh, desalinization of seawater to provide drinking water and to do that in an energy efficient way, will ultimately get us out of this bind centuries from now.
People working on developing and designing that that's a huge game changer that needs to be pursued, uh, land use planning and using water in the right places. We're provide some most economic advantage to agriculture and people and does a least environmental harm that is incredibly important. There are some technologies out there will get us out of this jam.
If you think about it, some of the most innovative places where water is being used today is Tucson, Arizona, Las Vegas, Nevada. There is less water used in Denver than used 20 years ago. And yet the population has expanded by 30 or 40%. There's less water used in Los Angeles today than used to be used in the past, even though the population has expanded.
And so we are in, there are places that are novel and innovative centers. Of water conservation and we have to look to them. I fell in a
Wyatt: [00:36:04] Wikipedia hole about like the great lakes compact and like a pipeline from there to this. And I just need you to tell me that it is crazy, cause that's like essentially the synopsis is of,
Jack Schmidt: [00:36:16] um, there have been, there have been many proposals over the years for grandiose.
Projects to bring water into the Colorado river basin those in the 1960s, uh, there were legitimate proposals to divert water from the snake river in Idaho, uh, to bring that into the Wasatch front and into the Colorado river system and also to, to, uh, deliver other parts of the Columbia river system, perhaps.
Craziest or most farfetched proposal was what was called. Uh, no WAAPA, the North American water and power Alliance that would have been a grand project to build a dam on the Yukon river in central Alaska, the ramparts STAM, and then divert water out of the Yukon into the freezer river. Route water down the Fraser river to near Vancouver, divert that water into the Columbia, and then divert that water into Northern California and into the Colorado river.
Uh, I once heard someone at a grad school where I was attending described those plans. As the kind of plans you develop when your society is about to collapse and you want to leave the grand legacy of engineering for future archeologists too. It's hard to imagine that our society. Ever would sustain the costs to build that when we can't even provide lead free water to children in Flint, Michigan, we've got immense infrastructure crisis in the United States.
And so it's hard to imagine that anything like that would be built. It's a whole lot cheaper and easier just to conserve and use less water on your lawn.
Wyatt: [00:38:21] Your last job was down in Arizona, right next to the river. And now you're up here in Logan, like six, seven hours away. Um, why is the center Utah center for Colorado river studies, um, here at Utah state university.
And what's that
Jack Schmidt: [00:38:38] like Utah state university may be located at the Northern edge of the state, but we are the state's land grant institution. Uh, half of the state of Utah's when the Colorado river basin state of view is a signatory, um, state, uh, to the Colorado river compact the upper Colorado river compact the regional offices that manage the Colorado river, uh, for the Bureau of reclamation Western area power administration are in salt Lake city.
Uh, the upper Colorado river commission headquarters is in salt Lake city. The, the agencies that make, uh, key decisions about the future of the river are based in salt Lake city. And, uh, I believe it is an obligation of the state land grant institution of Utah to play a significant role. Um, at the same time, Utah state has branch campuses, uh, in the Colorado river basin in the Uinta basin and in Moab and in Blanding.
And one of the activities of the center for Colorado river studies has been what we call the Colorado river science speaker series three times a year. We run symposia and, uh, speaker events in Moab for that community, so that we bring the, um, insights of research and policymakers to the Moab community because they are.
So invested admittedly, it's a long drive. Admittedly, there are days that making that long drive is not something that I look forward to, but, um, to not focus on the Colorado river is probably to not focus on the most famous part of the statement's landscape.
Wyatt: [00:40:30] That was my conversation with Dr. Jack Schmidt.
He was able to cover so much about the Colorado river. In today's episode, please share this episode with your friends and any pleasant out of Staters you happen to bump into at one of Utah's national parks. I learned that here in Utah, we've got a lot to think about when it comes to how we use water from the Colorado river, but there's hope for this shrinking pie, we all have to figure out how to share.
Because people like Jack are working on new ways of managing the pie and other people are working on ways to curb our appetite. And there's also some promise in developing technologies. Thanks for listening. This episode of instead was edited by Nick Vasquez and me Wyatt Triber as part of our work in the office of research at Utah state university. .