The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which is the agency tasked with overseeing the issue for the federal government, has estimated Colorado River cleanup costs for nitrates, alone, and construction to be approximately $2.4 billion from now to the year 2025. This is up from previous estimates of $1.5 billion. The question the federal government has not addressed is who will pay to protect the river.
The alternative - to do nothing and ignore the problem until it becomes so big it cannot be ignored - is even more expensive.
Removing nitrates from the water requires expensive technology, such as reverse osmosis. To provide reverse osmosis for the water supplies currently depending on the Colorado River could cost $8 to $12 billion. California officials estimate that treating nitrate contaminated water increases the cost of supplying water many times the basic supply cost.
This technology, in addition to being costly, also requires the disposal of a significant waste stream. Although not always easy, a place can be found to dispose of the waste stream. The real problem is the size of the waste stream which will deplete the actual water volumes available to the users.
This makes no sense for the Colorado River system, which already is allocated to the fullest extent. We need to be looking for every opportunity to conserve the water. Reverse osmosis is not practical on a large-scale basis and is a remarkably a wasteful technology.
Treating the problem at the source - in this case adequate wastewater collection and treatment infrastructure - is the least costly and maximizes the opportunities to conserve.
This is a regional problem that requires a regional solution, including all levels of government: federal, state and local.
The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and California's State Water Resources Control Board have begun the process of defining the problems. Local entities have started to contribute millions of dollars to the cleanup. But the magnitude is so great and crosses so many jurisdictional boundaries that a regional solution with federal oversight is required. This model has worked in other areas of the country and can work on the Lower Colorado River as well.
If these pollution problems are not corrected over the next few years, the drinking water consequences for major cities like Tucson, Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Diego will be immense.
The Colorado River Regional Sewer Coalition was formed to resolve this problem. CRRSCo is comprised of 16 member cities, counties and agencies from Arizona, California and Nevada along the Lower Colorado River from Lake Mead to the border with Mexico.
Many of the CRRSCo members with the largest environmental impacts have initiated implementation programs and authorized funding to support these efforts:
Other members with plans in development to address the pollution problem include Blythe in California and Quartzsite, Parker and the Colorado River Indian Tribe in Arizona.
At the federal level, U.S. Sen. John Kyl (R-AZ) and Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA) were instrumental in securing a $200,000 Fiscal Year 2004 appropriation allowing the Bureau of Reclamation to study the impact of pollution along the Lower Colorado River. The study examined the remaining technical, structural, and intergovernmental steps that must be taken to protect the river.
In addition, Senator Kyl worked successfully to include $1.5 million in the FY 2006 Interior and Environment Appropriations bill to address the pollution problem. The money was used for an additional, major raw sewage pumping station for the North Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant in Lake Havasu City and will provide a significant boost to CRRSCo's efforts to decrease nitrate levels in the Colorado River.
In order to adequately reduce the nitrate to safe levels and clean up the groundwater contamination caused by the high density of septic tanks, significant sewer infrastructure improvements are needed. The proposed projects needed include:
NOTE: The above numbers are for Lake Havasu City only and need to be updated to include those from other cities.
We need to involve every leader along the Colorado River - including leaders in the federal government - in the search for solutions to a growing crisis that threatens the quality of life for millions of people who depend on the Colorado River for their sustenance.
Although there is talk in Congress of the development of a "Water Trust Fund to address anti-pollution efforts, and there is a movement to rewrite the formula that governs EPA's loan program, neither is likely to contribute in the near term to a solution on the Colorado.
There is a model, however, that can teach us what can be accomplished with strong regional cooperation: the Great Lakes model. To address pervasive pollution problems, Congress passed the Great Lakes Legacy Act of 2002. The legislation authorized a $270 million expenditure over five years and laid the groundwork for stakeholders to seek a larger investment in pollution remediation.
The Great Lakes initiative provides a framework and structure that can serve as a guide for the development of the comprehensive approach needed along the Colorado River. It can be instructive and should be considered when developing policy recommendations.
With this model in mind, CRRSCo has drafted a bill called the Southern Colorado River Protection Act that has been introduced into the House subcommittee on Water and Power.