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US Reviews Ideas For Boosting West's Dwindling Water Supply

By CATHERINE TSAI 04/11/12 03:12 PM ET AP

Water Supply
FILE - In this March 5, 2008 file photo, water levels at the Colorado River's Horseshoe Bend begin to rise along the beaches just hours after the Glen Canyon Dam jet tubes began releasing water in Page, Ariz. Hispanic leaders in the West have formed a new group called Nuestro Rio to focus attention on the Colorado River, which has sustained generations of Latinos. The Colorado River system provides municipal water for more than 30 million people in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexi

DENVER -- Demand for water in a river basin that serves more than 36 million people in the West and Mexico is expected to overwhelm supply in the next half-century as the region grows. So the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation asked the public what to do about it.

It got more than 140 ideas: Tow an iceberg to California and capture what melts for the Colorado River basin. Divert water from the Mississippi River. Deliver water bags from Alaska to southern California. Change the desire for beef to reduce demand for thirsty cattle.

The bureau won't single out any options to pursue, but it will review them as part of its larger study of water supply and demand in the arid Colorado River basin through 2060. It published the suggestions in late March.

"It's an entertaining list," said Jim Pokrandt, who handles education and outreach for the bureau's Colorado River District in Colorado. "There's a couple good ideas on there that bear further discussion. Other ideas are kind of fantastic, as in maybe not based in reality."

The identities of most of the people submitting the ideas weren't disclosed.

Other suggestions: Desalination, or removing salt to create fresh water. Covering swimming pools to keep water from evaporating. Reforming the oil and gas industry, which uses water in processes including hydraulic fracturing.

Some ideas, including the iceberg suggestion, have floated around for years.

"The bureau, to its credit, threw open the doors and said, `We'll take all ideas.' Some of the good old ones certainly reappeared," Pokrandt said Wednesday.

About 30 million people in Arizona, California, Nevada, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico get drinking water from the Colorado River system, which also benefits about 6 million Mexicans.

The Colorado River Compact of 1922 outlines how states share the water, but that deal was struck assuming about 2 million more acre-feet would be available than there really is, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said. Drought, climate change and population growth have posed more challenges for limited water supplies.

One acre-foot is enough to cover 1 acre of land 1 foot deep, or enough to meet the annual needs of about two households.

"It's the same challenge of the last century," Salazar said this week. "You have huge and growing water demands in the Colorado River basin. It's an arid area of our country which is going to continue to see declines in precipitation."

One party who submitted an idea to the Bureau of Reclamation raised the possibility of incentives for businesses to move where energy and water supplies aren't as tight.

Native American tribes have suggested exploring voluntary water transfers from tribes with water rights. Other ideas include changing how water is priced, removing invasive plant species that suck up water, and requiring lawns and golf courses to be watered with "gray water," which generally refers to wastewater like that from showers that could be used for purposes other than drinking.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said this week at a Colorado College conference concerning the river that increased water conservation and new dams will be needed, The Denver Post reported. Efforts are under way to explore new reservoirs and to boost conservation.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Geological Survey is looking at alternative water sources for providing electricity. "Not all water is created equal. There are some uses of water that don't really require the same quality of water as, say, for drinking water," agency director Marcia McNutt said.

Protect the Flows, a coalition of businesses in the Colorado River basin states, said it supports affordable measures including enhanced urban conservation, improved agricultural efficiency and expanded "water banking," which would allow users to temporarily borrow water rights in times of need.

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Filed by Matt Ferner  |