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Black Canyon, Soon To Be Wetter


High Country News reports this month that under a new agreement between the National Park Service, the state of Colorado, and environmentalists, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison will soon be receiving more water: A one-day flood to sweep clean debris, plus 85 days each year of high river flow in the spring and a guaranteed minimum flow to sustain its trout fishery. The article discusses the implications of the agreement for a rather obscure debate about whether the federal government controls water rights on national park land, but the bottom line is that Black Canyon, one of the West's most underrated natural wonders, will soon be getting some of the river flow it's been deprived of since the construction of a dam upstream on the Gunnison in 1965.

I also wanted to take the opportunity to link to this interesting post by Froude Reynolds, which takes aim at some of the conventional wisdom about the misuse of water in California and the West more generally. I don't agree with everything Reynolds says--in particular, I think he underestimates the potential for savings from moving away from water-intensive crops like alfalfa, which still occupies more than a million acres of cropland in California, and understates the degree to which current subsidies and historical infrastructure investment make agricultural water artificially cheap. But one valuable point Reynolds makes is that it isn't just a question of urban-versus-agricultural use; increasingly, the tradeoff is going to be between human use and environmental use. The Black Canyon agreement, the ongoing debate in California as to how to save the delta smelt while still sending water to southern California, and whether to flood canyons in the Sierras to build more storage capacity--these are going to become zero-sum questions, probably sooner rather than later. Cutting back on extravagant agricultural water use is an important thing to do, and perhaps like others Reynolds calls out I've been guilty at times of overselling its potential, but at the end of the day it isn't going to be sufficient on its own to solve the West's water crisis.

--Josh Patashnik