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How the West's Energy Boom Could Threaten Drinking Water for 1 in 12 Americans

A rush to develop domestic oil, gas and uranium deposits along the Colorado River and its tributaries is a threat to our children's future

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Getting oil from the shale, if researchers can find a reliable way to do it on a large scale, would be astronomically expensive. It might also require more water than the Colorado River can provide.

A recent study for the state of Colorado estimates that if the oil shale industry takes off in northwest Colorado, the region's energy industry will need at least 15 times as much water as it uses now. In 30 years, the report predicts, the energy industry in the upper Colorado River basin would stop the river's entire flow for nearly six weeks if it used the water all at once.

"It would take every bit of water rights that we currently have plus more," said Scott Ruppe, general manager of Uintah Water Conservancy District in northeastern Utah.

Counties across the Western states are apportioned a limited quota of water rights that can be used for industry, farming, or municipal use, he explained. Using Colorado River water for oil shale means less water for urban growth, agriculture and personal use. It means trading fresh fruit and vegetables – not to mention green lawns -- for energy.

"It just comes down to how needy the nation is for energy," he said. "If energy is short then some of the other concerns might get pushed aside."

These stark choices have driven Congress to begin examining the water problem in the absence of leadership from the White House. One of the bills that has been written would, if passed, direct the Interior Department to undertake the kind of comprehensive inventory of the nation's water quality and supply that critics say is missing.

It will be up to the Obama administration, though, to ultimately decide the nation's priorities. The appointment of Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar to head the Interior Department will inject a unique understanding of western water issues into Washington politics. Salazar is a long-time rancher and a former water attorney.

The new administration could temper some of Bush's decisions by limiting mining claims in sensitive areas, refusing to finalize leases sales that haven't been signed, and rigorously enforcing existing environmental regulations. It also could try to reverse some of the rules the Bush administration has issued to speed development, although that will be difficult.

Obama's greatest opportunity to address the conflict between water and energy may lie not in undoing policies from the past, but in looking to the future.

"The administration has an opportunity to start thinking about water as a national resource," said Nevada's Mulroy. "We have no rear view mirrors anymore."


Abrahm Lustgarten is a former staff writer and contributor for Fortune, and has written for Salon, Esquire, the Washington Post and the New York Times since receiving his master's in journalism from Columbia University in 2003.

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