Energy Issues


Making the Colorado River Sustainable for Seven States

Officials are studying different options for solving water issues in the Southwestern U.S., including expanded use of a desalting plant in Arizona.

Spanning seven states and serving a combined population of over 35 million, the Colorado River Basin supports a variety of the region’s water needs. The basin, however, has faced several challenges – including severe drought and increased demand – that have had an adverse effect on supply.

A series of interstate compacts, laws and treaties have governed the allocation of the Colorado River since the 1920s. Recent drought conditions, with the resultant low river flows and reduced reservoirs, have dramatically demonstrated the need for comprehensive planning, including an evaluation of ways to augment the supply from the river.

Therefore, the seven states bordering the Colorado River – Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – sponsored a study in 2006 to begin addressing various shortfalls and to craft a vehicle for evaluating augmentation efforts. The seven states selected the Colorado River Water Consultants, a joint venture comprised of Black & Veatch and CH2MHill, to provide a technical evaluation of long-term augmentation options for the Colorado River system.

“This was a sophisticated project,” said Les Lampe, Black & Veatch Global Practice Leader. “This entire process could be characterized as an evaluation of a sequence of augmentation options where the water supply capabilities of the basin would be enhanced.”

Following completion of the augmentation study, the seven states and the Bureau of Reclamation embarked on completion of a comprehensive basin plan called the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study. According to the Partners in Conservation citation awarded to the project by the U.S. Secretary of Interior in October 2012, the basin study “is a critical first step in the Colorado River Basin to establish a common technical foundation from which important discussions can begin regarding possible actions to resolve future water supply and demand imbalances, in order to help ensure the sustainability of the Colorado River system. It is a model for future water supply planning across the country.”

Lampe said the project is working to advance the cause of sustainability along the Colorado River. “As the seven states consider and select a path going forward, their partnership will become the standard for regional cooperation,” he said. “We want to ensure that the selected options will drive conservation and sustainability efforts for decades to come.”


Twelve long-term options were identified in the augmentation study issued by the joint venture, and several of those are priority options included within the subsequent Colorado River Basin Study. One of the primary options within the basin is brackish water desalination, particularly through rehabilitation and operation of the Yuma Desalting Plant (YDP), constructed in 1992, but used sparingly since. The YDP is the largest desalting facility in the United States.

The facility was operated during 2010 and 2011 on a limited basis as part of a pilot run, and it performed well in tests to assess its viability as a source of additional water supply. The treated water from the YDP would be used to augment the Colorado River flow into Mexico, and thereby preserve a like amount of water at Lake Mead in southern Nevada.

The YDP site has been well maintained throughout the years, and preliminary results from the pilot are encouraging, Lampe said. If the plant is returned to full-scale active operations, Arizona, California and Nevada stand to benefit from an extra 100,000 acre-feet of water per year (AFY). According to Lampe, 100,000 AFY would be sufficient to supply about 350,000 urban people with water for a year.

Further studies are under way by the joint venture to determine the optimum operating conditions for the YDP.


Lampe said the seven states will decide, in concert with the Bureau of Reclamation, which avenues to pursue. These efforts align with putting more emphasis on the value of water and the need to conserve, recycle and reuse, where feasible.

The inaugural Black & Veatch “Strategic Directions in the U.S. Water Utility Industry” report, published in 2012, found that “water conservation and water reuse present direct opportunities for achieving economic, environmental and social sustainability.”

Cindy Wallis-Lage, President of Black & Veatch’s global water business, wrote in the report that many utilities have made progress in recovering water.

“The planet’s 7 billion-plus inhabitants need to adopt the mindset that continuous recycling of these resources will better serve future generations than delving deeper into dwindling supplies,” she said. “Certainly, utilities in the Western U.S. and parts of the South are leading the way in adding water reclamation and reuse to their water resources portfolios.”

Story by Rochelle Nadhiri, Black & Veatch

  Subject Matter Experts:
Les Lampe,
  Cindy Wallis-Lage,