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Protecting flows of Colorado River protects local economies

By the very nature of a desert climate, much of the West is challenged to get adequate access to life-giving water. Certainly with the ballooning population growth we’ve experienced in the Southwest, our largest source of water — the Colorado River — has become severely over extended. Add climate change and an 11-year drought, and the entire Colorado River basin is under siege like never before, with demand far exceeding supply and water storage reserves almost half empty.

Recently, I traveled to Washington, D.C. with four co-members of the business coalition Protect the Flows to address this situation, meeting with congressional leaders to deliver a vital message: keeping healthy flows in the Colorado River and its tributaries means healthy economics for our local businesses and communities. We also carried a formal letter to government leaders in the seven basin states, signed by an impressive 254 businesses across those states, voicing how important having a healthy river is to each of us.

Protect the Flows is comprised of small businesses from Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, California and Utah that directly depend on the river for their livelihood. We are a diverse mix of rafting outfitters, motels, fishing and birding guides, outdoor retailers, wineries, restaurants, chambers and other businesses. Protect the Flows advocates a policy that keeps enough water flowing in the river and its tributaries, so that we keep revenue flowing into local economies. Healthy flowing rivers are among the main reasons people flock to America’s great outdoors, resulting in a robust multi-billion dollar recreation economy. These recreation experiences attract volumes of outdoor enthusiasts and tourists to each of our communities.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association, in Arizona alone outdoor recreation supports 82,000 jobs.

Here in Flagstaff, we are surrounded by many natural treasures, including the Grand Canyon and Colorado River just 80 miles away. Grand Canyon National Park enjoys about 5 million visitors annually with roughly 20,000 of those experiencing the canyon on rafting trips. Of course, none of these fabled Grand Canyon rafting trips are possible without first protecting the resources and water flowing in the Colorado River corridor.

While in Washington, we were fortunate to personally meet with Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Anne Castle, assistant secretary for water and science, as well as key staff advisers from the offices of several Western U.S. senators and members of Congress. We all came away feeling confident in these leaders and their keen interest in conservation values. We were gratified that they made the connection to recreation and tourism impacts, and ultimately to the economic future of Arizona and the West.

A main focus for Protect the Flows is a first ever basin-wide study spearheaded by the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation on potential imbalances in Colorado River water supply and demand over the next 50 years. While the study, due for completion in July 2012, will be looking at new ways to allocate precise amounts of water to municipalities and agriculture (the river provides water to the taps of 30 million Americans and irrigates 3 million acres of farmland), Protect the Flows asks that the assessment go beyond the traditional consumption issues and pay attention to the vital health and sustainability of the river itself.

Protect the Flows wants to ensure two things: 1) when the basin study team makes calculations to measure water demands on the river, recreation and tourism must be factored in, and 2) the study needs to establish an adequate value for defining a healthy flow.

This new study is critical to sustaining the Colorado River for our rural and urban economies as well as the businesses that depend on the river flowing. Should the final supply and demand report fail in this regard, the study will be a stunning lost opportunity and represent a threat to the future viability of our local businesses.

Protect the Flows members in Arizona include outdoor retailers, hospitality based businesses, travel agencies, birding guides, photographers, tubing outfitters and more. We come together with the conviction that healthy rivers provide beautiful scenery, abundant wildlife, fantastic camping locations, wonderful fishing and rafting, and incredible hiking and biking.

The bottom line is this: the economic future of Arizona and the West is intertwined with a Colorado River that flows strong enough for memorable recreation and tourism experiences, a river that beckons families and outdoor enthusiasts to the communities close to its banks.

— Lisa Lamberson is general manager of Mountain Sports in Flagstaff.

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