Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, Director of U.S. Geological Survey Marcia McNutt speak at Rockies Conference on 4/9/2012

Protecting the environment and developing the economy can go hand-in-hand, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar told this year’s State of the Rockies Project Conference attendees in his keynote address April 9.

“When people say we have to choose, it’s a false choice. We can do both — we’re doing it here in Colorado,” he said. For example, “We know Colorado Springs and Denver will never grow together because hundreds of thousands of acres in Douglas County have been protected, and ranching life will be sustained,” Salazar said.

The annual conference is the culmination of the Colorado College State of the Rockies Project, a collaborative effort by faculty and students to examine issues affecting the environmental, social and economic health of the Rocky Mountain region. This year’s focus: “The Colorado River Basin – Agenda for Use, Restoration and Sustainability for the Next Generation.”

Students spent nine months studying the 1,400-mile river that extends across seven southwestern states, from Wyoming into Mexico. Their findings – that increasing demand and decreasing supply – will lead to severe water shortages in the future, and five action steps to take to prevent that from happening, were released at the conference’s opening day as well.

Salazar, who earned his undergraduate degree in political science from CC in 1977 before moving on to become a water and environmental law attorney, Colorado’s Attorney General and a U.S. Senator for Colorado, said he’s long touted a conservation agenda in conjunction with achieving economic goals.

“People would say, ‘Why are you concerned about conservation?’ I’d say, ‘It’s about the quality of life.’ And the conservation ethic we’ve been able to develop has given us great promise for economics in the future. It’s the same argument I’ve used in Washington, D.C.”

At the request of President Obama, Salazar is leading a “21st century conservation agenda” for the nation, known as America’s Great Outdoors initiative. It has three focuses. The first involves major restoration projects on 200 rivers, including the Colorado River. The creation of a National Water Trails System, which Salazar announced in February, is part of the improvements. The new network will increase access to water-based outdoor recreation, encourage community stewardship of local waterways and promote tourism.

Expanding urban parks and improving national landscapes through grassroots conservation are the other areas of concentration.

“When talking to the President, I describe it (the initiative) in ways I think accomplish both economic goals and a conservation agenda at the same time,” Salazar said, citing as an example preserving 1.1 million acres of tall grass prairies in Kansas to safeguard ranching as a livelihood, along with the native plants.

“It’s important that we protect our planet,” he said.

As a fifth generation Coloradan, Salazar said he’s familiar with the problems associated with the Colorado River.

“The Colorado River is already a water-short river — more water has been allocated than what that river has today, not only along southern states but with the treaty with Mexico,” he said, adding that a new allocation agreement with Mexico could be announced soon.

The river supplies about 25 million users with drinking water and irrigates 2.5 million acres of farmland, according to Marcia McNutt, director of the U.S. Geological Survey, who also addressed conference goers on Monday.

The river is ruled by decrees, rights, court decisions and laws referred to as the “Law of the River.” The keystone of these “commandments” is the 1922 Colorado River Compact, an interstate agreement for water allotments, which Salazar said was underestimated by 2 million acre feet the annual amount of water that could be extracted from the river.

“The Colorado River has been a highly litigated river over a long period of time. These compacts were put together not with the best knowledge or science. They missed the mark forecasting how much water would be available,” he said.

The river today is facing a future of a decreasing water supply due to climate change and other factors, and increasing demand for municipal, agricultural, industrial and recreational use.

In response to a question asked from the audience, Salazar said he doesn’t think the Compact will ever be opened up for negotiation: “The legacies that have been created over 89 years are so embedded in the Law of the River,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean the effort to resolve the water shortages, environmental needs, recreational opportunities, allocations to Mexico and the dry delta can’t be solved, he said.

“I’m optimistic no matter how hard these problems are, we can solve any one of these problems,” he said.

McNutt, the first female to head the U.S. Geological Survey in its 130-year history, said her mapping agency is working on mitigating the effects of dust, which decreases snowpack runoff. Eighty percent of the Colorado River’s water comes from snowpack.

“With just 5 percent less annual runoff, that’s two times Las Vegas’ annual allocation of water, 18 months of Los Angeles’ use and one-half of Mexico’s allocation,” she said.

Revising grazing policies, protecting native grasses, installing environmentally friendly fencing and digging trenches are other possibilities to help the problem, McNutt said.