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Epic Drought and Dirty Energy Spur Coalition to Protect Colorado River Basin

A new coalition called Colorado River Connected was publicly launched today with the goal of protecting the headwaters of the Colorado River, which provides drinking water for millions of people in Tucson, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Diego. Founding coalition members include Colorado Riverkeeper, Utah Rivers United, Sierra Club, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, Los Angeles Waterkeeper, Glen Canyon Institute, Save the Colorado and Waterkeeper Alliance.

The issues facing the Colorado River Basin are as vast as the watershed itself.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

With 35 million people in the southwest dependent in some way on the river and thousands of species impacted by its ecosystem, Colorado River Connected is inviting hundreds of environmental and community groups in the region to join the coalition to coordinate and magnify their efforts to preserve the Colorado River watershed. It will focus on the impact on the river of dirty energy projects, water diversion and climate change.

“The issues facing the Colorado River Basin are as vast as the watershed itself,” said Pete Nichols, national director of Waterkeeper Alliance. “We are excited that Colorado River Connected will be bringing people together from the entire region to heighten awareness and speak with one voice for the river, their communities and the watershed."

While residents of southwestern states like California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico are well aware of the prolonged drought and its impact on their lives, most don't know as much about the potential effects of proposed "voracious" water diversions or pollution-generating fracking, oil shale and tar sands developments, say members of Colorado River Connected.

"Between unparalleled dirty energy development and multiple plans for major water diversions, Utah and the upper basin states are demonstrating total disregard for cities such as Phoenix and Las Vegas that depend on Colorado River water for their survival," said Dan Mayhew, chair of the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club. "It's time downstream users became fully aware of the magnitude of these threats and take action before it's too late."

A drill pad in the Moab Valley area of Utah overlooking the Colorado River is one of many dirty energy operations threatening to pollute the river. Photo credit: Colorado River Connected

"Whether you're a San Diego mom, a Tucson water manager or a Las Vegas doctor, if you’re drinking water from the Colorado River, you better pay attention to what is going on in Utah and Colorado," said Tim Wagner, executive director of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. "Between an explosion in fracking for gas and oil, and Utah's love affair with tar sands and oil shale, the Southwest's water supply is threatened like never before."

Colorado River Connected expects that by channeling the energies of many groups, it can provide a louder voice to balance those of industries looking to exploit the river for their own profit. It will advocate for changes in water management, pushing for policies that acknowledge and address threats to the watershed and those that depend on it.

Drought has dried up Arizona's Lake Powell, which provided water to users in the lower Colorado River basin. Photo credit: Colorado River Connected

“Since the dedication of Hoover Dam in 1935, the Colorado River has been the leading model for water governance worldwide,"said John Weisheit, conservation director of Living Rivers and Colorado Riverkeeper. "This 80-year experiment is about to fail and shortages are eminent because developers continue to plan for water intensive projects without any regard to the watershed’s natural heritage or the public trust. If concerned citizens don’t unite and turn this pattern of unbridled consumption around, a watershed train wreck will indeed occur."

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"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

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At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.