The push to drill continued last week, when the BLM opened 148,598 more acres of federal land near Moab to drilling. Quarterly lease sales in that area during the last two years were typically about 75,000 acres.
"It seems reckless," said Bill Hedden, director of the Grand Canyon Trust. Near his home outside Moab, natural gas drilling rigs may soon be visible through Delicate Arch, the wind-hewn bridge of rock at Arches National Park that graces Utah's license plate.
"We Americans have tried to export a lot of our problems off to the boondocks -- but in this case the boondocks is the watershed and the problem is coming right back to us," Hedden said.
According to Spisak, the BLM official in charge of drilling, the Maob sale is the result of "pent up build-up" in the cue of requests the agency is handling. Companies that want to drill on federal land ask the BLM to consider listing that land for a future lease sale. Over the past few years, Spisak said, environmental organizations have challenged some of the listings the BLM approved, delaying their sale. Now the agency is catching up.
"We are required to push them forward," Spisak said. "It's due to pressures of prices and industry, and we are responding to the market demand."
An Unprecedented Demand
No project poses a greater threat to the Colorado River -- or better represents the choice between water and energy -- than mining for oil shale.
In mid November the BLM quietly approved a rule change that paved the way for extracting oil from rock deposits in Colorado and Utah, smack in the heart of the river's watershed. If the vast deposits are mined to their potential -- and it could be a decade before any of the projects go forward -- the reserves could help the United States make a significant leap towards energy independence.
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 ‚Äì 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.