Time to change course on how we use the Colorado River

By Dan Grossman

For the first time in our history, the mighty Colorado River, its flows diminished by climate change and persistent drought, is no longer able to meet the human demands placed upon it. And under current trends and management practices, this situation will only get worse. Much worse.

This is the conclusion of the Colorado River Basin Study released by the United States Bureau of Reclamation this month. 

The study, which was jointly funded by the Bureau and the seven Colorado River Basin states, is a wake-up call for all of us living in the Colorado River Basin who rely on the bounty of the river to water our cattle and crops, our lawns and our trout fisheries and rapids runs. We need to change fundamentally the way we think about and manage the Colorado River. 

Some will attempt to use the conclusions of this study to add credence to fantastical infrastructure dreams, such as pipelines from the Missouri or the Mississippi River, that carry enormous price tags (to be paid for by whom?) and promise little more than decades of acrimony and controversy.

That is the tired path of previous centuries that simply will not work in the 21st century.

The good news is that there are practical, common-sense steps we can take to put the river back on a sustainable course, a course that can lead us to a future in which the river can meet both human and ecological needs, a future in which humans, economies and ecosystems can thrive.

All of the stakeholders involved in the Basin Study process, from the bureau to the states to the conservation community, agreed that we can make the water supply of the Colorado River stretch further by realizing efficiency in both agricultural and municipal sectors. We all agreed that re-using water in our cities can play an important role in shrinking the gap between projected supply and demand. We also agreed that desalinization of inland brackish water is a technology development that shows good promise.

These consensus strategies alone can create the equivalent of 4 million acre feet of water flexibility by 2060. Compare that to the 12 million acre feet scientists now believe the river carries each year, or the 16 million acre feet that the states divided up under the Colorado River Compact of 1922. We have long since discovered that much water rarely existed in the river.

However, the opportunity for common-sense change is enormous.

We can also explore new market-oriented water-management solutions, such as water banking, to finish filling the gap. Using voluntary water markets, we can help states meet their legal obligations under the Colorado River Compact while ensuring that our limited Colorado River water can meet as many needs as possible, including the needs of the ecosystems it supports.

In addition to the urgent call for a change in course on the river, the Basin Study presents those of us in the region with an important choice. We can be distracted by expensive, energy-hungry and fatally controversial infrastructure projects — such as a proposed 700-mile pipeline that would pump water from the Upper Missouri River 2,000 feet uphill to Colorado or five massive new desalination plants on the coasts of Southern California and Mexico — or we can stay focused on the common-sense solutions that simply require us to change the way we think about and manage our water.

The history of the West is written in water, and this key chapter will decide how the story unfolds. We need to make the smart choices today to ensure the story has a happy ending for our children, for our grandchildren and for the river that sustains us all.

Dan Grossman is the regional director for Environmental Defense Fund’s Rocky Mountain Regional Office in Boulder. For more information about the Colorado River and the study, please visit ColoradoRiverBasin.org.

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