Sensational headlines, like those speculating that Wall Street will make billions off the Colorado River or that West Slope farmers should pack it in now, certainly attracts readers. Unfortunately, these articles wholly fail to convey the reality of the water challenges facing the Colorado River Basin.
As representatives of irrigated agriculture and conservation organizations, we deal with these issues every day. Often times, we do so through working partnerships with each other. Increasingly, we find these relationships are necessary to ensure that farms and ranches thrive and that rivers continue to support fish, wildlife, and recreation.
The Colorado River is certainly in bad shape. Last year was marked by extremely hot temperatures, low flows and massive fires.
This year is off to a bad start, with low snowpack and frighteningly dry soil. These bad water years, broken now and then by a “normal” year, are taking their toll on the amount of water stored in lakes Powell and Mead and forcing policymakers and water users alike to reckon with an uncomfortable and risk-ridden future. Neither irrigated agriculture nor the environment is exempt from these risks.
There is no silver bullet here. The challenges require a holistic approach, employing a combination of demand management and water supply enhancement actions. We need to take steps to reduce water use across all user sectors.
Cities must continue and even redouble their efforts to reduce water demand and bolster efficiency. As Denver Water and others have recognized, land use and water need to be more closely linked. More use of natural infrastructure in urban areas and aspiring to “net zero water” new development will be necessary.
Irrigated agriculture has shown itself willing to improve irrigation systems and find other ways to remain productive in the face of increasing pressure on its water supplies. Water managers, ranchers and farmers are technologically-savvy, innovative, resourceful and creative. They also are bringing those attributes to bear in planning for a future where “drought” may be a long-term or even permanent condition.
Conservation organizations are seeking to find flexible mechanisms to help keep water instream, while keeping water on the land in productive farms and ranches.
Much more is needed, however, if the Colorado River Basin is to be resilient to the on-going effects of climate change.
There must be investment in watershed health, including forest restoration and management and in protecting and renewing the health of the lands that supply water. Colorado’s Sen. Michael Bennet has recognized these needs in filing the Outdoor Restoration Force Act. Among other goals, this legislation would provide direct support to local collaborative efforts to restore forests and watersheds, enhance wildlife habitat, and create jobs.
Massive investment is also needed to repair and improve aging agriculture infrastructure, much of which is over 100 years old in the upper portion of the Colorado River Basin. As our collaborations throughout the West have shown, these upgrades can be done in a manner that helps improve efficiency and conditions for fish and wildlife.
Competition for water supplies are driving Western farmers off the land at a time when American food production should be increased. As much as it might make for splashy headlines, drying up the farms and ranches that produce food and fiber for the country is not the way of the future.
Instead, we need to work in partnership to find durable solutions that make economic sense for water users and rural communities, as well as cities, and we need to fit those solutions within the complex water law of the Colorado River. To do otherwise is to risk endless conflict, litigation, economic dislocation and destruction of the streams and rivers that sustain agriculture and provide refuge for fish and wildlife, recreation and our quality of life.
Our organizations may not always agree on everything. However, we are committed to collaboration and the need to address the urgent risks facing the iconic Colorado River Basin. This must be done in a way that sustains rural livelihoods, maintains food and fiber production and restores healthy rivers.
Don’t be distracted by sensational headlines. If you are concerned about this river system and all who depend on it, please work with us and others in the basin to find the solutions the region demands.
Dan Keppen is the executive director of Family Farm Alliance; Scott Yates is director of Trout Unlimited’s Western Water & Habitat Program; and Taylor Hawes is Colorado River Program director for The Nature Conservancy.