Don’t Forget the Rivers in Debate Over Colorado River Basin Water

Colorado River near Moab, UT


There’s much talk these days about water in the Colorado River Basin.  Mostly the dialog is focused on growing demands (population growth in cities, new energy plays) and declining supply (climate change).

Lively debates include whether or not there’s more water to be developed from the basin (answer:  perhaps, in the Upper Basin, but development will reliably increase shortages in the Lower Basin); and what can be done to fill the gap between supply and demand (icebergs anyone? see the Colorado River Basin Study).

What’s not considered in these debates is the fate of the rivers themselves.  I wrote previously about how the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is poised to take a precedent-setting, top-to-bottom look at the health of the rivers in the Colorado River Basin.  That assessment will be extremely important, although it’s not yet clear how it will be used, or if it will persuade the basin’s many managers to prioritize river health.

To anyone concerned about the link between water and prosperity, the health of the region’s rivers should matter. We already know that Colorado River water is a valuable commodity for consumption, but do we know how valuable it is to the West to keep water in the river?

At least $26 billion a year for recreation purposes alone according to Protect The Flows, a coalition of businesses that depend on healthy flows for their wellbeing.  A new report points to a $26 billion annual contribution to the region’s economy, and some quarter of a million jobs, originating in the rivers.  Those are big numbers, and the recreation industry hasn’t articulated their aggregated impact until now.  Protect The Flows’ goal is straightforward:  they want assurances that water managers will maintain healthy river so their industry can maintain a healthy bottom line.

Similarly, driven by their interest in sustaining both environmental and community health, conservation groups (including my own, Environmental Defense Fund) advocate for the Colorado Basin’s rivers.  These priorities are outlined in a publication on healthy flows for the Colorado River.  On many rivers, the goal is to protect existing conditions and maintain ecological function and recreation economies in relatively undisturbed rivers.  In other locations, the goal is to restore flows where they have already been degraded.

What’s striking about the map of these priorities is that the rivers that need protection and restoration are located throughout the basin.  No one state or corner of the basin has a lock on healthy rivers where protection is all that is needed, and no corner of the basin is exempt from the need for restoration.  The conservation groups are already working in nearly all of the priority areas to improve flows on the rivers.  But even with this on-the-ground presence, it has proven challenging to get river managers focused on healthy rivers when thinking about the future of water supply and demand.

Debates around water scarcity in the Colorado River Basin aren’t new:  the seven states that comprise the basin published their own report on water supply solutions in 2007.  None of those solutions were designed with healthy rivers in mind.  Might compelling economics and specific priorities change the debate?

Now that conservation organizations have articulated where to focus river protection and restoration efforts, and now that businesses with a stake in healthy rivers have documented their economic impact, perhaps there’s a chance that debates about Colorado River water will consider the rivers.  Perhaps there’s even a chance that water managers will start to act now to ensure that we have healthy rivers in our future.


Jennifer Pitt is the Colorado River Project Director for Environmental Defense Fund.

Human Journey

Meet the Author
Jennifer Pitt is the Colorado River Project Director for Environmental Defense Fund. She works with Colorado River water users throughout the Colorado River basin—including seven states in the United States and two in Mexico—to develop practical programs to restore river habitats and to dedicate water to environmental resources. She has worked as a park ranger and a Congressional aide, and has a Masters degree in Environmental Studies from Yale University.