New Voices in Colorado River Management

Marsh in the Colorado River Delta
Marsh in the Colorado River Delta. Photo: Cheryl Zook, National Geographic

Climate change and population growth in areas dependent on water from the Colorado River Basin are projected to cause unprecedented water shortages over the coming decades. These shortages could have a major impact on communities from Denver to Phoenix, Salt Lake City to Los Angeles, and pretty much everywhere in-between.

There’s already a legacy of environmental damage in the basin: over the past century, laws and the development of infrastructure turned the once powerful Colorado River into a water supply system. From headwaters to the delta, river health has declined to the point where the last 100 miles of the river are now largely dry. Our challenge going forward is to figure out how to revitalize the Colorado and other damaged rivers in the basin, while meeting the needs of a growing population.

As the publication last year of the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study showed, rivers in the basin may be unable to provide enough water to the communities that rely on them – whether for drinking or as the basis of a $26 billion river-based recreation economy. Recently I took part in a meeting of water managers from the Colorado River Basin to talk about the immense challenges faced by this huge region, which embraces seven states (AZ, CA, CO, NM, NV, UT and WY) as well as northwestern Mexico. At the meeting, speaker after speaker spoke of the study as “a call to action.”

Against that backdrop, the big announcement of the meeting was the roll-out of a multi-stakeholder effort to find solutions. This was a noteworthy and welcome departure from the way water management in the basin has traditionally been handled. It usually went on behind closed-doors, in negotiations limited to representatives of water rights holders who supply the region’s farms, ranches and cities. The predictable result has been management that ignores the needs of those without a seat at the table.

A Chorus of New Voices

At this meeting, in contrast, there were a host of new voices. Conservation groups were given an opportunity to describe how water management decisions in the basin affect river health. Native American tribes spoke about the importance of rivers to the peoples on the basin’s many reservations, where the unfulfilled promise of tribal reserved water rights looms large.

Of the five people who held the podium during the May 28 event, three were women, representing the Department of Interior, Arizona and conservation organizations, and one was a Native American man. This is a sea change from the days, as recently as the late 1990’s, when the term “water buffalo” was used to describe river managers, because the animal’s dominant characteristics (large, slow, and likes to hang around water) aptly described the senior men, often engineers, who made the big decisions.

Back then there was camaraderie among the women at Colorado River meetings based on the fact that there were so few of us. The only advantage to our minority status was that we never had to wait in line at the restroom. Similarly, few Native Americans could be found at those meetings. But the field has definitely changed, as government agencies have hired from a broader array of professional backgrounds and a more diverse population has gotten professional training to work on water management.

In Search of Lasting Solutions

Going forward, conservation groups and tribes will join federal, state and local water managers in a collaborative effort to address the Colorado River Basin’s looming problems. The next steps include multi-stakeholder workgroups to address:

  • urban water conservation and re-use,
  • agricultural water conservation and transfers,
  • healthy river flows and
  • a tribal-federal partnership to explore tribal water rights.

The Colorado River Basin Study sent a clear message that everyone’s interests – the water rights haves and have nots, as well as the river lovers – are at risk. Status quo management will lead to water shortage crises in our cities, farms, and ranches and leave us with dead and dying rivers.

The study also made clear that solutions are within our reach. But to achieve them we need new ways of managing the Colorado and all the other rivers of the basin. We need institutional flexibility in addition to traditional engineering, as well as a broad set of management objectives that serves the needs of all those with a stake in the process.

As the federal and state governments open the door to the new voices, and as we see new faces at the agencies themselves, I believe we will reach our goals.

(Editor’s note: learn more about how you can help save the Colorado River.)

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.

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