Public Helps Restore Flows to Critically Depleted Rivers

Change the Course, a water restoration movement led by the National Geographic Society, Bonneville Environmental Foundation and Participant Media, has motivated 70,000 people to pledge to conserve and has restored 2 billion gallons of water to depleted ecosystems in the Colorado River Basin.  We will present the Change the Course model at this year’s Stockholm Water Symposium during World Water Week. 

It’s a sad truth that many major rivers – the blue arteries of the Earth – no longer reach the sea.   Our demands for water – to drink, grow food, produce energy and make all manner of material things – have sapped streams of their flow and ecosystems of their vitality.  The web of life, of which we are a part, is fraying.

Fortunately, since the problem is of our making, it is within our power to reverse these trends.   As a society, we must do two things: shrink our human water footprint and return flows to depleted ecosystems.

Change the Course, a new model of conservation and restoration being pioneered by the National Geographic Society, Bonneville Environmental Foundation and Participant Media, aims to do just that.

We invite people to learn about their personal water footprint and to pledge to take some action in their daily life to conserve.  For each pledge made, we promise to return 1,000 gallons (3,785 liters) of water to a depleted river or wetland.

What makes this possible are sponsors who wish to restore water to the environment as a way of balancing out their own water footprints.  We then work with on-the-ground conservation organizations, farmers and other water users to implement flow-restoration projects that offer high ecological value per dollar invested.

It’s a virtuous cycle that keeps expanding.

In this way, Change the Course is re-framing the way we use, manage and value freshwater – and launching a water conservation and restoration movement.

We have piloted Change the Course in the iconic and heavily depleted Colorado River Basin, which provides water to some 40 million people and 4 million acres (1.6 million hectares) of irrigated land.  With our conservation partners, we have helped return 2 billion gallons (7.6 billion liters) to rivers throughout the watershed, as well as to the Delta, once one of the world’s great desert aquatic ecosystems.

Right now, Change the Course is helping provide the sustaining base flows needed to grow the native trees and habitats that emerged in the Delta this spring as a result of the historic pulse flow that allowed the Colorado River to reach the sea for the first time in many years.

With some 70,000 people in our pledge community, more than half a dozen sponsors, and successful restoration projects throughout the Colorado Basin, we have achieved “proof of concept.”  It is time to share the model, move it out to other river basins, and scale it up so that it can achieve its full potential.

On September 1, our Change the Course team will present its experiences and successes to date at the Stockholm Water Symposium during World Water Week.  If you’re in Stockholm, please join us for our lunchtime event. Otherwise, check back to Water Currents for updates from the week.

Last but not least, take the pledge.  It’s not a pledge of money; it’s a pledge to conserve.

Our water future depends on it.

Special thanks to Silk and Coca-­Cola, Charter Sponsors for Change the Course, and to Disney, a Supporting Sponsor.  Additional funding generously provided by the Walton Family Foundation.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project, Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, and author of several books and numerous articles on global water issues.  She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater conservation and restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.



Meet the Author
Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and author of Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity. From 2009-2015, she served as Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. Sandra is also co-creator of Change the Course, the national water stewardship initiative awarded the 2017 US Water Prize for restoring billions of gallons of water to depleted rivers and wetlands. The recipient of several honorary degrees, she works to bridge science, policy, and practice to promote innovative ways of securing water to meet both human and ecosystem needs.