New Urgency and Hope for the Colorado River

Taylor Hawes is The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River Program Director.

The Colorado River Basin Supply and Demand Study — released this week after years of work by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, water utilities, conservationists and other stakeholders — is a first-of-its-kind, whole basin look at the future of the Colorado River in the face of population growth and climate change.

Perhaps no surprise to those of us working on freshwater issues, the study reveals there will not be enough water in the Colorado River in the future to meet the demands of the more than 33 million people (and they are still coming) in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming who depend on it for drinking water, farming, ranching, tourism, energy and business.

In fact, the demands already outstrip the river’s supply today.

Just as important as articulating the problem is coming up with solutions, and the Basin Study does just that. It offers up a host of options for closing the scarcity gap — that is, for either increasing supply or decreasing demand. These range from old-school (and arguably ill-advised) options — such as building a pipeline from the Missouri River — to high-tech, lower-cost approaches such as widespread installation of water-saving irrigation equipment or water sharing mechanisms.

Now that the problem has been starkly defined and a wide array of possible solutions has been laid out, what’s next? Can we find ways to protect rivers and streams from drying up while providing enough water for cities, farms and businesses? My hope is that rather than gather dust, the Basin Study becomes the foundation for a roadmap to a future that includes healthy rivers, state-of-the-art water conservation for our cities and agriculture, and water sharing mechanisms that allow our communities to adapt to warmer temperatures and more erratic precipitation.

For example, 2011 was one of the wettest years in the region’s history and 2012 was one of the driest. The future won’t likely resemble the past and that presents new challenges for water managers and communities.

Flexibility will be critical to adapting to a changing world. Below are some of the strategies identified in the study that I think are worth exploring and promoting:

  • Implementing new water-saving practices in farms and cities
  • Treating and recycling wastewater for irrigation and other uses
  • Retrofitting existing power plants with water-saving technologies
  • Restoring healthy river flows through better management of watersheds, river banks, dams and diversions
  • Building small de-salting plants to make groundwater locally available to towns and farms

I also hope the study will foster agreement among diverse stakeholders that we need to put aside hardened positions and focus on finding answers. The next generation is counting on us to get it right.

Water is so precious in the West that we tend to fight over every drop. The Conservancy and its conservation partners support modern river management options that allow us to live within our means rather than taking water from another part of the country or pumping diminishing aquifers. These modern management options are also cheaper, faster and easier to implement than a costly pipeline and large, energy-guzzling de-salter plants. We recognize we must meet growing water demand needs, but we need to do so in a way that works for cities, agriculture, industry and nature.

If we can do that, 50 years from now, the next generation will thank us for our foresight.

(Image: North Fork of the Gunnison River in Paonia, CO. Image Source: Tim Palmer.)

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  1. Excellent ideas. President Obama should consider these in his regard for a healthy future for our planet.

  2. I am intrigued with the possibility of combining dramatic conservation efforts in conjuntion to considering a pipe line. For me this is not all or nothing but a combined effort for a win-win long range plan. For supporters of the pipe line, I see nothing wrong with creating the following proposition. If we follow healthy conservation measures and reach a certain quantifiable/measureable point, then we can look at a pipe line that can supplement what we can’t attain thru conservation alone.
    Karen Barker

  3. I could see the healthy combination of pipelines and conservation working in synergy, as long as the “pipelines” don’t become those concrete channeled open air aqueducts running through the desert, which appear to take all the water away from rivers, but also allow it to evaporate before it reaches people, loose loose.

  4. It’s very alarming to know what has become of the Colorado River. The very fact that 33 million people won’t be supplied with water in the near future already calls for an immediate action. It is very agreeable that flexibility is very crucial in this modern world. Are the strategies for long-term implementation?

  5. Water from the Colorado also needs to be available to Mexico. We can’t ignore our responsibilities. There will be repercussions if we do.

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