Photo: Peter Warren

Overcoming the Water Wars

In stories about water in the Western U.S., we read too often about conflict.

The word recalls the severity of water issues we face globally, from drought-prone areas of Asia to the infrastructure-poor countries of central and southern Africa. And, understandably, it begs the question: Is our own water future one of scarcity?

At the heart of that question is how we as a society will manage our water resources in the future.

What matters most to people and to nature is access to water precisely where and when it is needed. Water available, but not in high demand in January is no substitute for water urgently needed, but unavailable in August.  Those of us in developed nations typically are unaware of this because of our ubiquitous water infrastructure — the reservoirs and canals that provide for water storage from one season to the next, and transport it effortlessly from one place to another.

Of course, that very infrastructure has profound impacts on natural systems that depend on free flowing rivers and streams. So, then, one of the keys to overcoming conflict rests precisely in using infrastructure in smarter ways to better manage access to water for both people and nature.

An encouraging case in point is a bilateral agreement signed in 2012 between the US and Mexico, only now being put to the test along the border. Provisions of the treaty allowed for the release, beginning in late March, of an historic pulse of water through the Colorado River from Lake Mead. In all, some 104,000 acre-feet moving downstream over a period of weeks – that will revive the Colorado River delta in Mexico – where water has not flowed regularly since 1960 – restoring its ecosystem, at least temporarily.

The cross border agreement provides Mexico with access to upstream storage.  This may sound like a plan to bring yet more users to an already crowded table, but it actually allows for more effective use of that available water.

Here’s how it works. The pulse takes advantage of the fact that we can create a water “bank account”, assigning access to a specific amount of water stored upstream. Water can be banked in times of plenty and released when it is required, just like the savings you keep in a bank.  In this case, the cross border agreement allows Mexico to keep water that it is entitled to and would otherwise be lost – or spent — for lack of the upstream storage capacity.

This model for cooperation has the potential to transform both the nature of the problem and nature itself in the Colorado River Basin. My colleague Taylor Hawes and others at The Nature Conservancy, as well as incredible partner organizations, such as EDF, ProNatura Noroeste, and Sonoran Institute have been deeply involved in creating the conditions for success. Using existing storage capacity for multiple purposes – including in this case the pulse of water for the environment – allows for more effective water allocation, which in turn promotes resiliency in communities sharing the resource.

The pulse of water will bring new life to the delta, initiating groundwater recharge that will contribute to the restoration of cottonwoods and willows that once flourished there. Some 380 bird species that use the Pacific Flyway stand to benefit from the temporary return of water and riparian habitat. If, pushed by the initial pulse, the Colorado River once again reaches the Gulf of California, it will refresh the estuary for the first time in nearly two decades.

What is extraordinary and so encouraging about the river’s slow return is that it has come about within an environment as strained as the Colorado River basin. It demonstrates the power of an innovative response to conflict, and proves that finding water for nature in an environment of scarcity is not necessarily a zero sum proposition.

Opinions expressed on Conservancy Talk and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Conservancy.


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