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Saving the Colorado River Demands Innovative Thinking

Environmental Defense Fund

The Bureau of Reclamation today received a proposed set of common-sense solutions to solve the imbalance between supply and demand for water in the Colorado River Basin, where the Bureau projects river flow will decrease by an average of about nine percent over the next 50 years due to climate change. The proposal by Environmental Defense Fund—which includes ideas by other conservation groups and stakeholders—was in response to the Feb. 1 deadline for public input of “options and strategies” for a study to define and solve future imbalances in water supply and demand in the basin through 2060.

“Our proposed solutions don’t include expensive new infrastructure and diversions that threaten the health of the Colorado River and the recreation and tourism economy of the region,” said Dan Grossman, Rocky Mountain regional director for Environmental Defense Fund and a former vice chairman of the Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee in the Colorado Senate. “Instead, we are focusing on common-sense ideas—including water banks, water re-use and municipal and agricultural efficiency—to solve the imbalance between supply and demand, while protecting the healthy flows of the river.”

Water banks are institutional mechanisms that can be set up in one state, or by multiple states, to use existing storage in a more flexible manner—particularly during drought—by holding “deposits” of water leased or purchased from existing users. For example, they hold the potential to be a cost-effective way of preventing the chaotic effects of a “call” on the river under the Colorado River Compact. The compact stipulates that when river flows are insufficient to satisfy the Lower Basin states’ water entitlement on the river, the lower basin can place a call on the river water, forcing upper basin states to stop diverting water until the lower basin’s water entitlement is satisfied.

“Managing the Colorado River in a hotter and drier west requires bold and innovative thinking,” added Grossman. “We can’t continue to adhere to the dogmas of the 19th and 20th centuries and expect to solve this impending crisis.”

The Colorado River Basin is one of the most critical sources of water in the western U.S. and Mexico, providing water to 30 million people in seven states—Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming. The Colorado River Basin Water Supply & Demand Study—due to be completed in June by the Bureau of Reclamation and agencies from the seven basin states—is focusing on the needs of basin resources that are dependent upon a healthy river system. They include:

  • Water for municipal, industrial, and agricultural use
  • Hydroelectric power generation
  • Recreation
  • Fish and wildlife and their habitats
  • Water quality including salinity
  • Flow and water-dependent ecological systems
  • Flood control, all under a range of conditions that could occur over the next 50 years.

“As we begin forging a new path forward for managing the Colorado River in the age of limits, we need to think about the impacts of our actions on future generations in the west,” concluded Grossman. “Current demands from residential development and agriculture are overtaxing a river that is diminishing because of a changing climate. We need flexible, market-driven solutions that will protect the river and the ecosystems and western economies it supports.”

For more information, click here.

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Environmental Defense Fund (edf.org), a leading national nonprofit organization, creates transformational solutions to the most serious environmental problems. EDF links science, economics, law and innovative private-sector partnerships

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Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

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