Carpe Diem West: Mapping the River Ahead 2014 #ColoradoRiver


Click here to read the report from Carpe Diem West. Here’s the forward written by Anne Castle:

The Colorado River has always been known for its superlatives – the most volatile supplies, the most iconic landscapes, the most dammed, the most litigated, and recently, the most threatened. The challenges of the past have been overcome with achievements that matched the scope of the difficulties – significant and much-emulated breakthroughs in engineering and deal-making. The challenges of the present and future will require an even greater degree of creativity and ability to see through immediate gains and losses to the greater and longer term benefits to river interests and communities. The leaders in Colorado River water issues have historically risen to the challenges, tackling tough issues as they arise, and the leadership engaged today is in the complicated and painful throes of doing so again.

This report documents the concerns of some Colorado River thought leaders and their ideas about potential solutions and paths ahead. It provides a useful compilation of perceptions and suggestions gleaned from one-on-one interviews, and points out consistencies of approach that may not be evident in more public discussions. These voices point to the flexibility within the existing Law of the River that can support creative arrangements and new types of operation resulting in a more efficient overall system. While not intended as a set of recommendations, the discussions described can be mined for practical pathways forward that might garner broader support and address both the ongoing and new pressures on this critical river system.

The urgency of the present situation cannot be overestimated, and no one knows the risks better than the water managers who will guide the actions and formulate the contingency plans of the future. While each has particular interests to guard, Colorado River experts also know that solutions will not be easy and will likely require adjustment to some heretofore jealously guarded positions and anticipated benefits.

One obvious example of the evolution of thinking on Colorado River management is the recognition that a broader spectrum of interests must participate in the construction of plans and policies. Integration of Tribal rights and values, environmental stewardship, regional cooperation, and international partnerships are all emerging trends – and rightly so. More and better education of the general public about the labyrinthine nature of the existing river plumbing and operations and the corresponding complexity of securing sustainable supplies is also a common theme. Both of these conclusions follow from an appreciation that building the broad-based public and political support necessary to implement difficult solutions will require a coalition of the knowing.

There are also myths and urban legends about the Colorado River’s problems that must be dispelled before meaningful forward progress can be achieved. The foremost of these fables holds that there is a simple, silver bullet means of balancing the system. Despite well-meaning proponents who speak with conviction, simply turning off the fountains in Las Vegas or drying up golf courses in Phoenix isn’t going to take care of the problem. Similarly, the unspoken assumption that any necessary water can be obtained by drying up irrigated agriculture fails to acknowledge the very significant economic and cultural disruption that would follow.

The stakes have never been higher, but the level of engagement and willingness to acknowledge all the elephants in the room are also at an all-time peak. This report gives voice to some important ideas for potential refinement and a peek into the evolution of thinking and broad-based education that will be essential in identifying practical and implementable solutions to our common challenges.

— Anne Castle, Assistant Secretary for Water and Science, U.S. Department of Interior

Here’s a guest column written by Doug Kenney and Kate Greenberg that is running in the Boulder Daily Camera. Here’s an excerpt:

Two of the report’s themes stand out to us most clearly:

First, the emphasis on the urgency of the crisis we face. The age of denial is over, and leaders up and down the river are now grasping that we must begin to address this crisis today. Already, the water supply and demand curves have crossed. We are in uncharted territory, dealing with rapidly changing climatic conditions, facing a kind of vulnerability that is very new. So a new approach is also in order. Instead of thinking about how to “increase our supply” when water will be in shorter and shorter supply, we can begin to think about making do with what we have. Seeing our water needs through the lens of vulnerability, especially in this age of increasingly frequent extreme weather events, is the smart way to go. That allows us to stop chasing old solutions, and start coming up with ways to stretch existing supplies while planning ahead for drier days. There is enough water for us to thrive if we’re willing to look at water with this new perspective and act accordingly. This report is useful because it outlines real solutions – like water banking, urban and rural conservation programs, and city/farm water sharing agreements — that are working on the ground now.

Second is the focus on finding solutions to help both our family farms and our towns and cities. The report draws much attention to the possibilities of using temporary water transfers from farms to cities, and other innovative techniques to help farmers thrive and, at the same time, use water more efficiently. Since agriculture uses over 70 percent of surface water in the Colorado River Basin, we can and should help farmers to use their water most efficiently, while focusing on solutions that preserve independent family farms and the rural economy. Farmers simply must be a central part of any effort to ensure water security–and food security–for our region. This report acknowledges that fact while putting forward flexible, voluntary solutions that will work to balance often-conflicting needs.

While we know there are innovative solutions working already, we don’t have a lot of time to scale them up. We are facing an increasingly urgent crisis up and down the river — for communities, for natural systems, and for farms. A big part of that scaling up process is broadening out the conversation about the river and the people and natural systems that depend on it. With an informed, engaged public, we can find our way to a sustainable future in the Colorado River basin. This report is a great next step in the conversation. Learn more, and to advocate your favorite solution please submit by writing to

Doug Kenney is Director of the Western Water Policy Program at the University of Colorado. Kate Greenberg is the Western Organizer with the National Young Farmers Coalition. She is based in Durango.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here and here.

Leave a Reply