In Planning for Future Droughts, There’s Compromise in the Water — Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership

The bathtub ring in Lake Powell in October 2014. Today, the reservoir is under 40 percent full and water managers in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico are working on demand management programs that would reduce water use and send more water to the big reservoir that sits on the mainstem of the Colorado River. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From TRCP (Melinda Kassen):

Western states take another important step toward stabilizing the Colorado River

The snow is deep this year along the Rocky Mountains, the spine of the American West. Today’s fresh powder will melt in the spring, feeding the headwaters and large desert rivers of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and California—the states that comprise the Colorado River Basin.

This region produces most of the nation’s winter vegetables, is home to ten national parks, and boasts millions of acres of wildlife habitat, where deer and antelope play, ducks fly, and fish rise. Healthy snowpack brings relief to the region after 19 years of drought, which drained Lakes Mead and Powell—the big reservoirs in the basin—to less than half full.

So, this wet year is welcome. But it’s not a long-term solution for a river system that is already way over-subscribed. Scientists predict the basin’s future will likely be hotter and, therefore, drier than its past.

The states just signed a drought contingency plan for the next seven years that will almost certainly require real reductions in water use, and this could be painful for those who will have to turn off their spigots.

But, first, here’s how we got to this momentous deal.

Arizona Navy photo via California State University

Water Wars

Exactly how to share limited water resources in the Colorado River Basin has been a debate for decades, almost since the states signed their original compact in 1922. (Many court cases followed.) In the 1930s, Arizona actually formed its own navy to defend its share of the river from California. In the ‘60s, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in. Meanwhile, as cities and farms in the basin grew and prospered, parts of the natural landscape suffered. By the 1990s the Colorado had stopped flowing all the way to the sea most years.

That same decade, most parties laid down their arms (and their lawyers) and decided to try working together. They extended the table to make room for outdoor recreationists and others, from high country skiers and Grand Canyon rafters to hunters and anglers. This group of diverse stakeholders started to negotiate agreements on how the Colorado’s waters would be used.

Three years in the making, the drought contingency plan signed last week is the most recent of these agreements. Now, Congress will have to pass legislation to implement it.

There’s More Conservation to Come

As big a deal as the plan is, it is not without controversy, and it is not the final chapter. It does not solve all the river’s problems, but it is a bridge to get all parties safely to the year 2026, by which point the basin states must negotiate another round of water-use reductions. The good news is that almost everyone is still sitting at the table, proving wrong (for now) Mark Twain’s old adage that whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fighting.

As just one small party in these negotiations, the TRCP is working hard to ensure that one of the benefits is better fishing opportunities.

Leave a Reply