As Southwest Water Managers Grapple With Climate Change, Can A ‘Grand Bargain’ Work? — KUNC #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Here’s an in-depth look at administration of the Colorado River from Luke Runyon and Bret Jaspers that’s running on the KUNC website. Click through and read the whole thing. Here’s an excerpt:

Climate change, growing urban populations and fragile rural economies are top of mind. Some within the basin see a window of opportunity to argue for big, bold actions to find balance in the watershed. Others say the best path forward is to take small, incremental steps toward lofty goals, a method Colorado River managers say has worked well for them for decades.

That tension was on full display at a June gathering of water agency leaders, environmentalists, scientists and federal bureaucrats in Boulder, Colorado, where they reflected on the recently signed Colorado River drought contingency plans and began to envision what might be included in a long-term solution. (The conference at the university’s Getches-Wilkinson Center was sponsored in part by the Walton Family Foundation, which also provides funding for KUNC’s Colorado River coverage)

John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s water resources program, and Eric Kuhn, former general manager of the Colorado River District, used the opportunity to shop around a concept they’re calling the “Grand Bargain,” which they say would address the watershed’s fundamental supply and demand imbalance.

From the beginning, Fleck and Kuhn argue in their new book, “Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained The Colorado River,” scientists warned about promising water to too many people in the Southwest, but were sidelined by politicians looking to grow crops and cities. That led to inflated figures in the compact that plague water managers today. The original sin was putting more water on paper than existed in the real world.

That problem has been made clear by a 19-year drought that caused the river’s biggest reservoirs — Lakes Mead and Powell — to drop to their lowest collective volume since they were filled. Studies have shown climate change already sapping the Colorado River’s flow, causing more evaporation, and shrinking the snowpack that feeds it…

The Grand Bargain would rebalance some of the compact’s bad math, Fleck and Kuhn said. In it, the Lower Basin would agree to abandon that longstanding right to demand water from the Upper Basin if it runs short.

In exchange, the Upper Basin would agree to a cap on future water development. For more than a decade, the Upper Basin has used about 4.5 million acre-feet of water annually, well below its compact cap of 7.5 million. But a slate of projects in the Upper Basin represent an attempt to tap into that unused entitlement.

Capping Upper Basin uses and removing the Lower Basin’s ability to call for water would make the whole system more resilient, Fleck said.

“Then both sides are giving up a cherished right and (agreeing to) a compromise that has the potential to then bring some stability and balance in the long run and remove a lot of the risk of really catastrophic conflict,” he said.

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