Four Ways to Ensure Long-Term Water Security in the West

From the Walton Family Foundation (Ted Kowalski):

To avoid Colorado River shortages, we must embrace new ideas to protect water supply.

What will it take to ensure long-term water security in the West?

Over the past two years, we’ve learned the power of collaboration – among water users across state lines and international boundaries – to lower the risk of a severe water crisis in the Colorado River basin.

The Drought Contingency Plan (DCP), signed in May 2019, will save up to 1.1 million acre-feet of river water – enough to fill 500,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools –annually across seven U.S. states. And it triggers additional water savings, agreed to by Mexico.

Young girl enjoying the river restored temporarily by the pulse flow March 2014 via National Geographic

The DCP showed how much can be accomplished when communities recognize they can protect their own interests while working to ensure their neighbors’ needs are also met.

We learned a similar lesson in 2017 when the U.S. and Mexico – at a time of severely strained bilateral relations – renewed a water-sharing agreement that committed both countries to voluntary cutbacks during times of shortage.

Neither of these agreements would have been possible without stakeholders – state and federals governments, conservation NGOs, water managers, farmers, ranchers and native tribes – learning to trust each other to serve the collective best interest.

The lessons of the past three years make me optimistic about the future of the Colorado River and the 40 million people who depend on it for their survival and livelihoods.

But we must always strive to better.

At a global water summit this summer, I was proud to share the successes achieved on the Colorado River. And I gained valuable insights from colleagues around the world that can help us ensure a stable water supply for the Colorado River and its communities.

Lesson #1. Water is a human right, and we need to recognize that across sectors and borders to succeed. Because rivers belong to all of us, even as we recognize existing water rights and allocations, we must recognize we will make more progress by working together as a basin to ensure a healthy river and a water-secure future for all the communities that depend upon it.

We need to see ‘the other side’ as humans first. In the foundation’s work with partners in the U.S. and Mexico, we shared meals with one another and learned about each other’s families and goals and challenges. The importance of developing relationships and friendships cannot be overstated.

Lesson #2. We need to place a higher priority on protecting and acknowledging the environment. The health of the river itself is critically important – and the river should not have to settle for the leftovers in water-use negotiations. While the 2017 U.S. Mexico agreement included specific measures to restore the Colorado River Delta in Mexico, and the System Conservation Pilot Program incidentally and indirectly provided some environmental flow benefits in the upper basin, we need to do better. We must consider the environmental health of the river to be as important as the needs for hydro power or agricultural and municipal uses.

Morelos Dam. Photo credit American Rivers.

Lesson #3. The Colorado River basin will continue to face water shortages over the next several decades due to future droughts and changes in climate. Water and climate are inextricably linked. If you care about climate change, you care about water issues. We need to recognize their connection. We must find ways to use watershed health work to mitigate for climate change by, for example, assisting landowners to protect and restore forests and rangeland. We cannot solve the water and climate change issues in a vacuum. We need to solve them together.

Wyoming rancher Freddie Botur walking across rocks that form the diversion structure at his headgate on Cottonwood Creek, a tributary of the Green River. Botur was paid to let water flow past these headgates and down the river system toward Lake Powell as part of the System Conservation Pilot Program. Photo credit: Jim Paussa via Aspen Journalism

Lesson #4. We need all hands on deck to solve the problems we’re facing on the Colorado River. At 2019 World Water Week conference, I was struck by the incredible diversity of participants and the remarkable number of young professionals working on water issues.

This is most welcome. We need the energy, creativity and hope that young people can bring to solving problems. We also we need to do better at including underrepresented voices in decisions about the future of the Colorado River.

In the U.S., native American tribes have not always had a seat at the water table. We need their strong voices to find water solutions that can allow us to thrive, not just now, but for generations. We need their traditional ecological knowledge to better manage this river for sustainability and for the health of the river.

Many Indian reservations are located in or near contentious river basins where demand for water outstrips supply. Map courtesy of the Bureau of Reclamation.

And we need to extend invitations to other under-represented and diverse voices – from rural communities, Latinx communities, and others. We cannot succeed without them.

Despite the water challenges facing us in the Colorado River basin and literally all over this globe, I’m looking forward to the future with great hope and renewed energy. We cannot fail to rise up to these challenges. Success, together, is the only option.

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