Building a New Future for the Colorado River

Audubon's new Colorado River Project director, Jennifer Pitt, talks about how we can save one of the country's most iconic waterways.

Over the past century, the dams and diversions built to support the explosive growth of cities and agriculture in the American West have left the once-mighty Colorado River a shadow of its former self. The river, which once flowed straight to the Gulf of California, and through parts of Mexico, is now fully allocated for human use, and dries up some 100 miles short of the sea, disrupting the riparian ecosystems along the river's banks. With climate change promising to make water an even scarcer commodity, it’s more important than ever that water-management plans in the West take the health of the river and the wildlife it supports into account.

That’s where Jennifer Pitt, the National Audubon Society’s new Colorado River project director, comes in. Before joining Audubon last winter, Pitt spent 17 years working on Colorado River projects for the Environmental Defense Fund, including taking part in the negotiations for Minute 319, an historic water-sharing agreement between the United States and Mexico. Through that treaty, conservationists were able to secure a delivery of 34 billion gallons water to the Colorado River Delta; that release of water allowed the Colorado River to flow all the way to the Gulf of California for the first time in decades, providing a desperately needed shot of hydration to the delta’s ecosystems. In her role at Audubon, Pitt is working on the negotiations for the second iteration of the Minute 319 agreement, in addition to increasing Audubon’s role in western water policy to ensure the Colorado River is used to support both people and wildlife.

Pitt spoke with Audubon about how she’s hoping to change the future of the Colorado River, and why the moment is ripe for productive partnerships between conservationists and other Colorado River stakeholders.

Audubon: Why are we at a such a critical moment for the Colorado River?


Jennifer Pitt: There is no excess water in the Colorado River; it’s all been over-allocated. From a water supply perspective, or water user’s perspective, the fact that demand now exceeds supply is the big story. The reservoirs are 50 percent empty right now—as an average—and in the last 15 years of drought, instead of reducing uses, we’ve been emptying what’s in storage. And we can’t do that forever, obviously.

A: What’s been the impact on wildlife that depends on the river?

JP: Eighty percent of the water in the Colorado River starts out as snow: It snows in the mountains and then over the late spring and summer, that snow begins to melt and it flows into headwater creeks and flows downstream and into the bigger rivers, eventually flowing all the way down to the Upper Gulf of California. The riparian forests—the cottonwoods and willows—evolved along with these big spring and summer floods. For those trees to grow or reproduce, they need to have floods that get onto the river bank. That’s how you sustain healthy riparian forests over time.

But that water cycle has been quite altered by the extensive building of reservoir storage on this river and by all the diversions. From the bird’s-eye view, there’s been a loss of the healthy riparian forests extensively through the entire watershed. 

In the Colorado River Delta, the environmental impact of the imbalance between supply and demand has been quite extreme. The delta was North America’s most significant desert estuary—380 bird species have used the habitat in the delta. Remnant wetlands in the region support 70 percent of the entire population of the Yuma Ridgeway's Rail, an endangered bird. But until the Minute 319 treaty in 2012, the delta had been decimated.  

A: How do we ensure that in the midst of this water crisis, wildlife and their habitats get their due?

JP: A couple of decades ago, the conservation community on its own had all these ideas about how to change water management to be more in line with what we need for healthy rivers to support fish and wildlife. And we weren’t making a lot of progress, because water users had a management system that was working for them.

We’re now in a moment where everything is not working for the water users. The water stored in Colorado River reservoirs is declining nearly every year, and we're witnessing an extended drought. Climate change is already decreasing water availability in this region, and over the next several decades we’ll see the impact of those reduced flows playing out to an even greater degree. On top of that, more and more people continue to move into this region.

Water users and managers across this region have been forced to a day of reckoning; they have to take a fresh look at how water is managed and used in this region. And as they're doing that, Audubon has an opportunity to come to the table to look for places where river and water management can align better with what we need to sustain healthy habitats for birds and wildlife.

A: Why has the existing legal framework been so challenging to work with?

JP: Let me take you back to the first European settlers who moved out to this region to mine. There was a gold rush here around 1859 and in order to do the mining they needed a water supply. Some guy went up to the mountains and he diverts the creek so he has a flow going through. So he’s got his mine up and running and he’s getting gold and getting rich. The next spring, some other dude comes and claims a mining claim further up the mountain. Now the first guy who was there, his water dries out because the guy uphill from him is diverting the water. It’s on that settlement pattern that the one of the fundamentals of water management was established—and it’s called the Doctrine of Prior Appropriations: The first person who diverted the water has the most senior right and the new guy is not allowed to take water until the first person gets all of their water.

A: Is this system outdated?

JP: It’s just the way it is. There’s not going to be a revolution; we’re not trying to wipe the legal system clean and start over from scratch. Thousands of people own water rights, and this is the United States of America, so we’re not going to seize their property. So the question is, how can you—within the constraints of this existing system—build policies and programs and investments and infrastructure that meet 21st century water needs? The fundamental thing we need to ensure is that we’re taking care of our rivers is to include river health as one factor when making decisions.

A: What’s the big project on your plate right now?

JP: Minute 319 expires in 2017, and at the moment, the United States and Mexico are engaged in figuring out the next agreement. They don’t want to just let the agreement expire; they want a new version, which might be exactly the same or it might be modified. I’m working on trying to make sure that that agreement has solid components that ensure that the water deliveries go to environmental purposes. And I’m also working on making sure that we’re implementing the existing commitments to flows and dollars in restoration [for the existing agreement].

A: When people think about river conservation, they probably don’t realize how much of it is negotiating.

JP: The romantic image of the work someone like me does might be that I spend a lot of time on rivers, but in fact, I spend a lot of time working with people in conference rooms. Everybody uses water. Colorado River water irrigates some 15 percent of our nation's agricultural output. Millions and millions of people have Colorado River water coming out of their taps. And of course, many people are interested in water and rivers for the habitat it provides for birds, and all wildlife in the West. Water is everything out here. So what we’re looking for is areas of common ground. We're all in this together, and we’re going to need to find ways to work through it together.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.