The Colorado River is Unpredictable, but its Policies and Management Shouldn’t Be

Audubon weighs in on federal decisions in the short and long-term.
A bright yellow bird perches on a thorny branch against a blurred green background.
Yellow-breasted Chat. Photo: Gary Robinette/Audubon Photography Awards

The wet winter of 2022-2023 followed more than two decades of drought in the Colorado River Basin. The snowmelt boosted system reservoirs by about 10 percent, an extremely fortunate turn of events. But the reality remains that system reservoirs are more than half empty. In the Colorado River Basin there will always be wet years and dry years, but climate change means the overall trend is warmer, drier, with less water availability.

In the midst of this variability, federal and state leaders are developing new rules for sharing the Colorado River, working simultaneously on a short-term fix (born of crisis conditions in 2022 that were partially alleviated by the wet winter) and a long-term reset adaptive to climate change. Here’s where they are:

The short-term fix is being addressed in the “Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for Near-Term Colorado River Operations” setting rules for Colorado River shortages though 2026. The federal Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) issued a draft study earlier this year that proposed different ways to impose shortages but paused the process to consider a plan developed by Arizona, California and Nevada. Audubon weighed in with a letter to Reclamation on concerns about how management impacts birds. As we pointed out, freshwater-dependent habitats in the Colorado River Basin support more than 70 percent of all wildlife during some phase of their life cycle. The riparian vegetation that still lines some of the waterways of the Colorado River Basin provides crucially important habitat for wildlife, especially birds, including Yellow-breasted Chat, Bell’s Vireo, and Southwestern Willow Flycatcher. Sometime this fall, Reclamation will re-issue the draft study, and Audubon will respond with comments focused on protecting bird habitats. Reclamation’s final study is expected by December 2023, with a final Record of Decision in January 2024.

Reclamation also initiated the long-term process to define post-2026 operational guidelines and strategies for the Colorado River’s major reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead. This is a multi-year process under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) that will identify a range of alternatives and determine operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead and other water management actions for potentially decades into the future. The existing operational guidelines for the Colorado River were adopted in 2007, amended to address drought conditions, and expire in 2026. Audubon submitted scoping comments as did more than 20,000 Audubon network members. Over the next year, we will propose management alternatives that prioritize preservation of habitats, sustainable water supply management, and improved resilience for the Colorado River Basin. We will have another opportunity to comment when Reclamation issues their draft study of management alternatives near the end of 2024. We expect their final study and decision by the end of 2025.

That’s a lot of federal and state decisions and actions that will impact management of the river’s water supply, and doesn’t even cover other, related processes that will take place at the same time. These include revision of the endangered species management programs to ensure they comply with the law as Colorado River flows are reduced, revision of flow protocols for the Grand Canyon, and renegotiation between the United States and Mexico of the Treaty agreements (Minutes) for management of the Colorado River at the border.

Reclamation has a large job to do over the next several years, and needs to maintain orderly, transparent and accessible decision-making processes to ensure states, Tribes, water users and other stakeholders can participate and be heard, as this is the only way to ensure we end up with a Colorado River that meets everyone’s needs. That’s a tall order, but the stakes couldn’t be higher for the 40 million people that share the river with all of the region’s birds and other wildlife.