How to Negotiate for Peace, Resilience, and Environment on the Colorado River

Audubon’s letter to address historically low water supplies.

**Este artículo se puede encontrar en español**

Audubon is deeply concerned about current Colorado River conditions, a crisis in the making for birds and people. Current government modeling shows the potential within the next 24 months, there could be a “day zero” scenario where reservoir water supplies fall so much that major dams are unable to reliably release water. This puts communities and wildlife at risk. We recently responded to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s (USBR) request for comments on their upcoming process to establish new rules for Colorado River management (“pre-scoping for post-2026 Colorado River Reservoir Operational Strategies for Lake Powell and Lake Mead Under Historically Low Reservoir Conditions”), making the case for good governance that will increase Colorado River Basin resilience to climate change with improved outcomes for people and nature.

The Colorado River is legendary for supporting the growth of the American West, to the point where today it supplies 40 million people and underpins an economy exceeding $1 trillion. However, thirty sovereign Tribes that have been in the basin since time immemorial have not been included in management discussions, and in many cases do not have access to their Colorado River water rights.

The river and its tributaries are also the foundation of life in the region, essential in supporting more than 70 percent of all wildlife. The riparian forest that lines the waterways of the Colorado River Basin provides critical habitat for birds, including 400 species along the Lower Colorado River alone. Scores of dams and diversions have altered river flows, resulting in invasive shrubs that have replaced native trees and diminished habitat value. With less native habitat available, at least six breeding bird species that rely on the Colorado River Basin, including the Bell's Vireo, Summer Tanager, Yellow-breasted Chat, Yellow Warbler, Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, and Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo, have experienced significant population declines.

Immediate water conservation is needed to prevent the near-term crisis, but the conditions driving the crisis are not expected to abate, pointing to the need for structural changes in Colorado River management. To achieve structural changes in such a complex and high stakes setting will require USBR and all Colorado River stakeholders—the Tribes, states, local governments, water users, and environmental and recreational interests—to view the basin as a whole and work collaboratively to define solutions. Here’s what Audubon wants to see (for a more complete discussion, see our letter):

  • Transparency
  • Inclusivity
  • Prioritization of Mexico’s role in Colorado River management
  • A broad purpose and need for the federal rulemaking, to ensure it serves the full range of stakeholders, not just water rights holders
  • Sound science
  • Honest evaluation and communication about available reservoir water supplies
  • Decision-making that anticipates uncertain future conditions
  • Management that avoids crises
  • Priority given to water supply reliability
  • Evaluation of the difference between water shortages and voluntary, compensated reductions in water use
  • Increased flexibility in Colorado River management
  • Priority given to environmental water needs and environmental justice
  • Consideration for how management options will interact with other responses to conditions on the Colorado River