Climate change is unfolding as a water supply crisis in the Colorado River Basin. Competition over water is on the rise, but I hold out hope that these extraordinary conditions will actually increase opportunities for stakeholders whose interests have historically been set aside.
I’ve spent decades working in the basin to improve water management, looking for alignment between solutions for birds and other wildlife and solutions for people. Progress has been slow, hampered by the Law of the River – the laws, treaties, compacts, court decisions and regulations that apply in the Colorado River Basin— that is notoriously complex, difficult to change, and favors water development for agriculture and cities at the expense of water for tribal communities and the river itself.
Crisis has a focusing effect. Last winter, snowpack that measured at 90% of average resulted in river flows of only 30%, a stunning decline attributed to warm, dry weather and thirsty soils (created by warm, dry weather). The current season has gotten off to a rough start, with snowpack in early December at only 49% of average for this time of year. These conditions are unprecedented and deeply unsettling, yet I see evidence that water managers are reaching agreements with stakeholders previously excluded and adopting solutions at a pace previously unimaginable.
Lower Colorado River water managers are beginning to make big changes, needing to manage unprecedented shortages from Lake Mead—the largest reservoir in the country. That enormous reservoir and its sister Lake Powell are more empty than full. Lower Colorado River water managers, who supply drinking water to tens of millions of people, need to avoid the “day zero” crisis that plagued Cape Town, South Africa in 2018.
Arizona, California, and Nevada are already required to reduce Colorado River water uses in 2022, but their water managers are so worried about the shrinking water supply that they are voluntarily working to nearly double the volume of water conserved to stem the decline of the reservoirs. At this year’s conference of the Colorado River Water Users Association, I expect them to announce a deal that will mean 2022 Colorado River water use in the three states is reduced by nearly 18% compared to their full supply. They reached this latest agreement in a manner of weeks. Also, rather than imposing water shortages, the states have come up with $100 million—potentially matched by another $100 million from the federal treasury—to compensate water users who volunteer to use less. Among the water users who will benefit from these payments for non-use are some Tribes with Colorado River water rights who have not been able to participate in water markets due to legal restrictions on use of their water off-reservation (Audubon helped to facilitate a similar tribal water transaction in 2020). Mexico will also be reducing Colorado River water use under the terms of treaty agreements.
Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming face a different set of risks than the Lower Basin states. In the Upper Colorado Basin, dozens of large tributary rivers define the landscape, and drought unfolds locally. Snowpack acts as water storage, and as warmer temperatures shorten the snow season, rivers are running lower and warmer.
Upper Basin states are also contending with the prospect of losing hydropower from the Glen Canyon Dam (and its revenues that fund environmental programs), as well as the looming specter of needing to curtail water uses to comply with the terms of the Colorado River Compact.
In 2021, federal reservoirs in the Upper Basin released water to bolster Lake Powell, management that frustrated many local stakeholders when their river rafting and recreation season—and the businesses it supports—ended abruptly. Yet emptying reservoirs is a limited fix that cannot be repeated often as they may take years to refill. Upper Basin water managers are considering other solutions, including a demand management program that would pay water users to reduce uses on a voluntary and temporary basis. If the states adopt a proactive demand management program, Audubon will advocate for guidelines that ensure the conserved water will create benefits to river habitats, also known as environmental flows, on its way downstream.
As the power brokers throughout the basin figure out how to live with less water, it’s worth remembering that Native American Tribes and many Colorado River Basin freshwater habitats have effectively lived with water shortages for many decades. Many homes on tribal reservations still do not have water service, and the 1.5 million acre Colorado River Delta ecosystem disappeared years ago.
Fortunately, there is good news to report. The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) provides $3.4 billion for water connections on tribal reservations, fully funding the need as defined by the federal Indian Health Service. This investment will deliver significant environmental justice benefits, ensuring that in the United States, where water service is assumed, Tribes are not left behind. It will also allow tribes to develop their water rights without negotiating them away in exchange for funding, which happened historically all too often. On top of the funding to benefit tribes, the IIJA allocated millions of dollars to the Colorado River and federal programs that encourage water conservation and drought relief.
Finally, some freshwater habitats are getting much overdue attention from Colorado River decision-makers. When the United States and Mexico sought to reach agreement on how to prepare for climate change and share shortages on the Colorado River, Raise the River (a coalition that includes Audubon) successfully advocated to include environmental flows for the long-desiccated Colorado River Delta. In 2021, following the 2014 delta pulse flow, the two countries cooperated again to send water to the Delta, creating environmental and social benefits and reconnecting the river to the sea.
Rapid change in the Colorado River water supply is happening – unfortunately, we don’t get much say in that. But how the basin’s water managers and stakeholders respond is a choice. Not doing anything is a choice (and one that I fear would have devastating consequences for people and nature). With proactive responses there is an opportunity to create meaningful change that reduces harms, and even to improve social and environmental outcome. I have long worried that the decentralized governance framework in the Colorado Basin won’t be able to keep up with the pace of change as climate change exacerbates an historic drought. Right now I see glimmers of hope that the people and institutions in charge can act quickly. I hope the Colorado River Basin can avoid gridlock.