Will the Colorado River States Agree?

Consensus would bring better outcomes and avoid legal battles.
Belted Kingfishers. Photo: Charles Wheeler/Audubon Photography Awards

This week, the seven states that share the Colorado River published their proposals for managing the water supply after 2026. The good news is that they all, finally, acknowledge that climate change is real and shrinking the river, and that future uses of Colorado River water will need to be constrained. That’s important, because existing rules for sharing the river leave water users at risk of extreme shortages (think: day zero ahead) and hang many of the river’s ecosystems out to dry, meaning habitat loss for the hundreds of bird species that depend on these oases in the arid West.

The bad news? The states are nowhere near agreement on how to manage these constraints. Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming (the Upper Basin States) point to their downstream neighbors to reduce water uses, noting that water users in the Upper Basin states who don’t have the benefit of living downstream from the two largest reservoirs in the United States already face physical limits on supply. The Upper Basin States do suggest they could make further reductions to their water uses, but do not detail how or when that would be implemented. Arizona, California, and Nevada (the Lower Basin States) acknowledge the need to make large reductions in their water uses, but in the driest conditions call for steady (albeit reduced) flows from their upstream neighbors, regardless of actual hydrology.

Who is right? None of them, because what’s needed is a solution that all seven states—and Mexico—can agree to. Without a seven-state consensus, the federal government will have to issue management rules that the states—all seven or even just one—would likely take to court.

Plenty of ink has been spilled over the fact that existing law—much of enacted a century ago—is ill-suited as the basis for management of the Colorado River in the era of climate change, not to mention equity for Tribes and resilience of the natural world around us. High-stakes litigation between states would take management decisions away from Colorado River experts appointed by elected leaders and give it to the Supreme Court. We can probably all agree that the expertise of those esteemed justices does not extend to the complexities of Colorado River management. Moreover, interstate litigation would not only paralyze progress towards adapting Colorado River management to climate change, but also would severely limit opportunities for other parties to be heard, such as the 30 sovereign Tribes in the Colorado River Basin, the Republic of Mexico, and environmental interests.

Audubon and our conservation partners have been working to define elements of Colorado River management that will help ensure the future viability of the places on which birds depend such as the riverside forests and wetlands in the Grand Canyon and along Lower Colorado River. We know that future management will need to intentionally support these habitats if they are to survive climate change. We have great hope that there can be a healthy future for birds like the Yuma Ridgway’s Rail and the Yellow-Billed Cuckoo, but to get there, we need seven states to come together and figure out how to share the water. I am holding out hope that representatives of the seven basin states can set aside the question of who is right, and work together to forge a solution for how we manage the Colorado River together, for all the people and other living things that depend on it.