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On the Water Front: What We Need to Know About What’s Really Happening to the Colorado River

During the Colorado River Water Users’ Association (CRWUA) Conference, there was a lot of talk about how much constituents truly know about the Colorado River that sustains them. Now that we may be in an era when talk of drought may soon be replaced by sobering conversations on aridification, this is a good time for us to explore the real state of the river.

Let’s catch up “on the water front” and assess the complex and increasingly complicated reality of the Colorado River that sustains us all.

Colorado River 101: Just how much water is there, and how many people depend on it?
Photo by Andrew Davey

The Colorado River is supposed to channel about 1,500 miles, from La Poudre Pass Lake in Northern Colorado to the Gulf of California in Northern Mexico. But in recent years, it’s become a rarity to see Colorado River water flow all the way to it’s natural terminus, as the river has become the lifeblood for some 40 million Americans, 15% of American agricultural products, and $1.4 trillion worth of economic activity.

Of course, the Las Vegas region that’s served by the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) is part of this increasingly complex equation. So are all or parts of the Denver, Albuquerque, Salt Lake City, Tucson, Phoenix, Los Angeles/Orange County, Riverside/San Bernardino, and San Diego metropolitan areas. Yet because several Native American tribes and Mexico are also legally entitled to Colorado River water, this complex equation has increasingly led to legal and political complications. And yes, this equation has only become more complicated over the past century of diverting water and allocating it to once sparsely populated areas that have since become bustling metropolises (see above).

Photo by Andrew Davey

And now, there’s an increasingly potent environmental complication: climate change. Over the past two decades, much of the American West has felt hotter and drier than in years further past. The Colorado River has been anything but immune to these changes. Colorado River flow has already declined 16% over the past century, and river flow may decline another 20-35% over the next century due to a combination of greater evapotranspiration, more rain falling in areas where limited precipitation makes it to the river, and less rain falling in the areas that tend to sustain the river.

If there’s too much demand, not enough supply, complex science, and complicated politics, how do we fix this problem?
Photo by Andrew Davey

This leads us to the inevitable question of how we fix this imbalance. For years, environmentalists here in Nevada and nationally have called upon communities throughout the Southwest to rethink the way we grow and develop. Yet thus far, there’s still resistance throughout the region to the very notion that unchecked suburban and exurban sprawl is counterproductive in that it exacerbates the climate change that’s harming our water supply.

Still, there has been some positive movement in recent years. In California and Colorado, state policies now require that climate change be taken into account when planning for the future. And both here in Nevada as well as in Arizona, local water agencies are factoring climate change into their planning. This then leads to the question of what all the Colorado River stakeholders will do to adapt to an uncertain future that may ultimately be defined by permanent aridification of the Colorado River Basin.

So why couldn’t everyone agree on a plan to adapt to the shrinking river, and is there still a chance they can reach an agreement soon?
Photo by Andrew Davey

At last year’s CRWUA Conference, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman called on all seven Colorado River states to have drought contingency plans (DCP’s) ready to sign and implement by December 2018. Though all four Upper Colorado River Basin states (Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah) and Nevada met that deadline, California and Arizona did not. And though California is tantalizingly close to finalizing its DCP, Arizona remains up in the air. And even if these final two holdouts meet Burman’s new January 31, 2019, DCP deadline, Nevada may still feel the effects of previous DCP delays thanks to Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District threatening to begin removing its reserve water from Lake Mead next month.

If Metropolitan Water District follows through on this threat, the federal government will probably have to declare a Colorado River water shortage earlier in 2019. Absent a comprehensive DCP framework for all seven states, Arizona will be among the hardest hit by federally mandated water cuts. And yet, due to internal disagreement over whether to pump more groundwater to benefit agricultural interests in Pinal County, Arizona’s challenge in securing a final DCP has left the entire Lower Colorado River Basin (Nevada, Arizona, and California) in a very precarious situation.

Photo by Andrew Davey

In summary, the laws of economics and the science of our environment have led us into this epic challenge on the Colorado River. A naturally arid region has suddenly become responsible for the survival of some 40 million people, the fossil fuel emissions associated with this sudden growth have contributed to the dwindling of our regional water supply, and competing demands for this dwindling supply often complicate efforts to reach the kind of agreement that avoids the doomsday scenario of mandated cuts and runaway litigation over our shared, limited water supply. There are signs of hope that all sides can eventually reach agreements and make progress in building a more sustainable future, yet it remains to be seen if we can actually sustain that energy and make that next first step by simply meeting that January 31 deadline.

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