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December 17th, 2012
The Start of a New Era – The Colorado River Basin Study

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Today, the Bureau of Reclamation released a landmark Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study that has the potential to mark a new era in the management of the West’s largest river basin.  The study reaches several important- even historic – findings: 

Status quo water management of the Colorado River is no longer sustainable.  

The study confirms that today, we are using more water from the Colorado River than the river provides.  Without new strategies, over the long-term, if demand continues to outstrip supply, water stored in the basin’s major reservoirs will continue to decline and – inevitably – lead to major water shortages. The study suggests that there is no additional water to be developed in the Basin.  This isnot a new conclusion.  However, coming from the Bureau of Reclamation, with its role as a watermaster on the Colorado, this conclusion carries special weight in the world of water policy.  This new, more realistic estimate of the river’s long-term flow should play a central role in developing short and long-term strategies.    

The Basin Study suggests that proposals to pump more from the river could, in reality, simply reduce someone else’s water supply.   This stark conclusion highlights concerns regarding the reliability of the water supplies that would be produced by expensive proposed pipelines to pump more from the river, as well as potential impacts on existing water users from proposed oil shale development in the Upper Basin.   

The Study suggests that, without a new approach, water users who rely on the Colorado River could face an aquatic version of the fiscal cliff.  Far-sighted elected officials and business leaders should join water managers and environmentalists in calling for ambitious, economically-credible action in response to the study. 

Climate change will reduce the water available from the Colorado River. The Bureau of Reclamation has concluded that climate change will reduce existing river flows in the future. The study is relatively conservative – anticipating approximately a 9 percent decline by mid-century. Many scientific efforts have suggested the possibility of a far larger impact on flows.  The Colorado River Basin is a diverse place, in terms of attitudes toward climate change.  The Bureau’s conclusion represents a conservative estimate that should help establish more common ground on this issue across the Basin.  Climate issues will be central to the future water management decisions.  

There are many cost-effective, common sense solutions to meet water needs:  The study includes several scenarios summarizing options to meet future needs. One of those scenarios includes green, realistic and cost-effective solutions, with a focus on water use efficiency and water recycling.   These tools represent potential common ground – leading to a collaborative, Basin-wide effort to increase water use efficiency and move toward modern river management.   

The study’s conclusions highlight the prescience of the California legislature in passing legislation in 2009 requiring water users to reduce reliance on water imported from the Bay-Delta (where climate change will also reduce future supplies) by investing in local water supply solutions.  Those local solutions, which many cities are already pursuing, can help Southern California prepare for the emerging challenges on the Colorado and establish California as a Basin-wide leader.

The study does include some items that are troubling.  It includes unrealistically high projections for future water demands.  It considers unrealistic potential options such as a pipeline to the Missouri River and the development of massive desalination projects on the California coastline.  The study also includes little focus on the need to restore and maintain a healthy Colorado River. 

But this final oversight has an upside.   Because the study effort was not designed to meet the needs of a truly healthy river, it highlights that the limits on water availability in the Basin have nothing to do with environmental protections.  Those limits have to do with our current demand for water and the amount of water provided by Mother Nature.  Ironically, by excluding the environment, the Basin Study highlights that water users should share the environmental community’s call for a new water ethic across the Southwest.  Here again, this study can provide more common ground for finding solutions. 

It’s worth taking a moment to put this report in the context of the long history of the Colorado River.  In 1893, Major John Wesley Powell famously appeared before the Los Angeles International Irrigation Congress. Powell presented a counterpoint to those who promised limitless water supplies, calling for a different approach, grounded in science and decades of observation:

I wish to make it clear to you, there is not sufficient water to irrigate all the lands which could be irrigated, and only a small portion can be irrigated….I tell you, gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of conflict.

Powell’s predictions proved true.  The Colorado has a long history of conflict over water.   Nevertheless, Basin states came together in 1922, through the Colorado River Compact, and again in subsequent agreements, to develop the framework that has served as the foundation for river management for during past century.  The Basin Study’s conclusions about water supply availability are less rosy than those from a century ago.  That conclusion, as well as the conclusion about climate change and alternatives set the stage for a new approach to meet our needs in the coming century.  The Basin Study is far more restrained, in comparison with Powell’s clarion call for a different approach.  Nevertheless, it could represent an historic moment, providing a foundation for new, realistic and practical solutions that reflect a modern approach to river management. 

Finally – and most importantly – the Basin Study doesn’t lay out a process to reach agreement on that new approach to river management.   The question facing all working on water issues across the Basin is simple. Now that the Basin Study is done, what comes next? 

 

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