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More Conservation, Cooperation Vital to Our New Era of Water Shortages

New evidence tells us water shortages aren’t going away in the Colorado River Basin. They’ll likely just get worse. Survival requires new funding sources and a new commitment to conservation.

Written by Ted Kowalski Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A paddleboarder floats by Lone Rock and its “bathtub ring” on Lake Powell in March 2015 near Big Water, Utah. As chronic water shortages grip parts of the Western United States, a below-average flow of water is expected to flow through the Colorado River Basin into two of its biggest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The Colorado River Basin supplies water to 40 million people in seven states.Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The agency tasked with managing water and power in the West recently issued its annual report on projected future water levels at Lake Mead, the reservoir that provides water to Arizona, Nevada and California. This report by the Bureau of Reclamation confirmed that it will not impose mandatory water cutbacks in 2019. But it also projected a more than 50 percent chance of cutbacks in 2020 if water levels in the lake continue their decline and fall below 1,075ft.

This latest report reflects the gravity of the situation in the Colorado River Basin and reinforces what many of us across the West already know: “Aridification” is the new normal. We know the Southwest is a warm and dry climate, and it is only getting warmer and drier. Scientists tell us it’s no longer accurate to call this a drought, which implies that a brighter, wetter future is right around the corner.

While the Colorado River Basin might still see some wet years, they’ll be the exception, not the norm. Even several good years of rain and snow won’t supply enough water to the river to meet unchecked demand, and drought and hotter temperatures mean reduced snowpack and early snowmelt, leaving us with far less water when we need it most.

We were able to avoid an official “shortage declaration” this year, but only by the skin of our teeth.

This is why it’s more important than ever to accept that the West will continue to get warmer and drier. We must plan for what to do when, not if, we’re faced with shortage conditions.

Though the challenges we face on the Colorado River are significant, there are clear solutions. But we have to update how we use and manage our water. The Colorado River is overallocated and future water supplies are less reliable. Continued conservation and innovative partnerships are essential to avoid a crisis in the near future.

The Colorado River Basin storage has dropped by more than 4 million acre-feet (approximately 7 percent of the total storage capacity) since this time last year.

In order to help avoid or delay a shortage declaration in 2020, the basin states should adopt, and immediately begin to implement, drought contingency plans (DCPs) in both the lower and upper Colorado River basins. These DCPs are already being drafted, and they are an urgent priority. These DCPs would: 1. Commit the lower basin states to proactively conserve water prior to a shortage declaration; 2. Set forth additional water conservation commitments to avoid the likelihood of Lake Mead dropping to catastrophic levels; and 3. Provide appropriate incentives to promote conservation.

Those DCP agreements are critical to negotiating shared reductions in water use to prevent water levels at Lake Mead from falling to critically low levels, to help ensure that conservation will continue in the basin, and to demonstrate that water users can continue to develop innovative mechanisms to efficiently manage water supplies.

In the wake of a public dispute earlier this year, Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Brenda Burman and leaders across the basin called on the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Central Arizona Project to put aside their disagreements and come back to the negotiating table to finalize a DCP for Arizona. The initial planning underway in Arizona is a critical step, but more action is needed across the basin.

For instance, in Colorado, state leaders need to identify a new, long-term funding source to implement critical aspects of Colorado’s Water Plan, including the protection of river health, developing alternatives to “buy and dry” as a water management strategy, ensuring watershed resiliency and encouraging municipal conservation and reuse.

And while current conservation efforts have been crucial – and have helped stave off shortages in the Lower Basin – many of these efforts are still in the early stages, and must be further developed. We need local, state and federal leaders to continue their support for these pioneering conservation efforts so that they can be scaled up and achieve the level of forward-looking conservation that can hold off shortage, result in a basin in balance, and promote flexible water management for people and the environment.

The Colorado River flows through every aspect of our lives in the West. Whether the recreation opportunities in Colorado’s outdoors bring your family closer together, or your family has owned a ranch for generations, our way of life depends on the health of the Colorado River.

Famed writer and environmentalist Wallace Stegner wrote in his book “The Sound of Mountain Water”: “One cannot be pessimistic about the West. This is the native home of hope. When it fully learns that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the quality that most characterizes and preserves it, then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origins.”

The spirit that built the West was one of cooperation and interdependence. We can take the difficult steps needed to protect the Colorado River and safeguard the West’s future. But only if we forge ahead in that same spirit of cooperation, and commit to securing a stable water future for the millions who depend on it.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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