Opinion | In the Colorado River Basin, challenges and solutions aren’t limited to compact compliance
Colorado Mesa University Hutchins Water Center
Our rivers are shrinking, populations are rising, and many rural communities are suffering from drought and economic dislocation.
Urban water use is declining, despite population growth, and communities are transforming their rivers from utilitarian conveyances into playgrounds and economic development engines.
Farmers and conservation organizations are partnering to help fish, and scientists are developing better forecasting tools, which will help everyone plan better for whatever quantity of water is coming their way.
All these statements were among the messages delivered by speakers at the Upper Colorado River Basin Water Forum at Colorado Mesa University in November.
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As reported by the Grand Junction Sentinel and KUNC, participants were warned that the Upper Basin States of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming are at risk of getting into trouble with the terms of the 1922 Compact between the states that share the Colorado River. A “demand management” program to compensate water users for voluntary, temporary cuts in their Colorado River water use is the most commonly discussed “insurance policy” for managing this risk. The upper basin states are studying the feasibility of this option now.
The risk of failing to meet downstream obligations, and therefor face mandatory, uncompensated water use cuts, is real. However, as other speakers at the forum demonstrated, our regional water challenges go far beyond compact compliance, and state officials aren’t the only ones with the capacity to take action.
Even without compact trouble, many agricultural communities are regularly short of water because the mountains don’t always catch enough snow for the fields we want to irrigate. The Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch Enterprise, which operates southwest of Cortez and irrigates with water from the Dolores Project, often gets less than its full supply. Enterprise managers respond by adjusting their crop plans in accordance with spring supply forecasts and employing highly efficient sprinkler technology. They also run a mill to add value to their corn crops, which brings more dollars per drop to the tribe as well as more employment opportunities.
Urban communities also have responded to water stress with leak detection programs, pricing strategies and consumer education that have significantly dropped per capita consumption — with a big assist from more efficient toilets and appliances. New technologies and policies for cleaning up sewage to potable standards, individuals’ choices to install water-thrifty landscapes and denser development patterns offer the promise of further stretching supplies.
Wildfires have been getting fiercer as a result of beetle kill, hot and dry climate conditions and years of suppression that let fuels build up. Most of our rivers originate in high mountain forests, and when those forests burn hot and intense, subsequent storms can wash fish-choking ash and sediment into streams and foul up water diversion infrastructure. Speakers from southwest Colorado discussed how federal, state and local groups, including private sector forest product firms, are working together to improve forest health and resilience through thinning and prescribed fire as well as by educating property owners on creating defensible spaces around buildings.
At the same time as our rivers have begun shrinking (on average), we’ve started expecting more from them: In addition to supplying water to our taps and fields, we want them to continue to nurture native fish and provide us with enjoyable boating experiences. Speakers working in the Price River watershed in Utah described how conservation organizations have built relationships with local farmers and brought resources to the table to improve how diversions, ditches and reservoirs serve all these interests.
The examples above demonstrate that those of us who care about the Colorado River, its tributaries and its communities don’t have to limit ourselves to wringing our hands over the seemingly intractable challenge of balancing supply and demand on the Colorado River and sit passively by, hoping that state, federal and tribal leaders will find a good fix. Getting involved in those discussions is good, but so is getting to know your neighbors on your local stream, learning how water works in your community and finding ways to work together on whatever your particular challenges are. In addressing those challenges, you might even end up contributing to basinwide solutions.
Hannah Holm coordinates the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University, which promotes research, education and dialogue to address the water issues facing the Upper Colorado River Basin. Support for Hutchins Water Center columns is provided by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. Learn more at coloradomesa.edu/water-center.
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