We Must Save the Drought-Stricken Colorado River—Here's How
The Colorado River is in trouble, and so are the water supplies of seven U.S. states, dozens of Native American Tribes, and parts of northwestern Mexico. Recent news reports have focused almost exclusively on the current megadrought, but the underlying management system of the river needs urgent attention. It is alarming to see the institutions we depend on starting to unravel.
We can't continue to operate from crisis to crisis in perpetuity; we need to begin addressing now the foundational interstate agreement that got us into this situation. Because the region's water managers are now engaged in high stakes discussions with dramatic consequences, it is hard to get anyone to focus on the bigger-picture, longer-term challenges. But it is imperative that we do so. The longer we wait to resolve some of the structural issues in the water management system, the more conflict and consequences there will be for the regional economy, river ecosystems, and vulnerable communities, including Native peoples.
Climate and water experts have long pointed to the looming crisis caused by a combination of overuse and climate change. But now the Colorado River and its managers face a stark reality, with the volume of water in the two major reservoirs, Lakes Mead and Powell, down to 25 percent of capacity.
If water supply for a population of over 40 million and the irrigation needs of over five million acres of agriculture across the Southwest and Mexico were the only issues, this would be a scary moment—but there is more at stake. Water levels in Powell and Mead are nearing the point beyond which the turbines in Glen Canyon and Hoover dams will no longer be able to generate electricity—leading to potentially reduced reliability of the electric grid as soon as this summer. In addition, if Powell's storage approaches "dead pool," below which Glen Canyon Dam can no longer release water, there will no longer be regular flows in the Grand Canyon and to downstream users. Implications for the economy, the environment, recreation, and endangered species are alarming.
Meanwhile, there are legitimate claims that water use should be increased for some water rights holders, particularly Native American Tribes who historically have been marginalized. On paper, 22 Tribes have been allocated roughly 3.2 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River system, but many of these "paper rights" have not provided Tribes any "wet water" because of major gaps in infrastructure and other resources. In addition, there are at least 10 Tribes who have not had their water rights claims addressed at all.
It is hard to argue that the existing management system is capable of dealing with all of this. How did we get to this point? And how can we transition to a viable future?
It began when the Colorado River Compact was signed 100 years ago—when more water rights were allocated than the average flow of the river system. The initial allocations were set in fixed terms, based on two decades of unusually wet years from 1900 to 1920. In combination with subsequent allocations to Mexico, more water was allocated than the long term average flow. As the Lower Basin states of Arizona, California, and Nevada increased their use, the outflows from the reservoirs exceeded the inflows. It is now apparent that the current allocation system is unsustainable.
Beyond the initial overallocation, stress on the river system's water supplies has been growing as rising temperatures associated with climate change have increased evaporative losses and reduced soil moisture, leading to 20 percent less runoff. We are now in the grip of the most severe drought in the last 1200 years. Although decades-long droughts have occurred in the past—as documented by tree-ring studies, an accurate proxy of past river flows—we are now experiencing "hot drought." The impact of increased temperature on the river system's flows over the last two decades has been dramatic, catching even seasoned climate experts and water managers by surprise. And this is an ongoing trend—warming will continue to reduce flows over time.
Although the seven basin states have worked over the past 50 years to avoid lawsuits like the epic 1963 case, Arizona v. California, the days of negotiated "incremental" adjustments to the Colorado River Compact's provisions are drawing to a close. Recent proposals for how to cut back water use to protect power production in the reservoirs now pit the California (and its agricultural districts, which have large, senior water rights) against the six other basin states, and are increasingly contentious.
Meanwhile, the current guidelines for operating Lakes Mead and Powell expire in 2025 and 2026. Yet, there have been no serious proposals for building a more flexible management system that could conceivably withstand the rapidly increasing threats associated with climate change.
We need to consider structural alternatives to the allocation system that are phased in to avoid significant economic disruptions. One such alternative, which could insert more flexibility into the allocation system, is setting minimum firm allocations (that would be available even during the lowest flow periods) for states, Tribes, the environment, and Mexico, while setting up a "market system" for the water supplies in excess of that minimum over time.
Existing large water right holders, such as agriculture, could be compensated for gradually reducing their withdrawals from their current levels, which now exceed 70 percent of the total water use. This approach has the advantage of providing guaranteed minimum water supplies to the environment (which currently has no rights at all in this system) and to Tribes (including phased investments in infrastructure). The two big reservoirs, Mead and Powell, could be used to store water for the banking system, along with substantial in-state investments in underground storage in groundwater aquifers (an approach already used at scale in Arizona and California). Compared with the massive investments being proposed to build desalination plants in Mexico, this approach might look very fiscally reasonable and could significantly reduce catastrophic risks.
This transition won't be easy or cheap, and most likely would require a new governance system, such as a Commissioner to manage the river as opposed to the current Compact-based interstate negotiating system overseen by highly constrained federal authorities. This new approach would require permanent reductions in some uses - but the certainty and flexibility of such a system would avoid the high costs of the ongoing crisis management approach—and the associated potential litigation. And yes, the agriculture that currently depends on the Colorado River produces very high value crops, and yes, we do all need to eat—but this approach provides an opportunity for restructuring the agricultural economy in ways that benefit farming families and corporations as well.
Some say "never waste a good crisis"—and this seems like the moment to make bold moves that will allow water managers in the west to sleep better at night in the context of a warming world.
Katharine Jacobs is a professor of Environmental Science and the director of the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions at the University of Arizona. She was a water manager for the State of Arizona for 23 years, and worked in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, directing the third US National Climate Assessment from 2009—2013. The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.