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At the Colorado River conference, 'It’s really no longer a drill'

Water managers announce new measures to deal with dwindling water supply

Last month, at Caesars Palace, a luxurious hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, nearly a thousand water managers, scientists, and government officials convened at the annual Colorado River Water Users Association conference to discuss the future of the imperiled watershed.

The tone was one of urgency: The Colorado River, which spans seven states, 30 tribal nations and two countries, is carrying much less water than it used to. At the same time, a lot more people are vying for what's left. The crisis has been exacerbated by climate change, which continues to shrink the snowpack and reduce rainfall. In August, the river's largest reservoir, Lake Mead, dropped to levels unseen since it was first filled in the 1930s. In response, the federal government officially declared the first-ever Colorado River water shortage.

At the conference, which capped yet another year of drought, water managers signed landmark agreements on conservation measures to try to steer the water users toward sustainability. But the intense aridification happening in the region — and growing uncertainty about the future — loomed large, leaving experts uneasy about the Southwest's water supply.

"The sense of the crisis was striking," said John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico Water Resources Program. "We've shifted from having discussions about what we might have to do at some point in the distant future to discussions of what we might have to do next year. It's really no longer a drill."

Here are four important takeaways from this year's conference:

There's a new plan to keep water in Lake Mead

Colorado River officials in the Lower Basin states of Nevada, Arizona and California made perhaps the most significant announcement. Working with the Bureau of Reclamation, they formally announced what they're calling the "500+ Plan," a proposal aimed at keeping an additional 500,000 acre-feet of water each year in Lake Mead starting in 2022. "This is really important," said Fleck. "It's not chump change, rummaging around in your couch cushions for some small conservation measures. It's a lot of water that won't get used."

The plan would work by incentivizing water users to conserve. State and regional agencies, along with the federal government, have already pledged $200 million to pay for programs expected to range from taking agricultural land out of production to changing crop irrigation strategies. Aside from nearly doubling the amount of water reductions in the Lower Basin, what really made the plan remarkable was the financing, said Jennifer Pitt, director of the Colorado River Program at the National Audubon Society. Usually, water users with junior water rights have to take the shortage head-on, receiving no water and no compensation. However, by putting money on the table, the 500+ Plan makes the necessary cutbacks much easier for landowners by offering incentives to stop using water.

Tribes are leading in water conservation efforts

The Gila River Indian Community, the Colorado River Indian tribes and the federal government also put forward a voluntary plan to conserve 179,000 acre-feet, as part of the 500+ Plan.

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The proposal shows the vital role that tribes are playing in planning for the future, Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis told the Nevada Independent. "By bringing the parties together, fostering productive cooperative dialogue and providing much-needed critical resources, tribes — shouldering this sacred responsibility, this leadership — can and will help shape the future of the Colorado River."

Historically, the 30 sovereign tribal nations along the Colorado River have been marginalized, generally excluded from decision-making and legally sidelined, said Pitt. "It is remarkable that a group of stakeholders with such significant concerns and complaints about the process are also the first to step up in a crisis and be a part of the solution," she said. "We need all hands on deck. Their leadership is hopefully inspiring for other water users."

U.S. and Mexico hammer out details on habitat restoration efforts

In another notable agreement, the International Boundary and Water Commission, which is responsible for upholding the U.S. and Mexico's border and water treaties, formalized a habitat restoration plan.

For years, nongovernmental organizations like the National Audubon Society have worked with the two governments to restore ecosystems in the desiccated Colorado River Delta in Baja, Mexico, despite limited funding, constrained water flows and the increasingly dry conditions. "Managing water at the border is not simple," says Pitt. "How are two countries with two different systems going to work together, down to the detail, to get water from the Colorado River to the Delta to support habitat?"

At the conference these finer details were worked out in the agreement , essentially creating a technical roadmap to get water to ecosystems in the delta, said Pitt. The effort has so far been successful, in spite of all the challenges it faces, and the agreement is an important step forward in continuing the work, she added.

In the face of adversity, close collaboration remains key

But the joy of gathering in person did not obscure the gravity of the moment. "Climate change is barreling down on us so fast that I wonder if we have enough time for these tools to work," Fleck said.After a year and a half of Zoom meetings, attendees were grateful to be in the same room again. Fleck said he was encouraged by the ongoing collaboration. "These are people who know and love each other from all across the Southwest, people who have invested time in building a set of relationships around collective actions."

Sinjin Eberle, the Intermountain West communications director with the environmental nonprofit American Rivers, agreed. "We are in a very challenging time," he said over the phone. "All the hydrology and forecasts don't look good, and it looks like the next couple years are going to be pretty rough."

Hammering out collective agreements is the only option, Eberle said. "It's hard, but it's what we have to do. There are no more silver bullets left."

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.


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Alex Hager/KUNC via High County News

Representatives from tribes, nonprofits, the U.S. government and trans-national commissions speak at the Colorado River Water Users Association Conference.

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