“Mapping the River Ahead,” a new report by Carpe Diem West, provides an insightful discussion of solutions for the Colorado River Basin. The authors conducted anonymous interviews with more than 30 “water leaders” (disclosure, I was among them) representing a broad range of sectors and locations. The anonymous process was a useful strategy to get a realistic assessment of what people really think, freeing the interviewees from the obligation to take institutional positions.
Notwithstanding this year’s great snow in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, the Colorado River Basin faces a challenging water future. Through the drought that has persisted since 2000, the basin’s water users have gulped their way through half of the basin’s water storage, which amounts to a full two years of the river’s average supply.
All signs suggest that the challenges will increase in the future, due to the inexorable growth of population in the desert Southwest and the drying of the basin projected by climate models. The fact that water demands exceed supply is a problem that a good snow year (or two, or three) cannot erase. And the problem belongs to all of us: Colorado River water is used for growing food, drinking water, cleaning, watering lawns, sustaining our rivers, and sustaining the vast majority of the wildlife of the American West.
The federal government explored this problem comprehensively in the “2012 Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study.” This report sounded the alarm bells, and it’s now widely understood that the challenge of water scarcity in the region will only get worse. The report also evaluated a broad range of solutions, but failed to provide direction on which would be most viable; big pipelines carrying water from the Mississippi River? Weather modification? Investments in conservation technologies? There are many options, but the trade-offs are significant, including costs, energy needs, and environmental impacts.
This is where Carpe Diem West’s report provides clarity.
The conclusions are striking.
Rather than the infamous polarized debate among states and stakeholders, the report notes near unanimous support for common-sense solutions such as water conservation in all sectors, as well as the need for broad stakeholder input – including tribes and non-governmental organizations – to ensure the political viability of any solution. Moreover, it reports strong agreement that while the Basin Study solutions were defined strictly on their ability to provide more water for consumptive use, there is a broad understanding among “water leaders” that water solutions in the Colorado River Basin really ought to be thought of as solutions for the rivers themselves as well as the rural communities that depend on them.
You heard it first from the “water leaders:” together, we can map a better course for the future.