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A Better Alternative for Saving the Colorado River -

As the lifeblood of the arid American Southwest, the Colorado River stands as both a symbol of vitality and a testament to the intricate balance between human necessity and environmental stewardship. Flowing through seven U.S. states and Mexico, its waters sustain over 40 million people, vast agricultural lands, tribal interests and a myriad of ecosystems. Yet, despite its crucial role, the Colorado River faces an unprecedented challenge: water supply shortages driven by climate change, urban development, and allocations that no longer match the decreasing supply from the river.

Over roughly the past 20 years, the Colorado River’s once robust flow has dwindled, signaling a looming crisis for 40 million people and millions of acres of critical farmland. The Upper Basin consisting of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico while the Lower Basin, comprised of California, Arizona and Nevada, have a combined interest in solving the crisis, and everyone that relies on the river must be part of the effort to ensure its long-term viability.

Since the passage of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the river’s supplies have been equally divided between the Upper and Lower Basins, each entitled to 7.5 million acre-feet, or 15 million acre-feet in total. However, a recent study, indicated that the Colorado River has lost 10.3 percent of its runoff since 1880.

Solving this requires a concerted effort to reduce demand on the river. The Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees much of the river’s operation, is developing new guidelines to manage the river after 2026, when the current guidelines expire. The Upper and Lower Basins submitted competing alternatives on March 5 and 6, with distinctly different approaches to the problem. 

The Upper Basin’s alternative centers on limiting releases from Lake Powell to the Lower Basin, based on hydrologic conditions, with possible voluntary conservation measures under agreements separate from the 2026 Guidelines. The result would build storage in Lake Powell for the Upper Basin but shifts shortage reductions almost solely to the Lower Basin.

In contrast, the Lower Basin’s alternative looks at managing the system as a whole, including both Upper and Lower Basins, as it was designed by the Bureau of Reclamation. From 1931 to 1966, Reclamation built seven dams and reservoirs – Mead, Havasu, Mohave, Powell, Navajo, Flaming Gorge, and Blue Mesa – with the express purpose of impounding water during wet years for delivery during dry years, and fulfilling the obligation of the 1922 Colorado River Compact to release a rolling average of 8.23 million acre-feet per year for uses in the Lower Basin and Mexico.

Urban-funded on-farm water conservation and conveyance improvements, have helped Imperial Valley farmers save 7.75 million acre-feet of water over the last two decades.

California, Arizona, and Nevada have also committed to reducing Lower Basin uses by up to 1.5 million acre-feet per year, more than enough to offset the 1.3 million acre-feet of supply-demand imbalances caused in part by evaporation and groundwater losses, often referred to as the “structural deficit”, that have contributed to the decline in reservoir elevations at Lakes Powell and Mead over the last two decades of record-breaking drought.

The Lower Basin Plan is built on operating the system as a whole and allocates additional water supply cuts, when needed, evenly across both basins triggered by the reductions in the combined storage of all seven reservoirs. Climate change affects both Basins, and augmentation projects and conservation partnerships, such as urban investments in water recycling and on-farm water conservation measures, are effective tools for making water supplies meet the needs of both farmers and urban water users without impacting the nation’s food supply. These types of solutions would be an effective way to address dwindling Colorado River supplies across the Upper and Lower Basins, as California has done successfully between agricultural and urban water users for over three decades.

The ramifications of a depleted Colorado River ripple far beyond its banks, impacting communities, economies, and ecosystems that rely on its waters for survival. From urban centers like Los Angeles, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Phoenix to the agricultural heartlands in all seven states, the specter of water scarcity casts a shadow over the West’s future prosperity.

Collaboration and partnerships are a better path, encouraging buy-in from every water user.

As California Colorado River Commissioner and IID board member, JB Hamby said in a statement announcing the Lower Basin alternative, “Each basin, state, and sector must contribute to solving the challenges ahead. No one who benefits from the river can opt out of saving it.”

That’s the kind of common sense the Colorado River needs.