Saving the Colorado River before the water runs dry
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There are a host of important natural resource challenges quickly bearing down on the new administration that require immediate attention — perhaps none more serious in America’s western states than the management and fate of the Colorado River.

The mighty Colorado River is the backbone of the west and an economic engine for the entire country. The river supports 16 million jobs, generates over $1.0 trillion in annual economic benefits, irrigates nearly 5.5 million acres of farmland, protects endangered fish and wildlife habitat, and supplies drinking water to more than 35 million Americans every year.

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But, the Colorado River basin and the states it serves are being hit by the triple impact of drought, increasing temperatures due to climate change, and growing populations. Demand for the river’s water now exceeds its supply. The river is so over-tapped that it dries up to a trickle before reaching the sea. These challenges aren’t going away and pose serious risks to everything that depends on the river — our communities, agriculture and the environment.

 

Now more than ever we must focus our efforts on sustainable water supplies. We need to enhance collaboration, innovation, and flexibility when it comes to how we use and manage our water. We must also scale up incentives for water conservation, efficiency, and reuse.

To that end, since its establishment in 2010, the Department of Interior’s sustainable water initiative, WaterSMART, has encouraged the use of science and technology to improve water conservation and helped water resource managers identify and implement strategies to narrow the gap between supply and demand. To date, the Interior Department invested more than $430 million nationwide through WaterSMART including competitively awarded funding to non-federal partners, such as tribes, water districts, municipalities and universities that is expected to result in the conservation of enough water to meet the annual needs of over four million people. New criteria for WaterSMART grants will ensure that projects that protect habitat and keep water flowing in our rivers are also eligible for funding. 

The sustainability of the Colorado River also depends upon the actions of multiple and diverse communities and stakeholders who live within its seven state region in the United States as well as those residing in Mexico. For instance, the Interior Department has been working with these interests in support of critical conversations between the United States and Mexico to extend and expand the provisions of a precedent setting 2012 Colorado River agreement that expires at the end of 2017.

It is critically important that the new administration reach out to our partners in the Mexican government to seal a new deal on shared water shortages by the 2017 deadline. The agreement will help ensure that adequate water levels are maintained in Lake Mead, thereby protecting the interests of U.S. water users, as well as those in Mexico. Without a completed new agreement, the risk of shortages in the Colorado River’s lower basin will increase, as will the prospect of conflict with Mexico over the 1944 Treaty. Through ongoing cooperation, however, the United States and Mexico can serve as a model for additional agreements throughout the basin that will ensure a secure water future for all who depend on the Colorado River.

Moreover, as U.S. demographics continue to shift and become more diverse (the U.S. Census projects the Latino population to more than double by 2050) and we increasingly view the Colorado River across the seven states and Mexico as a single watershed — the need to engage the Latino community grows clearer.

Latinos have a strong cultural connection to water. From performing baptisms within its waters to acequia farming, the Colorado River is an integral part of their heritage and way of life. And there is great concern for its future.

The recent 2017 State of the Rockies Report from Colorado College, a bipartisan poll conducted in several western states, is a blueprint for the new administration on broadly supported policies for managing our public lands and waters. The report found that Latinos consider water issues — low levels of water in rivers (82 percent) and pollution of rivers, lakes and streams (80 percent) — to be as serious of an issue as unemployment (79 percent). 

This suggests that Latinos, like other western stakeholders, need to be engaged in identifying solutions to sustaining the river. While this community hasn’t historically been engaged in water conservation on a large-scale, there is an ample and increasing opportunity to turn Latino support for the Colorado River into action.

We are all in this together, and need to forge strong partnerships to carry-out effective strategies to protect the Colorado River. Hanging in the balance of our new administration’s actions this year, is the difference between collaboration or conflict, and reliability versus uncertainty in the availability of critical water supplies in the basin.

Maite Arce is President and CEO of the Hispanic Access Foundation, a DC-based, national nonprofit that improves the lives of Hispanics in the United States and promotes civic engagement. Mike Connor is former Deputy Secretary of the Interior, where he was a key leader of the Obama Administration's water policies in the face of an unprecedented Western drought.


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