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As water shortages loom, how to keep Western rivers flowing

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The drought now gripping the southwestern United States feels scarily familiar. In a recent public opinion survey of western voters, 82 percent listed low river levels as their top concern when it came to water.

In five of the last seven years the snowpack in the Upper Colorado River Basin on March 1 has registered below the long-term average. It has been nearly two decades since Lakes Powell and Mead, the giant reservoirs on the Colorado River that supply water to some 40 million people and 5 million acres of farmland, were full. Currently, their capacities stand at 55 percent and 41 percent respectively, and with much of the Colorado River Basin now in severe or extreme drought, those lake levels will not rise significantly any time soon. 

{mosads}Yet people continue to flock to the states that share the liquid lifelines of the Colorado River. They come for many reasons. But many are drawn by the great outdoors — the fishing, boating, kayaking, tubing, bird-watching and other activities made possible by rivers flowing through beautiful landscapes. The Colorado Basin boasts a $26 billion recreation economy that depends on water staying in rivers rather than being taken out of them.


Without a doubt, securing enough water for cities, farmers, businesses, and nature will require a balancing act. But there is reason for optimism: through innovation, collaboration and smarter management there is vast untapped potential to achieve that balance. 

Conservation, efficiency, recycling, reuse and storm-water capture are proven, cost-effective measures that can often negate the need for expensive and harmful dams and diversions. Especially in agriculture, incentives to invest in efficiency — from micro-irrigation to canal modernization to more precise irrigation scheduling — could free up water to restore depleted rivers. 

In the Verde Valley in Arizona, for example, conservationists and irrigators have partnered to modernize 19th-century ditch systems, installing automated head gates and testing new management approaches. This enabled irrigators, who previously diverted nearly the entire flow of the Verde River, to take just the water they need. Portions of the Verde — a lifeline for birds and wildlife in the American Southwest — now have twice the summertime flow they had before.

To scale up such solutions the federal government could expand cost-sharing through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). The department could make it applicable not only to on-farm efficiency upgrades, such as the installation of drip irrigation, but also to system-wide improvements, like the head gates on the Verde ditch system. 

Voluntary, incentive-based programs can ensure that communities and rivers both have the water they need to thrive. We saw this in Colorado during the 2012 drought, when a Steamboat Springs water district was paid by a Denver-based conservation group to release water into the Yampa River to save the native white fish. Those extra flows also helped keep tubing and fly-fishing businesses open.

More recently, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the utilities that supply water to Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Phoenix have been paying farmers to reduce water use so as to raise the levels of Lakes Mead and Powell and avoid mandatory cutbacks. 

While projects and programs such as these inspire hope, they constitute but a drop in the bucket of what is needed. We need to take these kinds of solutions to scale. Fortunately, public support is there.

Voters in both blue and red states value healthy rivers. That same public opinion survey found that at least 70 percent of voters in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming prefer to use existing water supplies more effectively rather than divert more water from rivers in less populous parts of their states. 

We are also seeing support from the private sector. Those irrigation upgrades along Arizona’s Verde River have been funded in part by corporations, including Coca-Cola, Cox Automotive, Intel, Recreation Equipment Inc. (REI), Swire and Waste Management. For these companies, restoring rivers is not only good stewardship, but also critical to keeping the Southwest attractive to employees and customers.

The drought that has plagued the Colorado Basin since 2000 is a prelude of things to come. Climate researchers estimate that rising temperatures alone could reduce water flows in the Colorado Basin by 20 percent or more below the 20th-century average. So-called hot droughts will create even greater deficits. To ensure a reliable water supply in a drier future, we will need to embrace 21st-century solutions that restore river health while respecting the needs of existing users and communities. 

Sandra Postel is co-creator of the water restoration campaign Change the Course. She is also the author of “Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity.”

Tags Drought Sandra Postel Southwest water policy water shortage

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