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Navigating the Colorado River crisis: It’s time for the federal government to step up

FILE – Low water levels at Wahweap Bay at Lake Powell along the Upper Colorado River Basin are shown, June 9, 2021, at the Utah and Arizona border at Wahweap, Ariz. The Biden administration announced Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023, that 15 Native American tribes will get a total of $580 million in federal money this year for water rights settlements. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

It’s no secret that a primary source of water supply in the West is in serious trouble. For over two decades, the Colorado River basin has faced pervasive drought and increased aridification from climate change. Reservoirs are drying up, hydropower and endangered species are at risk, and future flows look bleak. The states that depend on Colorado River water have now failed to meet two deadlines set by the U.S. Department of the Interior to voluntarily decide how to cut nearly one-third of current water use.

Responding to the most recent deadline, six of the basin states — Nevada, Arizona, Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah — offered a “consensus-based modeling alternative” as a framework for cuts. But California, the largest water user in the basin, refused to sign on, instead offering its own proposal.

Some researchers and leaders in the basin have called for renegotiating the 1922 Compact, and for more sustainable management reforms. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) recently called for a new Colorado River Water Caucus for the 14 senators from the seven states. Long-time journalists in the basin are recognizing that solutions increasingly seem elusive.

Ideally, the states would collaboratively craft a plan for the cuts and avoid the federal government imposing a solution, or costly and lengthy litigation. But despite numerous efforts over the past couple decades to address shortages, improve reservoir operations, protect endangered species and mitigate environmental degradation, collaboration in the basin has proven insufficient. We move from one short-term plan to another. The region lacks a long-term strategy.

But crisis can also create windows of opportunity. One of those opportunities is to look to river commissions and river basin organizations (RBOs) in the U.S. and around the world. Several features common to RBOs or commissions can be of value to building a long-term strategy for the basin.

First, commissions and RBOs provide a structure for engaging in joint decision-making and dialogue around emerging issues such as changing hydrologic regimes. In the U.S., states often formed commissions — comprised of water management representatives from member states — to negotiate interstate water compacts. Many chose to maintain an ongoing commission to administer their compacts. Internationally, RBOs bring member countries and private actors together across an international basin. In Europe’s Danube River basin, home to some 83 million people across 19 countries, the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River, includes observer status to some 24 organizations representing diverse social, cultural, economic and environmental interests. Observers have an opportunity to contribute to the development of the basin’s management plan and access to technical documents through task groups and plenary meetings.

Second, commissions and RBOs support coordinated science and monitoring. Several interstate river commissions across the U.S. have built robust monitoring programs. The Arkansas and the Republican River Commissions have data-intensive hydrologic models to enhance water use transparency by the upstream states. Science produced by RBOs we have studied extends beyond measuring and monitoring the current state of the basin. They also forecast potential future states of the basin, develop new data on physical processes in the basin, and synthesize the current state of knowledge.

Third, commissions and RBOs offer mechanisms for conflict resolution and problem solving. Commissions have proven capable of addressing challenging conflicts through the commission’s meeting and dialogue process. In doing so, they adapt operational rules or build new strategies for monitoring and compliance. For instance, the Bear River Commission faced challenges over how to account for groundwater impacts on stream flows when allocating surface water during low flow periods. The commission created interim rules and eventually worked out a solution and to amend their allocation rules. 

Fourth, commissions and RBOs play a key role in promoting education. In the Danube, Danube Day is an annual event that pays tribute to the river. Celebrations across the basin can be found in classrooms, churches, advocacy organizations and governments. These events build public awareness about the river, its uses and benefits. The Delaware River Commission also boasts a strong public education mission through sailing activities, teacher summits, educational videos and the annual Delaware River festival.

Taken together, commissions and RBOs offer mechanisms that can foster more open dialogue, greater accountability to stakeholders and opportunities for learning. To be sure, they are no panacea. A commission would not eliminate conflicts or be an immediate solution to the woes in the Colorado Basin — but a commission could build capacity to better detect and address problems along the way. And it may help secure a long-term future for the basin.

Fortunately, we have experience in the Colorado River basin to draw from. The International Boundary and Water Commission implements the 1944 treaty between the U.S. and Mexico sharing waters of the river and resolving disputes between the two countries. The Upper Colorado River Commission administers the Upper Colorado River Compact for the five states in the Upper Basin. These two commissions have expanded public participation in restoration efforts around the Colorado River Delta and serve as forum to coordinate management plans and actions.

Unlike the Upper Basin and International Treaty, however, representatives from the basin states who crafted the Colorado River Compact in 1922 made the decision not to create a permanent institution to administer the compact. We have lived with this disjointed, reactionary, piecemeal approach to governance ever since. 

It’s time to think more creatively about long-term planning and shared problem solving in the basin. To start, we need a task force to examine the legal structure for a commission and how to best represent the Colorado River basin community. As the water master for the basin, the U.S. Department of the Interior could lead such a charge. Ultimately, such a commission would demand congressional and state-level approval, which can prove challenging. And it will demand a real federal investment in the institutions in the basin. Water in the West has historically transcended partisan politics. But the status quo isn’t working. It is time for the federal government to step up.

Andrea K. Gerlak is director of the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy and a professor in the School of Geography, Development and Environment at the University of Arizona. She is a Tucson Public Voices fellow with the OpEd Project. 

Tanya Heikkila is a professor in the School of Public Affairs and co-director of the enter for Policy and Democracy at the University of Colorado, Denver. 

Tags Climate change Colorado River Drought Kyrsten Sinema Water

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