The Colorado River is headed for a water shortage

The Colorado River is headed for a water shortage
© Getty Images

Every day this summer brought another alarming reminder that our climate is steadily growing hotter and drier. Headlines across the country featured wall-to-wall coverage of increased temperatures, low water levels, rampant wildfires, and air filled with smoke. These conditions have been especially dire for the Colorado River Basin, which is grappling with a decades-long drought.

As birdwatchers, hunters, anglers and outdoor enthusiasts, our members and partners are on the front lines of these changes and the associated impacts to our fish, wildlife, and natural systems. We know that it will take forward-looking solutions and robust support from federal and state leaders to secure the future of the Colorado River.

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While Congress just passed a “minibus” spending bill that included key policy provisions to sustain the Colorado River Basin, that is just one of several critical opportunities for Congress to safeguard the drinking water and livelihoods of millions of Americans.

This year, the Colorado River Basin only received about a third of its average annual supply of snow-melt runoff.  Such low runoff, coupled with continuing demand for water from cities, farmers, and ranchers, may stretch the Colorado River system beyond its breaking point. That’s a perilous prospect for a river that supplies drinking water to nearly 40 million people, supports 16 million jobs, generates $1.4 trillion in economic benefits, and irrigates nearly 6 million acres of farmland.

A recent report from the Bureau of Reclamation projects a 57 percent chance of shortages on the Colorado River in 2020 and beyond, and indicates that water levels on Lake Powell, one of the river’s two main reservoirs, could drop very far and very fast — to the point where people in California, Arizona, or Nevada could have their supplies cut off without a say. 

The impacts of these conditions are already being felt on the ground: Colorado closed the Yampa River to fishing and boating in July, and then, for the first time ever, also cut water to some users in September.

In Arizona, managers at the Ironwood Forest National Monument have been using helicopters to drop water for bighorn sheep. 

In the Colorado River Basin, we must plan for what to do when — not if — we’re faced with shortage conditions.

Fortunately, strategies to address the risks and uncertainties of a dry future have been developed.  But they have to be implemented now. And turning these strategies into action will require continued coordination among state, federal and local parties. Congress has a particularly critical role to play and has several crucial opportunities to help improve conditions within the Colorado River Basin.

First, the Colorado River Basin states and Reclamation are working to finalize Drought Contingency Plans (DCPs), to develop ways to conserve water to reduce the likelihood that storage supplies will drop too low. The plans will act as insurance policies to protect against the possibility that water use will involuntarily be shut off due to insufficient supply to meet demand.  But getting the DCPs across the finish line is still an uphill battle. Reclamation leadership must continue to provide technical assistance to, and encourage states to finish, their DCPs so that Congress can pass federal legislation to ensure their implementation.

Equally important is for the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture to continue to make their respective water conservation grant programs available to enhance drought resiliency efforts and protect all who depend on the Colorado River.

To further the administration’s commitment to water conservation and drought resiliency efforts, Congress needs to continue investing in WaterSMART and other key programs that reduce water risk and protect stream flows for the Colorado River. Thanksfully, Congress maintained WaterSMART funding levels for the next fiscal year in its just-passed “minibus” spending bill, along with additional funding for extreme drought and other Colorado Basin programs.

Congress also needs to pass a new farm bill as soon as possible and include language in the final package that improves access to funding for western irrigators and irrigation districts wanting to invest in drought response actions. The farm bill can be an important tool for water users to improve drought resiliency across the Basin.

While the current conservation efforts underway in the Basin have been crucial to avoiding mandatory shortages, we need more — and there’s appetite across the West to scale up and expand these programs.

When it comes to safeguarding the Colorado River and the future of everything that depends on it, we don’t have the luxury of extra time. Further delays will only make the challenges we face more acute and devastating — for communities, economies, boaters, birders, hunters, anglers, and the environment. But that doesn’t mean we should resort to hand wringing. There are viable solutions we can support and implement now. But it will take Congressional leadership and full coordination among local and state-level parties to bring those to fruition. In doing so, the Colorado River Basin can serve as a model to the rest of the country as to how to effectively mitigate and address water challenges head on.

Julie Hill-Gabriel is a vice president of Water Conservation at the National Audubon Society. 

Christy Plumer is the chief conservation officer for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.