Colorado River: The West's precious, but limited resource

Colorado River: The West's precious, but limited resource
© Getty Images

One hundred fifty years ago, John Wesley Powell and his small band of courageous explorers captured the nation’s imagination as they completed their first expedition down the Colorado River. Powell and his team faced the unknown, and they came through the river’s canyons with a hard-earned appreciation for the Colorado River as a precious, but limited resource. His vision of diverting water for agriculture contributed to the Reclamation Act of 1902 and the birth of the Bureau of Reclamation.

Powell’s descriptions of Western water scarcity helped inspire American investment in water storage and conveyance infrastructure up and down the Colorado River — forward-thinking investment that built facilities like Glen Canyon Dam with his namesake reservoir, Lake Powell; Hoover Dam with Lake Mead; and other important reservoirs. 

Today, that system of reservoirs can store four times the average annual inflow of the Colorado River Basin — absolutely critical storage for the life and livelihood of 40 million people across the West. In fact, without Lake Powell, Lake Mead and other key storage reservoirs along the Colorado River, the basin would have already faced an overwhelming water crisis many years ago.

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The century and a half since Powell’s expedition brought many challenges and innovative solutions for the Colorado River. A year ago, the basin was suffering its fifth driest year in over a century; another abysmal datapoint in one of the driest 20-year periods of the last 1,200 years. In contrast, as recently as 2000, both Lake Powell and Lake Mead were nearly full. The water stored in those massive reservoirs blunted the effects of prolonged drought and protected cities, farms and families across the basin from devastating water shortage impacts.

In fact, Colorado River reservoirs helped ensure water deliveries each year during the current 20-year drought — enabling certainty and predictability for water users while avoiding the need for shortage declarations. That’s the value of water storage reservoirs and the lasting legacy of past water leaders like John Wesley Powell.  

Unfortunately, not all Western river basins are positioned to withstand the effects of prolonged drought. For example, water storage infrastructure in California’s Sacramento River Basin stores less than one year’s average flow — that’s not enough to sustain ever-increasing demand. As water scarcity in the West becomes more challenging, stretching existing supplies while expanding and improving water storage infrastructure is even more important. We must strengthen our ability to capture, store and deliver limited water supplies while maximizing efficiency to enhance conservation.

While our Colorado River reservoirs have performed very well through prolonged severe drought, we cannot simply maintain the status quo. In January 2019, the combined storage of Lakes Powell and Mead fell to just 38 percent of capacity. That’s what brought the seven Colorado River basin states, the Republic of Mexico, the U.S. government, Native American Tribes, conservation interests and other non-governmental organizations together earlier this year to complete historic drought contingency plans. 

Water users in the Colorado River Basin have survived the drought through a combination of water storage infrastructure and voluntary actions to protect reservoir storage and water supply. Adoption of drought contingency plans this summer, developed over years of collaborative negotiation, takes the next step by implementing mandatory action to reduce risk and protect limited water supplies.

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I agree with others who believe John Wesley Powell would be happy with the level and success of collaboration in the Colorado River Basin; collaboration that helps focus governance on community and local needs along the river.

On Aug.15 the Bureau of Reclamation released its 2020 operational plans for Lake Mead and Lake Powell. Looking ahead, we are pleased that the basin will avoid deep water delivery reductions or face rapidly-declining reservoirs next year. That’s welcome news and reflects the impact of 2019’s excellent snowpack and runoff into Lake Powell and Lake Mead. That above-average runoff pushed today’s total system storage to 55 percent of capacity. But, one good year can’t undo nearly two decades of drought. We must remain focused on infrastructure improvement, conservation and other efforts to protect the Colorado River’s precious limited water. 

John Wesley Powell’s courage and vision introduced America to the treasure that is the Colorado River. Our courage and vision must equal his as we confront challenges like ongoing drought and growing demand throughout the basin. Like we’ve done for the 150 years since Powell first explored those awe-inspiring canyons, we must continue to collaborate and cooperate to find innovative water management solutions for today and future generations. That’s our mandate and, if recent drought contingency plans are an indication, we are up to the task.   

Brenda Burman is the commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The Bureau of Reclamation is a contemporary water management agency and the largest wholesale provider of water in the country. It brings water to more than 31 million people and provides one out of five Western farmers with irrigation water for farmland that produces much of the nation's produce. It is also the second largest producer of hydroelectric power in the country.