The Colorado River can be a model for climate resilience — but only if we make it one

The Colorado River can be a model for climate resilience — but only if we make it one
© Getty Images

The Colorado River Basin is ground zero for climate change in the United States. In portions of Colorado and Utah, temperatures have risen at a rate of double the global average. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report only confirms the widespread and acute effects of climate change that the basin is already experiencing. The Southwest is in the midst of a historic megadrought and the Colorado River's flows have declined by 20 percent over the last century. Looking ahead, scientists predict that the river's flows could shrink by as much as 31 percent by 2050. 

The basin is already in uncharted territory. Earlier this week, the Bureau of Reclamation (which operates the Colorado River Basin’s extensive federal infrastructure) issued its reservoir projections for the river’s two largest facilities: Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Based on these projections, the Bureau of Reclamation  will operate Lake Mead under a Tier 1 shortage condition for the first time, triggering mandatory water cutbacks for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico in 2022. Lake Powell isn’t any better off. In July, the bureau implemented emergency releases from other reservoirs to help maintain water levels at Lake Powell. While both are firsts for the river, they are not likely to be the last. And both will have ripple effects across the basin.

The scale and pace of climate change in the Colorado River Basin pose a huge threat to water supplies for the people and businesses that depend on this river, as well as to the basin’s fish and wildlife. Moreover, even as the river’s flows have decreased, demands in many parts of the basin have remained high, leaving us with an unbalanced system in a region that’s only growing hotter and drier. We need new approaches to help our communities adapt to and mitigate the steady, compounding and extreme risks of climate change to people and the environment. 

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It’s time for us to start planning for the river we’re going to have — not the one we want. We need to invest in solutions that will not only help us better manage our water supplies in the short term, but also help build climate resilience in the long term.

The good news is there are strategies that — if invested in and scaled up — could have huge benefits for the Colorado River Basin. These include reducing water use across sectors, modernizing infrastructure, improving forest health, enhancing natural infrastructure and improving stream and river health. 

We’ve already seen these kinds of solutions at work. In Denver, the “From Forests to Faucets” partnership between Denver Water and the Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service supports forest management and restoration in zones determined most “at risk” for wildfires. The project’s restoration efforts help mitigate the effects of wildfires while also protecting the health of critical watersheds and Denver’s water supply. And in California, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is exploring a potential water recycling program that will purify wastewater so that it could be used again. The program already has a demonstration facility and has plans to scale up — which could make it one of the largest wastewater treatment plants in the world. 

These initiatives are a critical start, but to make lasting and long-term changes we need even more of them. We must shift our thinking from managing water supply and demand in the context of temporary drought to managing the reality of a permanently more arid climate. 

The Colorado River Basin is a proving ground for how to respond to a changing climate across the country and the globe. And for a river that serves 40 million people, supports 16 million jobs, generates $1.4 trillion in economic benefits and irrigates nearly 6 million acres of farmland, failure is not an option. 

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Fortunately, there has been some promising momentum. The western water infrastructure funding provisions of the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure package are a critical component of addressing near-term drought needs and building climate resilience in the Colorado River Basin.

However, safeguarding the future of the Colorado River is going to take strong leadership and unprecedented collaboration at all levels, including among states, tribal nations, water providers, farmers and cities to tackle the challenges we’re facing. If one part of the basin fails to fully participate or engage, it undermines the security of the basin as a whole. 

The people and water leaders of the Colorado River have a demonstrated track record of collaboration — an awareness born of history and a recognition that only by working together will we be successful. It’s that spirit that we must channel now more than ever to accelerate our efforts to build climate resilience in the Colorado River Basin. And we must start now. 

Kevin Moran is the senior director of the Colorado River Program at the Environmental Defense Fund. 

Nancy Smith is the conservation director at The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River Program.