Leaders from the seven states of the Colorado River Basin made history May 20 as they united to celebrate and sign an agreement that will save up to 1.1 million acre-feet of river water annually – enough to fill roughly 2,000 Rose Bowls.
It is a conservation victory that has been decades in the making, marking a turning point in a fast-growing region where demand for water from the river has long outpaced supply. At the heart of the Drought Contingency Plan is a goal vital to the future prosperity of people and communities across the West: Avoiding a catastrophic shortfall of water at a time when every drop will count.
But there’s something potentially even more significant at play here. This agreement proves that communities can still protect their own interests while recognizing and protecting the needs of their neighbors and the health of the environment. It is heartening to see neighbors still being neighborly, even when the stakes are so high.
Conservation must make economic sense
This agreement also demonstrates what we have long believed: that conservation solutions must make economic sense to stand the test of time.
The Colorado River generates at least $1.4 trillion in economic benefits each year, which accounts for roughly 10% of our national GDP. It also provides drinking water for nearly one in eight Americans and habitat for countless native wildlife species from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California.
This is not an either-or scenario. A viable solution must address both the environment and the benefits it provides to people.
In an era marked for its political divisiveness, local, state and federal leaders in seven states along with those representing conservation, ranching, farming, recreation, hunting and tribal interests, forged a hard-won understanding.
They showed us all, once again, that those closest to the problem are those closest to the solution – regardless of state lines, party affiliations, international borders or any other boundaries that might otherwise divide people.
This is the future of water in America
The United States and Mexico, which both have high stakes in the well-being of the Colorado River ecosystem, were able to come together for the health of the river and the communities that depend on it. Signing this agreement activates conservation provisions in both countries.
Together, leaders and communities working on this solution moved from confrontation to collaboration, because the realities of facing a drier future are impossible to miss. We believe this is the groundwork for the future of water in this country and internationally.
The work ahead to implement these complex plans, while adapting to changing climate and increasing demands, will be difficult, but necessary. That said, the Colorado River basin states are equipped for the task. Their grit, willingness to work together and dedication have already set a high bar for success.
The most important work now is to build on this success by bringing even more voices to the table and increasing the number of people finding solutions that benefit communities and the environment. Everyone has a stake in this work, and they should all be engaged in the future of the Colorado River.
Despite the daunting, hard work ahead, as we pause to celebrate this achievement, we cannot help but feel hopeful about what is to come.
This article originally appeared in The Arizona Republic.