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On the Brink: A Colorado River Q&A with Michael Connor

February 16, 2017
Barry D. Gold

Sixteen years of drought have brought the Colorado River basin to the brink.

Even with the recent rains and flooding making news in California, there remains a 50% chance the federal government will need to declare a water shortage in the Lower Colorado River by the end of 2017 – a decision that depends on whether reservoir levels at Lake Mead are projected to fall below 1,075 feet.


It’s a situation the Colorado River Basin, the nation’s most overworked river system, has faced too many times in recent years. At the Walton Family Foundation, we are committed to finding solutions to the Colorado basin’s water crisis that protect both the environment and the economy it supports in the West. To help meet that challenge, we are delighted that Michael Connor, former Deputy Secretary of the Interior and Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, has joined the Walton Family Foundation as an Environment Program Fellow.

Connor brings a deep understanding of the challenges facing the Colorado River to this new role. Among his many achievements, Connor led the successful negotiation of a historic water conservation agreement in 2012 between the United States and Mexico – known as Minute 319 – where for the first time the two countries agreed to dedicate water to the river in order to help restore the environment.

I spoke with him about the Colorado River’s ongoing water crisis.

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the Colorado River?

Despite the wet winter, the biggest challenge is the ongoing drought in the West. That is exacerbated by the impacts of climate change. We have seen a steady decline in levels at Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the river’s two major reservoirs. We are at the precipice of potential shortages in the lower basin of the Colorado.

We know that the current system of water management is contributing to the crisis on the Colorado River. What’s wrong with the way water is managed today in the West?

Most of our rivers in the West are oversubscribed. There are more water rights than there are existing water resources. We have seen over numerous decades the damaging environmental impacts that has had on fisheries, riparian areas and adjacent communities. As much as we have tried to be efficient water managers, we are not yet to the point of sustainably using this resource. We are historically out of balance. We have lots of work ahead to address this issue of sustainability in a way that maintains the notion of a living river.

So far this winter, the West has had more snow and rain. The snowpack in the Rockies is above average. Does that mean the water crisis over?

No. To be clear, any year that you get above-average snowpack and precipitation is a good year. But we had a very good year for snow and rain in 2011, where the hydrology on the Colorado River was substantially above average. That helped – it is one reason there haven’t been shortages to date. But that good year was followed by several below-average years of rain and snow. We were right back in a severe drought. I don’t think anybody should be under the illusion that one good year is going to address the systemic problems and new challenges. And while some may see the recent rains and flooding in California as a sign that the drought is over, that is not the case. Forecasters are also suggesting the possibility of another El Niño, which adds to the unpredictability, so hold on.

What are the potential ramifications if we don’t find a better way to manage the Colorado River’s water?

The Colorado River is this iconic lifeline in the southwest part of the country. It’s an economic driver for agriculture, hydropower, recreation, and provides water for municipalities in a very economically dynamic part of the country. It is home to several national parks with great environmental and cultural values, starting with the Grand Canyon. Everybody cares about the Colorado River. Everybody feels they have a stake in how the river is managed. But if it is not being used judiciously, and if we are not doing all we can to ensure the demands placed on the river are sustainable, there’s going to be conflict. If there is a shortage, we have agreements in place about how water usage will be reduced. So there is some level of certainty. But people will start to get nervous because there is not a plan in place on how to manage water allocation in the lower Colorado River if Lake Mead drops to critically low levels below 1,025 feet. The potential for a very sharp decline in lake levels will unsettle everyone.

Where do you see opportunity to restore the river’s health?

An ongoing multi-faceted effort is needed. We need to continue down the path of more efficient use, more conservation, particularly in the agricultural sector, but also in cities. There is still room for municipalities to bring down their per capita use of water. We need to continue to educate the public. People respond well to the notion that water is precious and its use should be very judicious. With good information, they will support new infrastructure investments and improvements that help stretch limited supplies. Beyond that, there are opportunities to strike new water sharing arrangements between the river’s many stakeholders. The bottom line is that we need to make a series of ongoing improvements to the way we use water, the way we manage water and the way we share water.

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