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Preparing for the Drought to Come on the Colorado River

August 21, 2019
The 'bathtub ring' around Lake Mead in 2016 shows the impact of prolonged drought on the reservoir's water levels.
A wet year filled the river's reservoirs, but fundamental challenges to water supply remain

Time and water are alike in a lot of important ways. Both are finite resources that we can take for granted, or that we can manage carefully for great benefit.

Now that the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) has released its official projections for water levels at Lake Powell and Lake Mead in 2020, it’s important to think about where we were a year ago – following two extremely dry years; where we are today, after an extraordinarily wet winter; and, most importantly, where we want to be in another year – or 10 years.

In the year since the last BOR report, water security in the West took a huge step forward with the signing of the drought contingency plans (DCPs) – landmark agreements that update how the Colorado River is used, shared and managed across seven states and two countries.

These DCPs, combined with proactive conservation measures and a year of major snowfall, mean that we’ve been able to avert dangerously low water levels at Lake Mead. So it can be tempting to relax a bit – but we have to ask ourselves, “How will we use this moment to prepare for the future?” We have to be smart about using the time and water we have right now.

Common sense tells us that one wet winter does not alter or solve the fundamental challenges facing the water supply across the Colorado River Basin.

As a reminder, 2011 was also a wet year in the Colorado River Basin, but it was immediately followed by 2012 and 2013 – the driest two-year period on record – causing rapid drops in water levels at Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which are the two main water supplies for the Colorado River.

As an additional reminder, approximately 1 in 8 Americans rely on the Colorado River. The stakes only go higher as the water levels go lower. As water usage in the West continues to outpace the supply, we have to continue making bold, structural improvements to our water management strategies and systems.

In Colorado, as well as in Wyoming, New Mexico, and Utah, a key component of the DCPs is for the states to explore whether, and how, to develop and implement a demand management program.

That means that each state needs to thoughtfully agree on how best to conserve while ensuring that there’s enough water to keep communities, farmers and businesses thriving – now and for future generations. It’s not an easy task.

Several years of drought left Lake Mead's Echo Bay, in southern Nevada, high and dry.

Still, there are reasons to be hopeful.

First, as we saw with the DCPs, it is in our reach to do big, important things. In order to make those agreements possible, leaders from seven states, tribes, cities, advocacy groups, businesses, farmers and others across the Colorado River Basin had to partner with federal leaders from the U.S. and Mexico during some of the most politically divisive times in generations. And even with all of that, they were able to find ways to take care of their own needs while still recognizing the needs of their neighbors.

Looking ahead to demand management planning, that same spirit of innovation, collaboration and shared mission will continue to serve the people of the Colorado River Basin well.

Demand management programs are being investigated in the Upper Basin. These types of programs involve temporary, voluntary and compensated reductions in water use. The water that would be conserved by demand management is water that otherwise would have been used – but is instead conserved and saved.

Demand management can offer multiple benefits: it can ensure there’s enough water in the river to keep the system healthy, it can safeguard the water supply for communities that depend on it, and it can protect our vibrant agricultural communities.

Water conservation pilot projects on Colorado River tributaries can help farms and ranches and increase supply throughout the basin.

For several years, people all across the Colorado River Basin have been working together to begin testing water conservation projects and their workability.

These pilot projects are critically important, as they allow us to learn about the benefits and shortcomings of how a demand management program may work. We cannot wait until all of the theoretical questions have answers. In short, we need to continue to learn by doing.

We are in a moment right now where we have saved enough time and water to buy ourselves opportunity to make meaningful change. We know that this moment, this time, and our water will not last indefinitely. We have to act fast and together for a more secure water future. Our communities and environments depend on it.

A version of this article appeared Aug. 15, 2019 in the Denver Post.

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