Three big ideas to rescue the Colorado River, but are states and water users ready for them?

To save the Colorado River, its water users must look at radical new options, including a hard stop on new diversions, dams and reservoirs across the seven-state river basin, managing lakes Powell and Mead as one entity, and paying millions to farmers who agree to permanently switch to water saving crops and to change irrigation practices.

Those were among suggestions experts offered at a University of Colorado conference focused on the river June 8 and June 9 presented by the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment and the Colorado River Basin’s Water & Tribes Initiative.

Mark Squillace, a University of Colorado law professor who specializes in water law acknowledged that the ideas, such as banning nearly all new development of water on the river, weren’t likely to be popular among established water users.

“But we can’t just keep appropriating water,” he said. Already heavily overused,  the river’s dwindling supplies must still be reallocated to set aside water for the 30 Native American tribes whose reservations are located within the basin. Several of them have been waiting more than a century to win legal access to water promised to them by the federal government.

Pushed to the brink by a 22-plus year drought, overuse and shrinking flows caused by climate change, the river’s dwindling supplies prompted the federal government last summer to order the seven states to permanently reduce water use by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet annually.

The call to stop water development on the Colorado River is being heard more often due to the crisis, but it is a tough sell, especially in states, such as Colorado, that have not developed all the water to which they are legally entitled.

The basin is divided into two segments, with Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming comprising the Upper Basin, and Arizona, California and Nevada making up the Lower Basin.

The river’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell in the Upper Basin and Lake Mead in the Lower Basin, have long been managed separately with different rules, including the time periods in which water is measured, a critical component of forecasting supplies. But experts say that approach isn’t working and is making it more difficult to rebalance the system.

Credit: Chas Chamberlin

“Why not do things far more simply,” said Brad Udall, a senior scientist and climate expert at Colorado State University. “Let’s give up the game on Upper Basin and Lower Basin. It just seems stupid. The old system is overly complex. It allows people to game the system.”

Udall was referring, in part, to a set of operating rules adopted in 2007, known as the Interim Operating Guidelines, that were intended to better coordinate operations between the two reservoirs, but which some now believe exacerbated the river’s problems.

This year, thanks to abundant mountain snows and a cool, rainy spring, the river is enjoying a bit of a reprieve. But critical negotiations on how to manage it in the future are set to begin this year, with painful decisions facing the seven states, the tribes and Mexico.

Lessening some of that pain is hundreds of millions of dollars in new federal funding dedicated to helping the basin reduce water use and find more sustainable ways to support critical industries, including agriculture, which uses roughly 80% of the river’s supplies.

But agricultural water use is critical to feeding the nation, and finding ways to reduce it without crippling rural farm economies and threatening the food supply is a major challenge.

To that end, Squillace and others say simple steps will deliver big results. Take alfalfa hay production. Most alfalfa growers irrigate their fields all summer, harvesting the crop multiple times over the course of a growing season. Eliminating one of those harvests late in the growing season could save as much as 845,000 acre-feet of water in the Lower Basin states each year. That alone would cover nearly one-quarter of the water use experts say is needed to help the river recover and sustain itself in an era of dwindling flows.

Also high on the list of important steps to better balance the river is to use most of the tens of million in federal funding to pay for permanent reductions water use.

“I would hate to see us waste our money on temporary things when we know we have a permanent problem,” Squillace said.

Colorado’s U.S. Senator John Hickenlooper, who made a brief video appearance at the conference, said he and other senate colleagues did not want to interfere in state-level talks.

“None of the senators want to meddle in state efforts to come to an agreement,” Hickenlooper said, “But we have to make sure that money is spent wisely, and we also have to look at lasting solutions … we recognize that a lot of traditional landscapes and lifestyles are dependent on us finding the right solutions.”

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at or @jerd_smith.

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