Thoughts on “The Colorado River Flowing Through Conflict”

Ted Kowalski, Head of the Colorado River Unit of the Colorado Water Conservation Board

This piece reflects the personal opinions and thoughts of Ted Kowalski alone and should not be attributed to the Colorado Water Conservation Board or the State of Colorado.

"Dust on snow" causes snow to melt prematurely. Photo by Peter McBride

Peter McBride and Jonathan Waterman’s photographic masterpiece, The Colorado River Flowing Through Conflict, provides amazing and provocative snapshots of the Colorado River, from a variety of unique and mesmerizing perspectives, as its personality changes from the headwaters to the Sea of Cortez in Mexico.  Without a doubt I would recommend this book to anyone who loves nature photography or who works in water issues as one of the best photographic journeys along the Colorado River that I have seen.

While the photographs are taken from multiple perspectives, the description of some of the issues and problems facing the future of the Colorado River would benefit from some additional perspectives.  Thus, I am hopeful that the book, and this blog, will engage the public and generate some additional discussion—for there are so many nuanced and multi-faceted water resource management issues that face water managers of the Colorado River.  In that regard, the Colorado River Compact of 1922, subsequent compacts, the U.S.-Mexico Treaty of 1944, and the associated body of law known as “the Law of the River” is neither simple, nor easy to manipulate in order to make wholesale changes.  That said, the Law of the River has been proven to have some flexibility.  In the future, more creativity and flexibility will be necessary to rise to the upcoming challenges.

The Colorado River flows through the Grand Canyon, as seen in "The Colorado River Flowing Through Conflict". Photo by Peter McBride

The issues related to the Grand Canyon could benefit from some additional discussion.  The authors simply suggest that “scientists continue to study the habitat, proposing the obvious solutions of non-fluctuating flows to restore backwaters, or pumping in restorative silt and warm water from the surface of Lake Powell.”  While it is true that scientists continue to study the Grand Canyon, the solutions are far from “obvious” given the complicated geo-political, legal, and scientific context that continues to challenge water resource managers.  The Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Work Group continues to work hard on these important issues.  This advisory group is made up of 25 representatives of diverse interest groups, which includes tribes, states, recreational boating interests, conservation organizations, recreational fishing interests, power interests, and five federal agencies.  Solutions that may seem obvious to the casual observer become less obvious after conducting additional studies or after hearing valid and significant concerns from some of the many interested stakeholders.  Currently, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Reclamation are leading the Environmental Impact Statement process for a Long Term Experimental and Management Plan (“LTEMP).  This LTEMP will be exploring how best to manage Glen Canyon Dam releases in the future in a way that meets the requirements of the Grand Canyon Protection Act and the Law of the River.  Over the next several years the conversation over how to best conduct experiments and manage the flows of the Colorado River as they are released from Glen Canyon Dam, in a manner that comports with the Law of the River, will be spirited and complex.  Stay tuned.

The Colorado River Delta-- 50 miles south of the US- Mexico Border. Photo by Peter McBride

Another area that is ripe for additional insight relates to the Colorado River as it flows (or as the authors note as it often fails to flow) through Mexico to the delta.  One question that this book poses is: “What can be done to provide additional flows to the Colorado River so that the Colorado River flows to the Sea of Cortez.”  Clearly this is an important question, and one that the Colorado River Basin states, the United States, and Mexico are dedicated to continuing to explore through the bi-national negotiations.  It is important to remember, however, that Mexico receives 1.5 million acre-feet (maf) annually (except in times of extraordinary drought or in surplus situations when it may receive other amounts) pursuant to the 1944 Treaty between the United States and Mexico.  The United States has never failed to deliver this amount annually, and typically the United States delivers tens of thousands of acre-feet more than 1.5 maf due to unexpected precipitation events, or for other reasons.  Mexico is a sovereign nation, with a guaranteed water annual delivery.  It seems paternalistic to tell Mexico how it should use its Colorado River allocation.  Even if the United States were to develop the political will, and legal framework, to dedicate additional water to Mexico for use in its environment, there is currently no mechanism to assure that this water would be used by Mexico for environmental purposes.  Moreover, I am not certain that the United States should be taking on Mexico’s environmental problems.  As this book points out, we have amazing landscapes and water dependent environments worthy of protection within the United States, and within each of the Colorado River basin states to protect and conserve.  Yet, the photographs of the dry riverbed do inspire me to take some action.

Finally, as this book points out, the entire basin is facing expansive population growth, climate change effects, and competition for water.  Certainly some solutions may lie in basin-wide efforts such as the bi-national negotiations or in the Colorado River Basin Study that the Basin States and the Bureau of Reclamation are pursuing.  But in order for these basin-wide, sustainable solutions to succeed, it will take solutions that provide benefits to: 1) both the United States and Mexico; 2) each of the basin states; and, 3) each of the different types of water users, including non-consumptive water users.  In trying to achieve this goal lies the ultimate challenge and failure is not an option.

What do you think?   What are some of the solutions we should be considering?  What did you most appreciate about this book? Do you have a Colorado River experience or insight you would like to share?   Please join the discussion.

Ted Kowalski, a former member of the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, heads the Colorado River unit of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.  He has been involved with Colorado River interstate compact matters and instream flow protection for 17 years.  His favorite spot on the river is the Grand Canyon stretch because of its history, beauty, and magic.

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