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Groups spell out 10 ways to build a resilient Colorado River Basin — amid drought and climate change

Coordinated action by all levels of government and stakeholders is needed to keep the river flowing and taps running.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Hite Marina boat ramp sits idle hundreds of yards from the river’s edge where the Colorado River flows into Lake Powell on Feb. 4, 2021. A new report spells out ways to keep the river flowing in the face of drought and climate change.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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Called the “ground zero” of water-related climate change effects by one environmentalist, the Colorado River Basin needs help from everyone living around and using its water to keep the area from drying up.

Seven environmental organizations combined to put together a list of 10 ways to boost the basin’s resilience to climate change, with the hope that Utah and the six other states that tap water from the Colorado River will be able to keep using it despite an increasingly desperate drought.

Along with proposals on how to keep the river flowing, the groups acknowledged in the report that there are financial and societal costs to implementing the changes.

Climate change is already affecting the Colorado River Basin, said Kevin Moran, senior director of the Colorado River Project at the Environmental Defense Fund. The proposals address how to help the Colorado River become resilient in hotter and drier conditions.

“We have to plan for the watershed and basins that scientists say we will have,” Moran said, “not the ones we might want.”

The Colorado River is already in crisis after the dry winter and spring. Lake Powell’s water levels are at a record low, prompting the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to release water from Flaming Gorge and other reservoirs in an effort to keep levels high enough for the Glen Canyon Dam to generate electricity.

The groups involved in the new report — American Rivers, Environmental Defense Fund, National Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Trout Unlimited and the Wester Resource Advocates — hope their efforts will inform conversations and lead the states and other stakeholders in the Colorado River Basin to action, Moran said.

While individuals, businesses and municipalities can do their part to conserve water, Moran said, all the stakeholders — including state, federal and tribal governments — need to coordinate to come to a sustainable and lasting solution to droughts and water use in the Colorado River Basin.

“When it comes to managing the Colorado River, we’re all in this together,” Moran said. “Figuring out the solution together — I think that’s the only way that makes sense.”

Helping farmers reduce and better use water

Agriculture accounts for about 40% of the water used from the Colorado River and is the subject of three strategies listed in the report. Suggestions include better rotating agricultural lands to restore the soil being used, upgrading infrastructure and operations to use less water more efficiently and planting more sustainable crops.

“Ensuring that agricultural infrastructure and operations are up to the challenges of higher temperatures and reduced flows,” the report stated, “can help bolster and sustain the economic resilience of rural communities where irrigated agriculture has been and is a significant part of the economy.”

Farmers and ranchers will need support in these changes, the report noted. The upfront costs would be insurmountable for many farmers, and there are few fiscal incentives for making the changes.

Grants and tax breaks could be used to offset the cost for farmers.

Restoring natural lands to retain water

Some strategies are less obvious — particularly the suggestion to reduce dust on snow.

Dust, the result of erosion, is carried by wind onto snow. Dust speeds up melting and reduces the amount of water gained by snowmelt each year. The dust in the basin comes primarily from livestock grazing, off-highway-vehicle use, fires and drier soils, according to the report.

Reducing the intensity of land-use activities, particularly on federal lands, and preventing wind erosion through natural restoration projects could cut down on dust.

Managing and restoring forests to prevent large fires will also be important for the basin’s resiliency, according to the report.

Forest fires spark their own array of ecological problems, from bad air quality to carbon emissions to habitat loss, and the report argues that the blazes also contribute to drought conditions.

“Well-managed forests,” the report explained, “provide numerous benefits, including preventing soil erosion; supporting water infiltration; regulating snowmelt and water supply; improving water quality; lowering water treatment costs; capturing carbon and benefiting wildlife habitat and fisheries.”

The high cost of properly managing and restoring forests — about $1,000 to $4,000 an acre — and the lack of coordinated actions across the various jurisdictions in the basin have prevented any practices being adopted at a scale large enough to have an impact, according to the report.

It also suggests:

• Restoring natural wetlands and flood plains that can store water.

• Researching how to prevent evaporation from reservoirs and canals by shading them, installing solar panels above them or placing floating plants.

• Reusing water in urban and industrial settings as well as using water more efficiently.

• Finding opportunities to dedicate the water rights from coal plants — when they shut down — to the basin’s resiliency or to environmental benefits.

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