Matt Rice: The West’s water crisis so many have been warning about is here

There is reason to hope that Colorado River Basin states can rise to the challenge.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mud cracks along the shores of the Colorado River in Cataract Canyon as mountains of sediments are slowly washed away and beaches begin to return as Lake Powell recedes due to ongoing drought cycles.

June 14 was an unprecedented day for the Colorado River. Camille Touton, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, directed the seven Colorado River Basin states to conserve an additional 2 to 4 million-acre feet of water in 2023 to protect critical infrastructure.

This directive is not just to protect hydropower generation, but also preserve the ability to distribute water, including flows through the Grand Canyon to tens of millions of people in California, Arizona and Nevada and parts of Mexico. Touton announced that the states have about eight weeks to develop a consensus plan to get it done, or else the bureau may have to step in and do it for them.

If people weren’t paying attention before, they better be now. The West’s water crisis so many have been warning about is here.

In fact, the crisis has been unfolding for several years. River flows have been declining since about 2000, resulting in the real possibility of crashing water levels at Lake Powell and Lake Mead – the two main buckets of water that serve nearly 40 million people across seven states, 30 federally recognized Tribal Nations and the Republic of Mexico. In response, the Upper Basin states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) and the Lower Basin states (California, Arizona and Nevada) have admirably worked together with the federal government, the Republic of Mexico and many other interests to respond with urgency.

Most recently, within the span of just a few months, the states and the federal government agreed on a plan to implement the Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement (DROA) in 2022. The plan calls for release of water from reservoirs higher up in the system to protect water levels at Lake Powell. In practice, an additional 500,000 acre-feet of water has been scheduled for release from Flaming Gorge Reservoir between May 2022 and March 2023 for that purpose while, at the same time, roughly that same amount of water (technically 480,000 acre-feet) will be held back in Lake Powell and not flow downstream as previously anticipated.

While coming to agreements of this magnitude in such a short period of time should be applauded, what is equally impressive is how the Upper Basin states and Bureau of Reclamation agreed to release the DROA water for 2022 and, as an added element to the negotiations, included a number of Upper Basin Tribal Nations in the decision-making process, both in this agreement and future agreements down the road.

In working to engage a broader range of stakeholders, DROA includes positive environmental benefits (such as flows to support endangered pike minnow and recreational flows throughout the summer,) that makes this model even stronger overall. The agreement releases high flows later in June to disadvantage invasive small mouth bass during their spawning season, since small mouth bass like to eat baby pike minnows. Side note – I was on a rafting trip in late May on the Yampa and Green Rivers, and we got to experience these unique, increased flows firsthand.

There has been abundant media coverage this spring around the urgency to address the water supply challenges across the Colorado Basin. In April, American Rivers released its annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers report, identifying the entire Colorado River as this year’s #1 Most Endangered River, and calling upon decision makers at all levels to urgently work together to address this looming crisis.

The most recent DROA negotiations yet again demonstrated that we can work together with urgency to protect critical infrastructure that we all depend on and support environmental needs in a time of crisis. We must not lose sight of this as we chart a path filled with incomprehensible uncertainty. As evidenced by Touton’s firm direction, there will be many more hard decisions ahead.

We believe that while different in scale to what is ahead, DROA provides a model for how we can work together to protect our water supplies, our environment, and our agricultural communities. For this it should be celebrated, and we all must lean into the model DROA provides, as it will require efforts from us all to elevate us out of this crisis.

Matt Rice | American Rivers

Matt Rice is the southwest regional director at American Rivers, where he directs multidisciplinary programs throughout the Colorado River Basin that drive innovative water conservation solutions.