Rare accord marks opening of Colorado River conference


By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

Despite its reputation as the “most legislated, most debated, and most litigated river in the entire world” – as Marc Reiser put it in Cadillac Desert – there was a cooperative air at the start of “Navigating the Future of the Colorado River,” a conference being held at the University of Colorado Law School.

In their keynote talks, both Michael Connor, Commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and Pat Mulroy, General Manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority stressed the importance of having people who rely on the Colorado work together to ensure our mutual survival and prosperity. “The solutions are among the people in this room,” said Mulroy.

Mulroy added that the decisions about how the river should be allocated and managed  should come from various local stakeholders. “It’s imperative to work from the ground up,” she said. Without agreement among the seven basin states, Mulroy warned of possible federal intervention. “We do not want this resolved in the halls of Congress,” she said.

In that vein, Connor pointed to H.R. 1837, a radical bill pending in Congress, involving California’s San Joaquin River. The bill would turn state water rights upside down by eliminating a century-old requirement that, when possible, the federal government should defer to state water law. The bill also threatens hard-one Endangered Species Act protections, established restoration settlements and collaborative processes. “Trampling on states’ sovereignty is not good public policy,” said Connor.

‘Flexibility’ is another imperative that was highlighted time and again in the first days of the conference. Mulroy attributed some of the successes in river management thus far to abandoning competition for the resource, to a loosening of grip on Colorado River water in southern Nevada and beyond. “If we got something, it’s because we gave something,” she said. Seeing water players in other basin states as equals is as important. “They weren’t monsters, ogres, villains, thieves, child molesters in other states,” said Mulroy, she realized they were just people trying to do right by their constituents.

Despite the optimistic, collaborative vibe, there were sobering notes as well. While high snowpack and run-off this season have offered a brief reprieve from a decade of drought, “our precarious balance is going to get worse with climate change,” said Michael Connor. “The challenges ahead are breathtaking in scope.”

Pat Mulroy looked to a future in which our children, greatly impacted by the effects of climate change, have to search for food and water. “This is the next generation,” she said, not that that far down the road. “This isn’t about growing economies, this is about survival,” said Mulroy. “Failure is not an option.”

The conference will continue through Friday with sessions on Indian water rights and U.S. Mexico negotiations, as well one in which the spirit of accord may falter—policy options and solutions. Stay tuned—I’ll be weighing on the conference as a whole next Monday.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Heather Hansen is an environmental journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Natural Resources Law Center at CU Boulder, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.

Image of Hoover Dam, on the Colorado River, courtesy Flickr user Tim Welbourn.