The pulse of the river


For a journalist, sitting through last week's conference on the Colorado River, hosted by the Natural Resources Law Center at the University of Colorado, was a great way to take the river's pulse -- to get a sense of how the river's water czars, academic wonks, scientists and other minders are thinking about the basin's present and future. (Heather Hansen ably summed up the conference over at The Range, here and here.)

Cooperation, flexibility and uncertainty were the buzzwords most tossed around. States need to manage the river more cooperatively (read: avoid using litigation to resolve competing water claims), interpret the Colorado River Compact more flexibly to accommodate changing conditions (read: "bend the hell" out of the compact but maintain its basic principles), and plan aggressively for the mind-bending uncertainty associated with climate change.

On these general points, managers from Colorado agreed with those from Nevada, who agreed with those from Wyoming -- which was all a little strange since the Colorado River Compact is not exactly known as a consensus building document. For an outsider like me, it was hard to tell whether the peaceful vibes were just politicking or evidence of genuine evolution. Most likely, a bit of both were at work.

Some unspoken tensions did emerge when Sarah Bates, from the Center for Natural Resources & Environmental Policy at the University of Montana, presented "Thinking Like a River Basin," a report published this spring on the Colorado River Basin's challenges and opportunities for addressing them, based on anonymous interviews with basin power players. As Bates described it, the report was a "qualitative assessment of what people care and are concerned about." Though many of the conference's speakers had said litigation was not an option, the "specter of litigation" continues to hang forebodingly over the basin, Bates said. "It's a real possibility, and people fear it."

Bates' report also revealed flaws in the basin's institutional status quo. "(There's) a lack of obvious leaders to articulate a basin-wide vision," she said. "(There's a) void in people who can step forward and speak for the basin as a whole, not just their constituents."

On that front, there was lots of talk at the conference about making the river's decision making process more inclusive -- giving stakeholders like tribes and environmentalists a more meaningful seat at the table. "An opportunity to participate has to be more than an opportunity to just let off steam," said Robert Adler, a University of Utah law professor. "When the compact was negotiated in 1922, it involved seven basin states, the federal government and no one else. These groups are used to having most of the power in the basin, and they're not likely to give it up easily." There was much boasting about efforts to give Mexico a more robust role in U.S. decision making, but no practical plan was articulated for elevating the status of tribes and NGOs.

Overall, the biggest question facing Colorado River users -- and this isn't news -- is how to plan for and divvy up water in a much more water-scarce world. Lots of big ideas were discussed, but solutions haven't been settled on. And as Larry MacDonnell from the University of Wyoming College of Law pointed out, the basin states have yet to confront a few basic realities. "The basin's reliable water supply is already used. The prospects before us are not good," MacDonnell said. "(Yet) all of us have specific projects on the drawing board to use more water -- that's inherent in how we think about the system." It's time, he suggested, to think the unthinkable, and plan to reduce new and existing uses.

A few ways to do that, he offered: no new water uses should be approved that would increase overall depletion in the basin; the amount of flow upper basin states are required to maintain at Lee Ferry, which divides the upper and lower basins, should be relaxed; and lower basin states should reduce their overall consumption, and let go of any expectations of surplus conditions. MacDonnell conceded that many of these proposals are "at first blush wildly unacceptable" to the states. "(But) the alternative will be, at some point, litigation if we don't do something dramatic."

Amid all the challenges, there are hopeful signs. For one, river managers are thinking about climate change and how to adapt to it a lot. They aren't debating whether climate change is real or what's causing it. Rather, they're beginning to plan for a range of plausible futures, based on forecasts from a slew of climate models. (A cone diagram was used repeatedly to demonstrate water's uncertain future in a warming world; Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water, the Front Range's powerful water utility, said in his shop they call it "the vortex of doom.")

When I asked whether the political toxicity of climate change at the national level really mattered, whether it limited the ability of water managers to plan for changes already underway, Lynn Scarlett, former deputy Interior Secretary, responded that the dysfunctional "status of the national conversation doesn't have to and isn't impeding adaptation planning."

Lochhead of Denver Water, who noted that he employs a few climate scientists, backed her up: "For those on the ground, things are happening and we are dealing with it."

Cally Carswell is HCN's assistant editor.

Photo of Colorado River by squeaks2569, licensed under Creative Commons.

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