Water Lines: Resilience in the face of Colorado’s water stress
Free Press Weekly Columnist
On Nov. 5-6, water experts from around the West gathered at Colorado Mesa University for the fourth annual Upper Colorado River Basin Water Forum. The theme was “Seeking a resilient future,” and the speakers offered rich food for thought on that topic.
The complexity and scale of the water challenges facing the Colorado River Basin is daunting. We face an uncertain climate future, almost certainly hotter and possibly drier. Demands in the basin have already exceeded supplies, leading to headline-making bathtub rings on Lakes Powell and Mead.
From Wyoming to Mexico and Colorado to California, ranchers, river rats and city slickers are bound together by mutual dependence on the Colorado River and its tributaries. At the same time, we are separated by diverging interests and separate sets of laws and jurisdictions.
How then could it be possible to make the collective decisions needed to manage water in ways that enable the environment and the communities across the basin to endure? It is far from given that this will happen, but the speakers at the forum did offer some grounds for hope. The keys? Embrace uncertainty, learn by doing, and harness the complexity of the system to implement creative solutions. And play well with others.
Laurna Kaatz, the climate science, policy and adaptation program manager for the Planning Division at Denver Water, talked about embracing uncertainty. She spoke about the need for water utilities to identify their vulnerabilities and work to enhance the flexibility and adaptive capacity of their systems.
Kaatz also spoke of the need to keep up to date with climate science and the human factors driving water use, themes echoed by officials describing the state water planning efforts in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. All of these states recognize the need to regularly update their plans to reflect new science, new hydrology and new patterns of use.
“Learning by doing” was a major theme of a panel on efforts to restore streams damaged by transmountain diversions in Grand County, Colo. This means that water and engineering will be applied according to what current science indicates will benefit the streams, but that all parties agree to monitor actual progress and change strategies as needed. It’s another way of embracing uncertainty, and committing to work together over the long haul to adapt as conditions change.
Colorado River management is certainly complex, with two national governments, seven U.S. states, two Mexican states, and multitudes of water management districts, associations and authorities directly involved, as well as many advocacy groups weighing in on what should be done.
The spring 2014 release of water to reconnect the Colorado River to the Sea of Cortez in Mexico demonstrated the tangible results of harnessing that complexity to bring ecological benefits even during a drought. The release was actually only one part of a very complex international agreement (known as Minute 319) to share surpluses and shortages across the border. It was possible because of both the determination of environmental advocates and the opportunity for win-win deal making on a system with multiple reservoirs, delivery systems and users with diverse needs for the timing and scale of water storage and use.
In the vast, interconnected Colorado River system, the ability of scientists, water managers and citizens to learn from each other and negotiate in good faith will be key to the resilience of the whole region.
If you’d like to learn more about the topics discussed at the forum, check out the Water Center at CMU’s website: http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter. The full program is posted there, and presentations will be posted shortly.
This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning, and to let the roundtables know what you think, go to http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter. You can also find the Water Center on Facebook at Facebook.com/WaterCenter.CMU or Twitter at Twitter.com/WaterCenterCMU.
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