Water is a vital commodity for everyone living in the Colorado River watershed. We need it for our cities and towns, farms, ranches, to swim and fish in - and other living things need the water too. From the bighorn sheep that drink from the shores of Lake Mohave, to the striped bass that roam the full expanse of Lake Mead, there are a host of organisms that rely on water everyday including us.
Water from Lake Mead is a vital commodity for everyone.
More and more people are moving to the states and areas supplied by Colorado River water. At the same time, the last sixteen years have seen extensive drought and a lesser supply of the Colorado River. Weather studies to look at potential impacts of climate change indicate that there may be less precipitation and water available in the Colorado River in the future. So how do we balance all of our needs in the face of changing conditions?
There have been some contentious fights over the years for water in the west. Each group that utilizes water along the river has differing needs and priorities. The current drought has prompted the seven Colorado River basin states and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to work together to ensure that water supply could meet water demands well into the future. Together, they developed the Colorado River Basin Water and Demand Study that projected future water availability, future water needs, projected shortfalls in water supply, and options to make up for projected shortfalls.
The Moving Forward Initiative
The study projects that by 2060 water demand will exceed supply by greater than 3.2 million acre feet annually (an acre foot on average is enough water for five people for one year). To work on solutions related to the potential water supply shortages suggested by the basin study, the seven Colorado River basin states and the Bureau of Reclamation have organized an effort called Moving Forward. Moving Forward engaged over 100 stakeholders in a series of meetings involving three work groups:
- Municipal and Industrial Water Conservation and Reuse Workgroup – A group that looks at the water needs of cities and various industrial needs across the watershed.
- Agriculture Water Conservation, Productivity, and Transfers Workgroup – A group concerned with the needs of farmers and ranchers and how water resources provide food security for our nation. This includes looking at specific crop types and understanding the water needs versus the productivity of that crop.
- Environmental and Recreational Flows Workgroup – This group has a two-fold mission: (1) to be the voice of protection and conservation of the environment including species and habitat protection and (2) to share the concerns of the recreationalists that use the Colorado River and its tributaries for fishing, boating and swimming.
Graph from U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Colorado River Basin and Demand Study showing trends in water supply and demand.
These groups worked as teams to understand and document past issues and practices and to identify what might happen in the future regarding water challenges. Their work has resulted in the identification of overarching factors leading to recommendations including water use along the Colorado River watershed:
- To make the most of the water we have and increase efficiency where ever we can
- To reduce losses that occur in the water system we have to increase water availability
- Reuse supplies when possible
- Look for ways to manage water resources more effectively to ensure that environmental and recreational water supply needs are met
- Look at the benefits of all the different use-types to identify integrated solutions
From there, the workgroups looked for potential actions in each of their subgroups that could work towards a sustainable water future for Colorado River watershed. A few examples are outlined in the chart below.
Keys to a sustainable Future
Municipal & Industrial
- Increase outdoor water use efficiency
- Increase water/efficiency programs including incentives for conservation
- Reduce system loss
- Increase and/or maintain productivity with efficient on-farm activities
- Maintain soil health to ensure crop productivity
- Reduce water loss through water management and conservation
Environmental & Recreational
- Incorporate watershed management
- Create partnerships that encourage protection or enhancement of ecological or eco-friendly recreational activities
Successful strategies for the Colorado River watershed stakeholders will mean working together and creating a sustainable future for all groups involved. Forward thinking is a key factor and will require the following:
- Finding sustainable funding sources will help unify the effort and keep the effort moving forward
- Supporting and using accurate research and data will aid in the conservation effort by providing clear, concise information to base decisions on
- Keeping the community informed through community outreach and support will help both with the conservation effort but also ensure support when decisions and actions need to be made
- Maintaining and enhancing coordination between groups and agencies is helpful to spread resources across a wider area and to ensure efforts are coordinated and not in conflict
- Improvements to infrastructure and more efficient equipment and facilities will be extremely beneficial in conservation methods
- Maintaining and encouraging innovative, flexible thinking and ideas to work collectively for solutions
Now the workgroups are moving forward, trying to make these ideas for conservation a reality. This multi-state, regional initiative is on its way to finding solutions to the issues that plague the Colorado River watershed and those who depend on it.