As Colorado River Dries, New Questions about Water Management Arise

Hoover Dam, Colorado River    Photo: Ubergirl, Wiki CC

By Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

For twenty years, conditions across the Colorado River Basin have worsened as temperatures rose due to climate change.  In 2020, unrelenting heat and super dry conditions left the soil extremely parched, rivers and streams running low, and reservoirs in the region well below capacity. High elevation forests in Colorado — trees that no one ever thought would be a fire risk — were bone dry and burned intensely.  The Southwest experiencing its worst drought in 1,500 years, raising important questions about how to manage the Colorado River’s water. The River sustains farms and cities in seven Western states.

Why this Matters: Research suggests that the river could lose 1/4 of its flow by 2050 as the climate continues to heat up. Over the past year, the river’s reservoirs have been left at 46% their full capacity, even lower than 52% a year ago. In order to avert catastrophic drought conditions, the west must find a new way to manage its water, and fast. “Climate change is drying out the headwaters,” one water manager said. “And everybody in the Colorado River Basin needs to be concerned.”

“Demand Management” Plans

There are a few ideas in play about how best to cope with increasingly severe drought conditions. Some states have explored adopting “demand management” plans, which would pay some farmers to voluntarily and temporarily use less water. Representatives of Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico started to pilot a program like this in 2019, when they signed a set of agreements called the Drought Contingency Plan. That said, some have issues with this kind of program, as it enables cities to avoid water cuts, and disrupts farmers’ livelihoods and careers.

Prioritizing River Health

Voters in Colorado passed a ballot measure that would raise taxes in order to generate money that protects sources of drinking water and water that gets funneled into farms and ranches. Moreover, Colorado State University is performing a study that aims to help farmers find ways to use less water. Nine ranchers were paid for leaving some fields dry or partially dry. Over 900 acres weren’t irrigated for the year, and about 200 acres were “deficit irrigated” and received less water. The results of the study haven’t been finalized, but finding ways to farm in drought conditions would certainly help conserve water throughout the region. 

A Water Market Worth Billions

Water rights have long been bought and sold in the West as a way to manage uses.  But now, private investors from the East Coast have started to buy water rights, attempting to make the water industry more like Wall Street, implementing futures markets and instant trading, according to The New York Times. Big investors owning water rights (as opposed to locals) could increase the price of water precipitously for cities that are hoping to accumulate rights in anticipation of future demand. Some investors suggest that making the market more sophisticated will force consumers to use less water due to the price surges. However, this plan may have huge drawbacks. Traders could exploit volatility, whether due to drought, failing infrastructure or government restrictions, or produce artificial shorts.  Transferring water from agricultural communities to cities, although often contentious, is not a new practice.

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