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As extreme drought strains water supplies across the seven Colorado River Basin states, a coalition of conservation groups has released a report outlining long-term water resilience strategies in the basin.
State, federal and tribal investments should prepare the basin for watershed conditions that climate scientists are predicting, not “the ones we might wish for,” said Kevin Moran, senior director of the Colorado River program at the Environmental Defense Fund, which helped commission the report.
“Resilience to me means the capacity of any system to adapt to changing conditions, while still preserving outcomes that matter to communities and the environment,” Moran said.
Some report recommendations build on such existing initiatives as urban water conservation and irrigation efficiency projects.
But others, such as covering reservoirs or repurposing water rights from retired coal plants, are largely untested.
Other strategies include:
• Forest management and restoration
• Natural distributed storage
• Regenerative agriculture
• Cropping alternatives and new market pathways for farmers
• Industrial conservation and reuse
• Reducing dust on snow
“We’ve seen the devastating effects in recent months of extreme heat, wildfires and dwindling water supplies,” Moran said. “It’s time that we start talking about practical solutions that can address the causes of these interconnected crises.”
The Colorado River supports $1.4 trillion in agricultural and commercial activity each year, according to a 2014 Arizona State University study.
The report comes as western water discussions play out on the national stage during congressional infrastructure package negotiations.
U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo have visited Colorado and New Mexico this summer, where many water managers presented them with federal infrastructure “wish lists.”
Dave Zeller, chief executive officer of Navajo Agricultural Products Industry, said repairs of “eroding infrastructure” are needed to ensure a steady water supply from Navajo Lake.
The reservoir and a maze of canals and tunnels irrigates NAPI’s 80,000 acres of alfalfa, corn, beans, wheat, chiles and potatoes near Farmington.
“We had a 4,000-acre block of alfalfa that was greatly crippled early in the season simply because we had a waterline break,” Zeller said. “That pipe was put in in October of 1976.”
The Colorado River Basin report was also commissioned by American Rivers, the National Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Trout Unlimited and Western Resource Advocates.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.