When it comes to any water crisis, no matter whose fault it is, it’s all our problem. Fortunately, the solutions are in our hands as well.
The Colorado River is in crisis, and it is something we need to address today, as reservoir levels of lakes Powell and Mead continue to drop, threatening the livelihoods of 40 million people in the West and countless more with food insecurity throughout the nation.
The consequences of doing nothing or waiting for someone else to come up with solutions to fill those reservoirs will be felt all over the United States, from a lack of produce in your grocery stores, to significantly higher electricity bills, to delayed or canceled economic development. This river simply cannot supply the amount of water it used to.
The target water savings necessary to address the crisis is 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water in addition to existing shortages declared by the federal government. To put that in perspective, if we turned off all the water to the municipal users of the basin – which includes cities like Denver, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and San Diego – we would still fall far short of our objective. Water conservation in our cities is necessary but not sufficient.
Agriculture uses more than 80% of the water in the Colorado River Basin, which means agriculture must be part of the solution. If we act now, we can ensure agricultural water conservation is voluntary, compensated and temporary. If we wait too long or refuse to act, we face an involuntary, uncompensated and permanent reality.
Having been intricately involved in water conservation policymaking for the last 17 years, I feel a responsibility and civic duty to find and implement solutions to help keep water, food and power running for 40 million people. I have served as the Colorado River Commissioner, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, as legal counsel to Colorado’s governor, and as Colorado’s assistant attorney general. I care deeply about Western water and agriculture – and its survival.
As a result, I’ve drafted what I hope is part of a solution: conveying interest by farmers and ranchers in a compensated, voluntary and temporary program that pays agricultural water right holders to conserve water. Inaction, and its resulting failure, is not an option. The best way to accomplish this is for our government to administer the program. Absent that, we must craft a way to pay for project administration.
The river has dropped far faster than any of us, yours truly included, predicted – even more reason for us to harness all our resources to collaborate on solutions that work for everyone. At the end of the day, we all want our children and grandchildren to inherit a place as good as, if not better than, the one we’ve been blessed to steward. As the scripture says, it’s time to beat swords into ploughshares, and it is time to work together to save the Colorado River, its agriculture and our collective food security.
James Eklund served as Colorado’s lead negotiator and signatory on the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan as former director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. He is now a lawyer in private practice in Denver specializing in water and natural resources.