Drought Contingency

Notes from the 2017 Upper Colorado River Basin Forum

By Rica Fulton

Innovation, community, and resilience emulated from passionate conversations at this year’s Upper Colorado River Basin Forum (UCRBF) hosted by Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, Colorado this past November.  “Stories from the Field” were heard from academics, ranchers, authors, boaters, and scientists. Keynote Speakers Brian Richter and John Fleck delivered hopeful discourses stemming from their books “Chasing Sustainability “and “Water is for Fighting and Other Myths about Water in the West,” respectively. 

I was fortunate enough to present a poster at the Forum stemming from my preliminary thesis work at the University of Wyoming regarding stakeholder collaboration and ecological flow regimes along the Dolores River. Representatives from Colorado Parks & Wildlife and American Whitewater, who both played leading roles in the logistics of the spill this past summer, were kindly willing to give me some fantastic feedback.

Politically, culturally, and environmentally the Colorado River Basin has been massively transformed since the genesis of the 1922 Colorado River Compact. The deceitfully simple document designates Lee’s Ferry as the water delivery point between the Upper and Lower Basins as well as lays out the allocation scheme between the seven states (yet notably ignoring the presence of Indian Reserved Rights and Mexico).  Since 1922, an immense number of laws, treaties, and agreements have augmented the Colorado River Compact, creating a complex management framework, to say the least.

Implanting the evolving values of society, climate change, and population growth into the existing framework of Colorado River policy is a rubix-cube of epic hydrologic proportions. Nowadays, the Colorado River is on the brink of a shortage call from the Department of the Interior, and drought contingency planning is on the rise.  State representatives from Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico along with Amy Haas the Deputy Executive Director and General Council of the Upper Colorado River Commission provided preliminary state and federal plans for the imminent call from the Secretary of the Interior. While certain aspects of the Commission's plans show a step in the right direction, it is concerning to me to see the states still trying to further develop Colorado River Water, such as the case with Utah's proposed Lake Powell Pipeline. 

Further, the trickle-down impact of persisting drought and population growth could be seen through presentations from NASA climate scientists, climatologists from CU Boulder, and surprisingly,  social scientists from USGS. Conservation efforts require snow scientists, climate science, regional knowledge, policymakers, agriculturalists, soil scientists, water managers, and many other groups working together for a common cause. The outcome at the forum being an interdisciplinary pool of exceptionally passionate water nerds.   

Different scales of water organizations were masterfully represented throughout the Forum, showing different levels of conservation from the Federal level down to irrigation districts and individuals. Culturally, policymakers and agriculturists may have conflicting views as to the uses of water, which has lead to misconceptions about water conservation initiatives.  Federal-level "Demand Management" initiatives and Irrigation District-level conservation efforts sometimes look different in the alfalfa field than they do in a Washington D.C. conference room. That shows the importance of bridging the gap between different scales of water management as well as different values regarding water use moving forward.  

Colossal strides still need to be taken to ensure that the Colorado River Basin will have a viable future. Conversations that occur between different stakeholders in venues such as the one provided by Colorado Mesa University provide a platform for idea- sharing and trust-fostering. I continue to preserve hope that the immense passion evoked by the Colorado River into Westerners will encourage the forthcoming management decisions in the Basin to be thoughtful, humble, and holistic.

Visit http://www.coloradomesa.edu/water-center/forum/2017-upper-colorado-forum.html to check out the 2017 presentations.