Without a doubt, 2020 has been hot and dry in Colorado. The entire state and its nearly 5.8 million residents are living in drought conditions as evidenced by the record-breaking fire season, low river flows and shrinking water supplies.
The entire Colorado River Basin within Colorado is experiencing “extreme” or “exceptional” drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
The next few months are predicted to be warmer and drier than normal, which will further reduce snowpack runoff into our reservoirs even with a normal snowpack this winter.
Unfortunately, 2020 is not an anomaly; rather, it is a harbinger of a future to which we must adapt.
The Colorado River has been in trouble for the last two decades, as temperatures warm, soils get drier and flows decline, but this year reminds us once again that we have no control over Mother Nature. The long-term forecasts and modeling all point to hotter and drier conditions and decreasing river flows.
What we do have control over is developing a plan that works for Colorado.
Colorado’s future is tied to the Colorado River, on both the West Slope and the Front Range. As a state, we must face the reality of a challenging water future together.
Colorado is also tied to the other Colorado River Basin states, tribal nations, and Mexico, all of which depend on this river as much as we do. While we have inherited a complex set of legal rules that govern water allocation and management in the basin, we are also the beneficiaries of several decades of cooperative actions to find mutually agreeable adjustments to those rules that benefit the basin as a whole.
This collaborative approach provides economic, environmental and social benefits that cannot be achieved with an “us vs. them” posture.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), in consultation with Colorado’s leaders in the water supply and conservation community, including the Interbasin Compact Committee and the nine basin roundtables across the state, is working cooperatively with our partners across the basin to develop a broad suite of tools that will ensure long-term resilience and sustainability.
And the time to develop those tools is now. As this water year showed us, there is no time to waste, and no time for ignoring or deflecting from the challenges we face.
Since the Colorado Water Plan was published in 2015, the state and its partners on the ground have learned lessons about how a drier climate will change how we plan, how better data is critical for efficiency, and how every business sector must join forces and work together on using water wisely for future generations.
That is why the groups like the CWCB continue to invest resources into investigating new tools for protecting Colorado water, such as a “Demand Management” program. Such a program would involve temporary, voluntary reductions in water use to help the state continue to meet its obligations under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, and therefore help protect all Colorado River users from future risk of curtailment. CWCB is currently investigating whether Demand Management is feasible for Colorado.
There are some in the water community who would like to put their heads in the sand or blame others for the problem, but neither of those options serves Colorado and all who depend on the Colorado River.
As Colorado looks forward to the next steps of the Demand Management Feasibility Investigation, it is imperative that the state avoids division and instead takes a collaborative approach to considering whether and how Demand Management may be a beneficial tool for Colorado and its water users.
It is imperative that innovative approaches to stretching our water supplies during shortages or drought should be developed. Further, with major negotiations on the horizon for how the Colorado River is managed, it has never been more important for Colorado to speak with a unified voice.
Colorado has a history of being a leader in the Colorado River Basin, and now is the time to lead.
Russell George is the director of the Interbasin Compact Committee and a former speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives and director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. John Stulp is a dryland wheat farmer and cow-calf rancher in southeastern Colorado who previously served as Colorado’s Commissioner of Agriculture, water policy advisor to then-Gov. John Hickenlooper and director of the Interbasin Compact Committee.
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