MOAB, Utah — A pair of U.S. senators — a Democrat and a Republican — jump in a raft and head down river.
It sounds like a lead-in for some corny political joke. But it happened last weekend on the Colorado River, with Colorado’s Sen. Michael Bennet, the Democrat, joining Utah’s Mitt Romney, the Republican, on a float through billion-year-old geology. Their time together was meant to forge a relationship that might supersede politics and help the West better address the ravages of a warming climate.
“I look around this landscape and I say we are here for a minute of time,” Romney said. “And we will be known by future generations as the great generation or the worst generation and our trajectory ain’t great right now on some fronts. Dealing with climate is something we are going to have to grapple with before we are gone. We are going to do that with real leadership on a bipartisan basis.”
With a crew that included a tribal leader, Utah state politicians, scientists, water-guardians, ranchers and environmentalists, the two senators donned river sandals and PFDs and joined their wives for a float on a river that is unable to slake the thirst of some 40 million users.
They got an earful.
Waleed Abdalati, the director of the 900-scientist Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Studies at CU Boulder, kicked off the day with a flurry of doom.
July 2021 was the hottest month ever recorded. The world has warmed 1.8 degrees since 1850. In that time, Colorado has warmed 2.2 degrees. Utah has warmed 2.6 degrees. These states are among the more rapidly warming areas on earth, Abdalati said.
“So it really hits home in the western United States,” he said, noting how the high temperatures are reducing snowpack while demand for Colorado River water has increased.
“And projections call for many more hotter days ahead,” Abdalati said. “So the outlook for the future, I’m not going to say grim. I’m going to say it’s challenging. And we have to rise to that challenge.”
Forest fires now scorch 7.5 million acres a year in the U.S. That’s three times more than the average in the 1980s. Infrastructure is threatened, Abdalati said, pointing to damage and closures of the critical Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon this summer. Rural communities that depend on water for agriculture, recreation and tourism are threatened as well.
“The implications of what’s happening are not just our day-to-day lives, they are spiritual in a lot of ways. They are economic in a lot of ways,” Abdalati said. “The implications are huge.”
MORE: Amid drought, a changing climate and population growth, can Colorado’s unique water law system survive?
After a couple hours on the river, the senators pulled into a Bureau of Land Management boat ramp and heard more about how a warming climate is injuring the West.
This time, they heard from Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, the 15-county Western Slope region that contributes about 60% of the natural flow of the Colorado River.
The district has seen closer to a 4-degree warming since 1895. Mueller cited a library of studies, including several from the U.S. Geological Survey, showing for every one degree rise in temperature, there is less snow and a 3% to an 8% decrease in flows in the Colorado River.
And even before the onset of the now 21-year drought, there already isn’t enough water in the Colorado River to meet downstream demand. Mueller gave the senators a quick lesson on the Colorado River Compact. It’s a worn narrative, repeated now for two decades as a withering drought reduces snow and flows.
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The Colorado River Compact agreements in 1922, 1948 and 1960 divided the river’s water between upper and lower basins. The upper basin states – Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah – get 7.5 million acre-feet a year. The lower basin states – Arizona, Nevada and California – get 7.5 million acre-feet of water. Mexico gets 1.5 million acre feet.
But the compact, the so-called law of the river, was based on some fuzzy numbers. The average flow into the river since 1895 is 15.5 million acre feet. But in the last 20 years, a warming climate and less snow has delivered a mere 12.3 million acre feet of water to the river every year. Meanwhile, demand for Colorado River water has never been higher as populations grow. The headwater states have never used all their share of the water. The thirsty states downriver “are using too much damn water,” Mueller said.
“We need to get them under control. They are not going to stop overusing water unless they have driven us to a total crisis on the river. That is a problem,” he said, standing atop a riverside picnic table in front of the two senators. “That needs to be fixed.”
The answer, as it has been now for two decades, is to reduce consumption. At best, Mueller said, the upper basin states can expect to see about 4.5 million acre feet of water from the Colorado River. So the belt tightening needs to pick up the pace.
Farmers and ranchers, who consume 87% of the river’s water in the upper basin, must be more efficient, Mueller said. The upper basin states need to keep more water in the river to meet recreational and environmental needs.
The 30 Native American tribes that have water rights on the Colorado River but too often let that water slip away unused “need to be involved,” in negotiations, said Manuel Heart, chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
Heart called for partnerships that include all levels of government and tribes.
“We all have to have a voice and a seat at the table,” said Heart, who represents 10 tribes with rights to Colorado River water. “I’m willing to do that if everyone else is willing to do that.”
Romney asked about a pipeline moving water from the wet East, maybe from the Great Lakes region. Is it possible? Not really, said Mueller, noting the multi-state compact approved by Congress in 2008 that prevents Great Lake water from leaving the region’s watershed.
Bennet asked about the cumulative impacts of 20-years of drought and below average inflows into the river. Mueller noted exceptionally dry, heat-baked soil in the West and Southwest absorbing more water. Warm temperatures also are pulling more moisture from snow — a process called evapotranspiration — before it trickles into streams and rivers.
Jon Goldin-Dubois, the longtime head of Western Resource Advocates, told the senators that Colorado River water policy “has not caught up” with the drought and is still locked in incorrect assumptions from 1922.
“We need to be thinking ahead to a 2040 and 2050 timeframe when we are going to be seeing 11 million acre-feet or 10 million acre-feet instead of 16,” he said, suggesting the federal government can help with dollars to encourage both farmers and ranchers and cities to use less water.
Pat O’Toole, whose Ladder Ranch in both Wyoming and Colorado has been in his wife’s family since the late 1800s, has seen many springs that feed his meadows dry up in recent years.
“I’m shocked with how quickly things have changed,” said O’Toole, who chairs the water-focused Family Farm Alliance. “Things I thought would take 20 years, in this climate world have happened in two years.”
Asking ranchers and farmers to fallow fields will have ripple effects, he said. Migratory birds will suffer. Food production could decline.
Agriculture is too often asked to sacrifice, O’Toole said.
“We should be shocked that we are expected to produce 50% more food and we are losing farmers faster than we can replace them,” he said. “Ag is tough. Way tougher than I would like it to be. We are going to have to realize that we can’t keep asking us to be the reservoir for growth and the reservoir for the environment and the reservoir for everything else. There’s a limit to how far we can go.”
The allocation of water in the West has, for more than a century, been anchored in the tenet that the states should make decisions and any heavy-handed involvement from the federal government or federal courts should be avoided.
Romney held that line, per the limited-government ethos of the Republican Party.
“The answer is not going to come from the federal government,” he said. “If it does, no one is going to like it. If it does, it’s not going to work and it’s going to be expensive. But just continuing to say that we are going to do things as we always have is not going to work.”
Romney urged states and local communities to take the lead and create climate-action plans that can be supported by federal dollars.
Groups like the crew assembled for the bipartisan float above Moab could be the instigator of that effort, Goldin-Dubois said.
“It feels like this group could be a really good forum where we could find out ‘Here’s one step. Here’s two steps,’” Goldin-Dubois said. “It feels like an opportunity. I hope somehow, with your leadership, we can continue this and bring something back to you.”
Bennet agreed with Romney, saying he didn’t think edicts from Washington would ever succeed.
“Historically we have memorialized the work done at the state and local level and that’s appropriate,” Bennet said.
But the climate problem is global, Romney said, suggesting that Colorado and Utah could help the U.S. forge the technologies and models needed to slow down carbon-trapping emissions that are causing climate change.
Bennet agreed, saying that both the government and markets will help the U.S. reach net-zero goals by 2050.
“We have to innovate our way there and provide that technology to the rest of the world,” he said.
Bennet said climate change will not be solved “one party at a time or one election at a time.”
“We are going to have to ultimately develop something of an American climate policy like we used to have something called American foreign policy,” said Bennet, who worries about politics slowing efforts to address the impacts of a warming climate.
It’s days on a rambling river, in the shadow of sandstone pillars and canyons eroded over billions of years that help the politicians see beyond party and politics, they said.
“You have got to make every minute count. You have to make every second count. We are not here that long,” Bennet said. “You can be discouraged by that or you take inspiration from that and that’s what this landscape means to me.”