Colorado is facing an unprecedented water crisis. In the midst of the worst megadrought in 1,200 years, hotter and drier conditions have fueled increasingly frequent and devastating wildfires. Water flows and reservoir levels in the Colorado River Basin have dropped so precipitously that the river’s ability to provide reliable water supplies, and support the electrical grid supplying hydropower to millions, is threatened.
In the face of such enormous challenges, it is clear we no longer have the luxury of implementing small-scale solutions that only bridge us from one crisis to the next. Our response has to match the magnitude of the problem.
Right now, the state is seeking public comment on the draft Colorado Water Plan – the blueprint we will use to guide water policy for the next decade. State officials have both the opportunity and the obligation to use this plan to put forward bold solutions supporting sustainable water supplies, not just for the next year, but for decades to come. This includes addressing the systemic inequities that have left communities of color disproportionately impacted by climate change, drought and water scarcity.
The Colorado River Basin is home to one third of the U.S. Latino population. Equity and access to water in the West are undeniably tied, with Latino households twice as likely as white households to lack indoor plumbing. Dry wells and draining reservoirs exacerbate the problem by compounding exposure to heat and with a lack of water. Latinos are also twice as likely as the overall U.S. population to live in areas most vulnerable to wildfires.
Those in urban areas face different but equally difficult challenges. Latino are 21% more likely as whites to live in urban heat islands – areas dominated by asphalt and concrete, and lacking parks and shade-providing trees. These conditions can lead to breathing difficulties, heat stroke and even death. Areas within a 10-minute walk of a park can be as much as 6 degrees cooler, but parks in neighborhoods that are primarily non-white serve five times the population while being only half the size.
Tackling these problems requires working directly with the communities most affected so they can drive the decisions that impact them.
The draft water plan acknowledges the need for more equitable solutions, but it doesn’t identify who would lead this work or how it would be done. A revised plan must include clarity on how officials can bring a more diverse range of voices into decision making to help vulnerable communities become more resilient to climate-driven drought, floods and wildfires.
As a critical first step, the Colorado Department of Natural Resources should establish a Chief of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion to focus on these issues. The systemic inequities are too widespread to be solved without a dedicated position identifying needs and solutions.
The vast majority of Colorado’s water supply is used for agriculture, and an estimated three quarters of the state’s farmworkers are Latino. A meaningful water plan must address how we can help farms and ranches do more with less to protect the livelihoods of all who depend on them. Strategies range from improving irrigation efficiency, to switching to more water efficient crops, to compensating farmers and ranchers for agricultural management practices that idle some fields to save water.
The Colorado Water Plan is an opportunity not only to increase equity but to also demonstrate leadership to the seven states in the Colorado River Basin. Too often in conversations between states that share water from the Colorado River, individual states back into corners to defend what they consider to be “their water” and decline to take important steps until others do more.
This is not a time to hope other states act so we can follow; the shortages from the river are too great and the impact too far-reaching. Every industry and every state will need to do all it can.
Colorado’s plan should prioritize nature-based solutions that protect, restore and sustainably manage existing water systems. This includes strategies like reconnecting floodplains to rivers to naturally regulate floodwaters and using more ecological forest management to mute the outsize danger from wildfires and create a healthier landscape that yields cleaner and more reliable water supplies.
Our state water plan offers Colorado the opportunity to lead other basin states and model innovative, sustainable water policies while also addressing long-standing inequities impacting communities of color. We encourage you to participate in the public comment period and tell state officials we need a bolder, more equitable plan that lays out a clear path to create a safer and more secure water future for all Coloradans.
Jill Ozarski is a program officer with the Walton Family Foundation’s Colorado River Initiative. Jared Romero is director of strategic partnerships at Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. Both live in Denver.
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