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 throughout the nation with food insecurity.
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 beyond the already steep reductions that the Commissioner of Reclamation has already required in lower tier states. To put that in perspective, Colorado consumes between 5 million and 6 million acre-feet of water statewide each year. If we turned off all the water to the municipal users of the Colorado River 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 the vast majority of water in the Colorado River Basin, which means agriculture must be part of the solution. If we act now, we can ensure that 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. In addition to being a water lawyer, I’m also a Western Slope rancher who understands Colorado water law on both sides of the Continental Divide. I have demonstrated public service in water policy through the years as the state’s Colorado River commissioner, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, as legal counsel to Colorado’s governor, and as an assistant attorney general.
Common to each role, present and past, is that I care deeply about Western water and agriculture – and its survival.
The absence of a federal, state, or local plan to address the Colorado River crisis compels me to act. My career in public service and a passion for developing water solutions compels me to act. And after speaking with fellow farmers and ranchers on the Western Slope, I know there is a willingness to act, and act now.
As a result, I’ve drafted what I hope is part of a solution: generating interest among 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. The Bureau of Reclamation recently announced a program to pay agricultural producers willing to conserve water $330-$400 per acre-foot. While this amount is insufficient to generate the needed water, it is directionally accurate and represents action of the type necessary to address the crisis.
My efforts to express the interests of various farmers and ranchers in a government-run solution that compensates them for their conservation efforts are not and have never been an attempt to make money for myself or my law practice. Rather, my work is focused on honoring, respecting, and safeguarding Colorado River Basin agriculture.
Water policy is difficult and I’m the first to admit my batting average was less than 1.000 when I was a water official. When negotiating and executing the Drought Contingency Plan for the Colorado River in 2019, my optimism was, in hindsight, misplaced. The river has dropped far faster than any of us (yours truly included) predicted.
That’s 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, of Denver, ranches in Western Colorado, practices water law at Sherman & Howard, and teaches at CU Denver.
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