Red states and blue states, conservatives and progressives, rural and urban. Regardless of our differences, we all need water.
Water is the life source for our ecosystems, our economies and our ways of living. Water irrigates our fields, nourishes our livestock, feeds our ecosystems, fuels our recreation economies, and serves our everyday needs. In fact, Coloradans’ shared appreciation and overall dependence on water bridges our differences and may just lead to workable, collaborative solutions within and between Colorado’s diverse four watersheds and seven river basins to address our growing water challenges.
If only Colorado’s water challenges stayed within its borders.
Everyone involved in the ongoing, multi-jurisdictional debate involving the Colorado River system recognizes that the laws and legal frameworks defining water law, rights, uses and access are complicated. Most also recognize that, more than 100 years ago, the scientific data and subsequent modeling of a future Colorado River system that informed the original Colorado River Compact were faulty at best.
The battle between the Colorado River Basin states over increasingly scarce water resources demonstrates just how divisive this necessity has become. This is a textbook case of the tragedy of the commons, in which individual actions add up to deplete a public resource. The only way towards meaningful solutions is through communication and cooperation. Colorado U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper understands this and has gathered a group of lawmakers to find solutions.
The recently announced Colorado River Caucus consists of senators from all seven basin states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. This is critical for ensuring buy-in across the region. For one thing, this caucus will bring this issue into focus for Washington, which could result in much-needed federal support. The Inflation Reduction Act negotiations last year demonstrated the power of working together to get things done as senators from the Western states secured $4 billion in drought relief funding. Now as a formal caucus, members are already discussing ways to increase federal assistance, such as using the upcoming farm bill as a means to funnel more funding into their region’s water conservation programs.
Federal backing of this magnitude is critical because meaningful solutions will require greater resources than states alone can gather. Sen. Hickenlooper rightly identified that these states are experiencing more than just a drought, and the threat of desertification is imminent. The flow of the Colorado River declined roughly 20% in the past 23 years. You don’t have to look further than California to see the scale of economic losses a drought can cause: 2021 drought conditions cost the state’s agricultural industry $1.1 billion and idled almost 395,000 acres of land.
It is no wonder why Colorado River experts agree that boosting state resources will ease tensions between states. A threat of this magnitude could drain already-stressed state finances and threaten countless livelihoods. State governments are under pressure to prevent job losses resulting from this water crisis and are naturally hesitant to agree to proposals limiting their water usage. Added federal funding would give these governments financial breathing room and could free up management options that otherwise would not exist. States could be more willing to negotiate and compromise on a final plan of action if they have this boosted assurance.
Greater federal resources alone, however, are not enough for long-term solutions. States must communicate more effectively amongst themselves to find workable solutions. Negotiations between the seven states currently suffer from strong competing interests and a lack of consistent communication.
Case in point: Six of the seven basin states agreed to a recent proposal that ultimately failed as California refused to sign on due to concerns voiced by the state’s farmers. California, as a result, created its own proposal. Dueling proposals are not productive; the states must find a path forward together. Senators from these states work closely together in Washington, meeting frequently to discuss the issue. As a caucus, this group will now have greater heft to facilitate interstate discussions and bring the political will to implementing mutually beneficial solutions.
The Colorado River Caucus is not Sen. Hickenlooper’s first collaborative attempt to address water conflicts. In 2013, then Colorado’s governor, Hickenlooper directed the Colorado Water Conservation Board to develop a plan for Colorado’s water. By inviting diverse experts and water users across the state into the effort, and by bridging differences, the Colorado Water Plan, updated earlier this year, improves efficiencies and builds on consensus.
And now this same approach can work at the federal level. Senator Hickenlooper and the Colorado River Caucus should be commended for giving this emergency the attention it deserves. Our water, and our lives, depend on it.
Josh Blanchard, of Silverthorne, is a member of the Summit County Board of County Commissioners.
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