How to Keep Western Rivers Flowing As Water Shortages Loom

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Article Was Originally Published March 9, 2018 in The Hill

The drought now gripping the southwestern United States feels scarily familiar. In a recent public opinion survey of western voters, 82 percent listed low river levels as their top concern when it came to water.

In five of the last seven years the snowpack in the Upper Colorado River Basin on March 1 has registered below the long-term average. It has been nearly two decades since Lakes Powell and Mead, the giant reservoirs on the Colorado River that supply water to some 40 million people and 5 million acres of farmland, were full. Currently, their capacities stand at 55 percent and 41 percent respectively, and with much of the Colorado River Basin now in severe or extreme drought, those lake levels will not rise significantly any time soon. 

Yet people continue to flock to the states that share the liquid lifelines of the Colorado River. They come for many reasons. But many are drawn by the great outdoors — the fishing, boating, kayaking, tubing, bird-watching and other activities made possible by rivers flowing through beautiful landscapes. The Colorado Basin boasts a $26 billion recreation economy that depends on water staying in rivers rather than being taken out of them.

Without a doubt, securing enough water for cities, farmers, businesses, and nature will require a balancing act. But there is reason for optimism: through innovation, collaboration and smarter management there is vast untapped potential to achieve that balance. 

Conservation, efficiency, recycling, reuse and storm-water capture are proven, cost-effective measures that can often negate the need for expensive and harmful dams and diversions. Especially in agriculture, incentives to invest in efficiency — from micro-irrigation to canal modernization to more precise irrigation scheduling — could free up water to restore depleted rivers. 

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