‘Where are the snows of yesteryear?’
As I await our next snowfall along the Delaware, that poetic invocation of inevitable change drifts through my mind. I am thinking of another great American river 2,000 miles away, where life and snow are intertwined.
In a multi-part series published at Yale Environment 360, journalist Jim Robbins paints an eye-opening picture of the extraordinary efforts underway to re-envision the management of the Colorado River. One of the most intensely managed waterways in the world, with 15 large dams along 1,450 miles, the Colorado provides water for 40 million people in seven states. The plan dates back to 1922 and the formation of the Colorado River Compact, which established an Upper Basin consisting of Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, and a Lower Basin made up of Arizona, California and Nevada. With California in a development boom, the Compact ensured that towns and farms upriver would have fair access to water resources. For better or worse, it transformed the river and the region.
Because the 1922 negotiations took place during a period of unusually high precipitation, the resulting water allocations are now recognized as unsustainable from the start, a situation that intensified in 2000 when the system entered a “new normal” of prolonged drought. In fact, climate scientists are warning that this may not be a drought—which implies a return to “normal” precipitation in the future—but actually the start of a permanent aridification due to climate change. Robbins cites tree-ring data that indicates this is the most severe drought period in more than 1,250 years, with annual snowfall reduced by a third to a half of pre-2000 levels.
Farms and ranches in the Upper Basin use 80% of their region’s water allocation, so agricultural water use is key to an effective strategy that can avoid the kind of mandatory water cuts that would threaten the food supply, farmers’ livelihoods and harm wildlife. The Grand Valley Water Users Association, which has represented the water claims of farmers in Mesa County, CO since 1905, sets a proactive example. The association is partnering with the Nature Conservancy to develop cooperative measures including compensating farmers who voluntarily leave some fields fallow. The water saved helps avert shortages downstream. The conservancy is also helping farmers experiment with lower irrigation levels, upgrade irrigation technology and switch to less water-intensive crops. Towns are implementing water conservation measures and drought tolerant landscaping. Groups are working to avoid the speculative purchase of water rights by non-farmers.
Lower Basin states are developing an emergency contingency plan that will keep water levels in Lake Mead above the crisis level, and the Nature Conservancy is investing in innovative water infrastructure. Among the large cities facing water shortages, Phoenix has made the greatest strides to conserve and develop alternative sources such as filtering wastewater for irrigation and industrial uses, implementing a system of seven water banks and reducing its per capita water use by 30% over the last 20 years, offsetting a population increase of 400,000.
People of good will along the Colorado are working to transcend the political divide about climate change and model a practical approach that addresses the needs of upstream and downstream stakeholders. In the Catskills, and along the Delaware, our stewardship provides water to some 17 million people. We know all about those tensions between upstream and downstream, rural and urban. The bigger lesson has to do with coming together to balance opposing needs as we tackle all of the different environmental challenges on the horizon, from understanding the needs of merchants as we move toward a statewide ban on single use plastics, to skills training for workers transitioning from fossil fuels.
Melancholic nostalgia won’t help us. We must draw upon our untapped reserves of the powerful human instinct for cooperation.