Colorado River Sustainability

Developing Understanding of Water and Climate Risk

Lake Mead, which serves as the primary storage reservoir for the Lower Basin, has experienced significant declines over the past 15 years as a result of drought and overuse in the Colorado River Basin, creating significant risks of shortage for farms and cities in the Lower Basin.

The Colorado River Basin covers more than 246,000 square miles, spanning seven U.S. states and two Mexican states, and supporting more than 40 million people and 4 million acres of irrigated land. With more than 27 major dams and countless large and small diversions, the Colorado River is one of the most heavily developed and regulated river systems in the world. As challenges from ever-increasing water demand, extended drought, and the impacts of climate change intensify, the Colorado River Basin faces water scarcity problems that will continue to affect millions of people and some of the most important economic centers in North America.

Over the past decade, the Colorado River has been the subject of a series of high-profile planning efforts, negotiations, and agreements. These efforts reflect the widespread recognition of significant legal overallocation and physical overuse of water in the Colorado River Basin, as well as new water supply projections that reflects both a more accurate understanding of historic hydrology in the Colorado River Basin and the likely near-term impacts of climate change.

The Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan, signed in 2019, took significant steps to manage the risks of shortage on the Colorado River, and included commitments to large voluntary reductions in water use by users in Arizona, California, and Nevada.

In recent years, forecasting has demonstrated a serious near-term risk that water elevations in the Basin’s large storage reservoirs -- Lakes Mead and Powell -- will decline to critically low elevations if no action is taken. These declines could trigger substantial water shortages in the Lower Basin States and Mexico, jeopardize hydropower production at the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams (among other reservoirs), and potentially result in the involuntary curtailment of water use in the Upper Basin. In response, Colorado River Basin stakeholders have worked successfully together to shape several important policy measures, including the adoption of the 2007 Interim Shortage Guidelines (“2007 Guidelines), the negotiation of Minutes 319 and 323 between the United States and Mexico, and the recently-completed Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan (“DCP”).

However, these measures ultimately represent just a first step. The past decade has provided a window into the long-term challenges likely to result from the combined impacts of continued growth in water use, natural variation of precipitation and runoff, and the increasingly noticeable impacts of climate change and other landscape-level factors such as tamarisk infestation, declining forest health, and dust on snow. Future sustainability will require proactive investment in long-term durable reductions in demand and/or investments in efficiencies, enhanced supply, and watershed health (including strategies such as wet meadow restoration, regenerative agriculture, crop switching, forest health restoration, and groundwater management and recharge).

Climate change is creating significant water-related risks for both human and environmental uses in the Colorado River Basin, and is expected to have substantial economic and ecological consequences in the Basin.

Culp & Kelly, LLP and CK Blueshift, LLC, working in close collaboration with the firm of Martin & McCoy, have been working with clients and partner organizations to evaluate systemic water risk, develop better analytical and visualization tools that we can use to engage in scenario planning, assess the potential value impact of different interventions on the system, and where possible incubate pilot projects that may contribute to sustainability of the Basin. This includes efforts to develop hydrologic scenarios to help evaluate the potential changes that could be associated with increasing temperatures in the Colorado River; work to evaluate the shortcomings of current hydrologic and water planning models, and development of models that can translate risks of shortages and hydropower loss into potential economic costs, and evaluate the potential cost-benefit of proposed interventions.

Ultimately, we are working to develop strategies to better understand, manage, prevent, and adapt to water and climate risks in the Colorado River Basin. Potential strategies include:

• Maintaining sufficient “buffers” in surface water storage reservoirs through proactive, voluntary, and compensated reductions in water use to reduce the risk of large-scale, involuntary shortages in the Lower Basin or Compact-related curtailments in the Upper Basin;

• Incentivizing and prioritizing water savings in areas where reduced water use will generate related environmental and/or recreational benefits, and help reduce risks to these values;  

• Developing a framework for achieving measurable risk reduction to surface water users, hydropower users, and environmental values through equitable management actions that help the Basin to respond flexibly to hydrologic variability and predicted long-term declines in hydrologic yield; and

• Utilizing this framework to drive ongoing, scalable investments in agricultural, municipal, and industrial water use efficiency, watershed protection and ecosystem health, and water infrastructure that will contribute to long-term sustainability of water-related resources in the Colorado River Basin.