Guest Opinion: Are Colorado Basin water users adapting to scarcity? |

Guest Opinion: Are Colorado Basin water users adapting to scarcity?

Hannah Holm
Guest Opinion

Since the early 2000s, use of Colorado River Basin water has exceeded the amount of rain and snow that’s fallen into the basin – hence the famous bathtub rings at Lakes Powell and Mead, as their water levels dip ever lower.

The 2012 Colorado River Basin Supply and Demand Study led by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation indicated that the situation could get even worse in the future. The study compared the median of water supply projections (lower, taking into account climate change) against the median of demand projections (trending higher, if no action were taken to change how water is managed) to show an imbalance of 3.2 million acre feet/year by 2060.

Does this mean that we’re running out of water and destined for societal collapse, as imagined in The Water Knife, a new novel from Paonia-based writer Paolo Bacigalupi?

Not necessarily, according to longtime water journalist John Fleck, who is currently writing a book on the Colorado River called Beyond the Water Wars. Speaking at a recent seminar in Grand Junction organized by the Colorado River District, Fleck presented an updated version of the supply/ demand graph from that 2012 study, which shows that in recent years the supply and demand lines have come much closer together.

On the one hand, we’ve had a few decent water years, which have nudged the supply line up a little. On the other, the line showing actual water use has trended downward since right about the time the two lines crossed. Fleck argued that the forces bending down the demand curve include cooperation, in contradiction to the old saw that “whisky is for drinking, and water is for fighting.”

Fleck pointed to conservation and fallowing agreements between Southern California farmers and cities as an example of how water scarcity can actually be a catalyst for collaboration. In addition, the agreement between water users and stakeholders in Mexico and the U.S. to bring water back to the Colorado River Delta showed that the environment, as well as people, can benefit from efforts to make the Colorado River system work better for all parties.

Fleck also noted that in recent decades, there has been a “decoupling” of water use from economic activity. While in past decades, the two rose together, that’s no longer the case. Water use trends have sharply diverged from population and economic growth trends in Albuquerque, Las Vegas, and Southern California, and Arizona’s water use actually peaked in 1980 despite continued growth since then. Likewise, Imperial Valley farm sales have also gone up in recent years, while water use declined.

Despite these encouraging developments, the water use line on the graph is still higher than the supply line, and Lake Mead hit a historic low point this summer. The demand curve will have to continue going down to get the system back in balance and avoid letting the reservoirs get to truly critical levels.

Other speakers at the seminar discussed some of the measures that are underway to further control demand. These include additional work on fallowing, deficit irrigation and efficiencies in agriculture, as well as changes in homeowners’ notions about what kind of landscaping they need. Additional water re-use and de-salting were mentioned on the supply augmentation side. Speaker Ken Nowak of the Bureau of Reclamation spoke of “silver buckshot” rather than a silver bullet in describing the multi-pronged effort to align supply and demand.

Speaker Pat Mulroy, former head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, encouraged us all to think of ourselves as citizens of the great, interconnected system of communities that rely on the Colorado River, and to do what we can to protect that system rather than each of our more narrow interests. She argued that we have the opportunity to do that now, but if we wait until the system is truly in crisis, what we’ll get is irrationality and chaos.

To learn more about the seminar, go to

Hannah Holm is coordinator of the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University. This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more, go to You can also find the Water Center on Facebook at or on Twitter at

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