Colorado River Water Conference: Assigning Blame for Lost Opportunities to Take Meaningful Action

The annual Colorado River water conference held in Grand Junction, CO yesterday brought together outstanding speakers and a fully engaged audience of several hundred “experts” who shared diverse messages about our looming water crisis – as if we do not have one already but we don’t want anyone to panic – some want to blame the droughts which may get worse, or climate change and rising temperatures, and future population increases for declining water supplies. Many are focused on future risk scenarios on how the economies and livelihood of farmers will be destroyed and who or what’s to blame.

The state of Colorado can keep about 1/3 of the river supply while 2/3’rds are required to be delivered downstream based on current agreements between seven Western states. We heard that people who live in the desert are growing unsustainable crops like alfalfa and cotton that get huge federal government subsidizes due to our broken political system. No surprise there as it’s been going on for many decades. The state of Arizona may put an end to all farming and focus on the four million water consumers of the Central Arizona Project. Plans being discussed in Arizona are forcing them to reduce their water dependency on the Colorado River by about 20 times the amount for Nevada due to priority rights.

We heard that the beneficial use doctrine in Colorado permits no wasting of water -- that the “use it or lose it” mentality is hysterical thinking -- others who said in reality much water is being wasted and not put to beneficial use which is illegal but not enforced. We heard that on average each American consumes an equivalent of 300 gallons per day of Colorado River Water (based on food consumption). Given that California has the largest population in the West with significant senior rights on the River and provides a majority of food for the World, imagine how they are feeling and when push comes to shove everyone will need to become more aware of the urgency.

The Colorado Water Plan completed one year ago provides for great ideas spread over several decades and is moving into the implementation phase. The plan is currently an unfunded mandate for the most part and money is needed to take action. Here is the Grand Junction Sentinel article that focused on the taxes issue.

We heard that water efficiency for farmers is better than conservation and others said both are great as long as people get compensation for their loss of rights. Some said Americans want more with more, and efficiency is doing more with less while conservation is doing less with less -- so conservation to some almost sounds unAmerican! Arguments were made for which method is more appeasing to various interest groups.

I thought the talk by a local Hotchkiss farmer, Tom Kay of North Fork Organic Farm, provided the best example of someone taking action that we all need to learn from. He converted his farm to sustainable practices by going organic which on average pays three times higher for crops; created a storage pond to capture two million gallons of storage from his water right on the Gunnison River that can be used all year; built a storage area used by other organic farmers; rotates crops and farm practices to increase yields and maximize profits; and is willing to innovate and test new technology!

Overall, with all the highly qualified speakers and attendees, in my opinion another opportunity was lost for meaningful dialog that could lead to us to taking action. Much too little time for questions and answers was given at the conference and no time made after the final panel discussion, the meeting was very brief (from 9:00 am to 3:30 pm), and seemed to check the box for many groups.

Future meetings held in Grand Junction are needed to focus on ‘connecting the dots’: the issues of the Western Slope including being caught between the power centers on both sides – from Denver to California and including large parts of Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Utah. The Western Slope needs much more awareness of these issues than only to hear about another fight on taxes as mentioned in the newspaper.

A renewed spirit of cooperation and creating new partnerships is needed for our children's survival - obviously water is connected to everything including the food we eat and supplies are not unlimited. Nature is truly interconnected and we are so dependent on the natural world; we need to find better ways to cooperatively solve problems through effective education and positive actions groups - we can all make a difference and work harder to achieve better sustainable outcomes.