A Future for Birds and People in the Colorado River Basin

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Audubon has joined partner conservation organizations to propose “Cooperative Conservation” as an alternative for the federal Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) to study as they consider how to manage the Colorado River after 2026, when current management rules expire. Reclamation has initiated a process expected to assess multiple alternatives before they establish new operational rules.

In recent weeks the Upper Basin (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) and Lower Basin (Arizona, California and Nevada) have each submitted proposals of their own. They appear to be in broad agreement that Colorado River water uses need to be reduced, not only because the Colorado River’s water is over-allocated, but also because climate change is shrinking the river. But alignment between the Upper Basin and Lower Basin ends there, with significant dispute over whose water uses should be reduced.

Cooperative Conservation has a different focus. It prioritizes stabilizing the Colorado River water supply, provides opportunities to make management more equitable, and creates mechanisms to improve environmental outcomes:

  • Water supply reliability would be improved by consideration of recent trends as well as assessing the health of the entire system, departing from the current operations that have not kept up with changing conditions such that in 2022 federal managers were worried about the continued ability release water through the dams.
  • Ecosystem health would be addressed with stewardship and mitigation provisions. Today’s operations are based on a policy framework that has not prioritized Colorado River habitats, leaving many used by birds such as Yuma Ridgeway’s Rails and Yellow-billed cuckoos degraded and vulnerable.
  • Colorado River Delta habitats and flows have been restored in recent United – States Mexico agreements, and the opportunity for future binational agreements to extend and expand commitments to these resources would be preserved. Most of Colorado’s Delta was desiccated as the river was developed through the 20th century, and these agreements have developed a path towards restoring some of what was lost.
  • A Conservation Reserve program to incentivize water conservation, that improves on the current system of “Intentionally Created Surplus” by adding to the stability of water supplies, offering an opportunity for state and federal governments to forge an agreement with Colorado River Basin Tribes looking to realize greater benefits from their water rights, and create ecological benefits through flexible management that puts water where it is needed in the Colorado River.

These innovations could help the diversity of birds and wildlife and more than 35 million people who depend on the Colorado River. But Reclamation will not be able to move forward with them if the states cannot answer important questions about who should reduce water uses to bring demands into balance with supplies. Without consensus, Colorado River management could be headed to the courts, and opportunities for improved management will be lost. We remain optimistic that over the coming months the states will negotiate a solution, and urge them to recognize that reaching agreement on how to share water shortages is essential.

In the meantime, Audubon will be promoting Cooperative Conservation and all that it offers. Reclamation is expected to publish their analysis of Colorado River management alternatives by the end of 2024.

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