With the Trump administration focused on infrastructure this week, the Walton Family Foundation released a white paper to help guide a plan for one of the nation's most critical infrastructure needs. The paper, "Colorado River Critical Infrastructure Needs," highlights 15 projects across the basin that are essential for securing one of the most important – and overtapped – waterways in the country.
In Cadillac Desert, Mark Reisner's 1986 seminal work on water in the West, he noted that "[t]he Colorado River's modern notoriety, stems not from the fact that it is the most legislated, most debated, and most litigated river in the entire world. It also has more people, more industry, and a more significant economy dependent on it than any other comparable river in the world."
Much has changed over the past 31 years, but our dependency on the Colorado River has not. Fortunately, one change has been how states, water users, environmental interests, Indian tribes, and federal agencies collaborate with each other to address pressing challenges and avoid protracted courtroom battles. Indeed, this paper is the result of input from key players in the Basin, including states, water users, Indian tribes, and conservation groups. Stakeholders in the Colorado River basin have led efforts to forge innovative water management agreements between each other and across the international border with Mexico.
Of course, much of this collaboration is driven by necessity. As the paper highlights, the recent 16-year drought, while somewhat alleviated this year, took a toll on the river with a documented 19 percent reduction in average flows compared with the previous 95 years. Looking forward, scientific studies project an additional 20 percent reduction in flows by 2050, which would exacerbate the overallocation of this limited resource.
With the significant prospect of declared shortages in the lower basin in the next five years and a growing long-term supply-demand imbalance, the situation requires strategic investments that will help maintain both water supply reliability and watershed health. It also requires action, collaboration, and creativity.
Building on the spirit of cooperation within the Basin, the Walton Family Foundation and The Nature Conservancy are working with a broad array of constituencies to address the region's water resource challenges. In the Colorado River Basin, we have been working with states, tribes, agricultural interests, municipalities, and other nongovernmental organizations to identify a portfolio of projects to address specific challenges in the basin across a multistate region.
The white paper, while not an all-inclusive list of needed actions, identifies over a dozen specific projects as well as some basin-wide initiatives that have significant water user support and represent a range of strategies to address water resource challenges, including traditional water supply improvements, habitat and stream restoration actions, and improved data-gathering networks.
Collectively, the projects would, as the white paper notes, "increase water reliability, improve the balance between supply and demand, and enhance the overall environment, while creating jobs and contributing to economic productivity." Furthermore, each project is poised to garner significant cost-share contributions to leverage federal investments.
Perhaps most importantly, the collaboration among multiple partners means that a lot of the hard work necessary to build support for infrastructure development has already been done with most of the projects. As Congress considers how to address infrastructure needs in this country, it's incredibly important to bridge the significant gap between essential water resource investments and identified sources of capital. It's equally important that these investments focus on watersheds where the potential for conflict is high because the stakes are high but where local collaboration is providing opportunities to resolve those conflicts.
The foundation's white paper presents many opportunities worthy of federal support, given the widespread benefits to sustainable management of the Colorado River. These opportunities are exactly the type we would have looked to support during our tenures at the Interior Department in the past two administrations. They are creative and collaborative and represent good progress in sustainable resource management.
Mike Connor is an Environment Program Fellow with the Walton Family Foundation and a former Deputy Secretary of the Interior and Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation in the Barack Obama Administration. Lynn Scarlett is the Global Managing Director for Public Policy at The Nature Conservancy and a former Deputy Secretary of the Interior in the George W. Bush Administration.
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