Funding and Efficiency are Key to Managing the Colorado River Crisis

Ron Burke, President & CEO, Alliance for Water Efficiency

At the Colorado River Water Users Association (CRWUA) conference in December, I had the opportunity to hear first-hand from many of the stakeholders dealing with the Colorado River crisis. The crux of the problem is that a tangled mess of laws, court cases, and rules allocates more water from the Colorado River Basin (CBR) than is actually available. Moreover, there is less and less water to go around because of climate change. 

CRB water users have leveraged massive investments in water infrastructure to literally and figuratively put down roots in the desert with farms, industry, and communities. Now, there is understandably concern that it’s all at risk.  

What makes this problem more vexing is that it can’t be fixed by reigning in rogue water users. That’s because, with very few exceptions, everyone is playing by the rules created to manage this precious resource. However, the rules don’t work to align water use with available CRB water supplies, and the way that water has been allocated is often inequitable and not necessarily tied to its highest and best uses.   

Which begs the question explored at CRWUA – which uses should be prioritized for reduction, and how do we persuade CRB water rights holders to use less than they are allocated when the rules of the game don’t require it? The short answer that emerged for me is that additional funding will be needed to support voluntary water use reductions from all sectors.  

Many water rights holders already use less than their allocations, such as Tribal Nations (who are finally getting seats at the key negotiation tables – this was a major theme at CRWUA), communities in the upper basin states, and farms and irrigation districts. These have been voluntary reductions with no financial compensation, voluntary with compensation, or communities systemically using less than their full allocation because of advancements and investments in water efficiency and conservation.  

Nonetheless, CRB water remains overallocated overall, and in 2022, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) called for as much as a one-third reduction in usage. CRB states, in coordination with many stakeholders, have stepped up with plans to achieve reduction goals through 2026, relying heavily on Reclamation funding from the federal Inflation Reduction Act to pay farmers and cities to temporarily forego water use.  

At CRWUA, I was encouraged to hear acknowledgements that these temporary measures aren’t enough. We need lasting reductions. And despite headline-grabbing proposals to build cost-ineffective desalination plants in Mexico or pipelines to the Mississippi River, the conversations at CRWUA focused on efficiency, conservation, reuse, and stormwater capture versus traditional supply side strategies.  

This represents a paradigm shift for water engineers and planners long enamored with building canals, dams, plants, and pipes. The focus is increasingly on how to use every drop available in the CRB more efficiently for people, agriculture, business, and the environment versus putting more straws into the same cup.  

Ideally, laws and regulations will be fundamentally changed to enable sustainable, long-term CRB water management. However, it’s unclear when and whether we will get there. In the meantime, more communities, farmers, and irrigation districts will need to voluntarily make long-term commitments to take less water from the CRB.   

For example, thirty local water providers signed an MOU in 2022 to take additional steps to conserve CRB water in the system, including limiting irrigation of nonfunctional turf. The Imperial Irrigation District, which serves vast agriculture operations in Southern California, recently signed agreements along with urban water agencies and tribal nations to temporarily conserve CRB water.  

From replacing non-functional turf with climate resilient landscaping and using water efficient equipment and fixtures in homes and businesses, to plugging leaky pipes and canals and helping farmers switch to more efficient irrigation systems or less water-intensive crops, opportunities abound to save CRB water. However, additional funding is needed to support efforts like these to achieve long-term water use reduction commensurate with what the Colorado River can realistically supply given the new normal of hotter, drier weather. 

For example, it’s encouraging to see CRB states and local water providers increasing their investments in demand management and reuse, and that trend will need to continue. Federal Inflation Reduction Act funding for Western Drought Response expires in 2026, and Congress needs to make this a standing program with annual appropriations. We also need sustained and increased funding for Reclamation’s WaterSMART Water and Energy Efficiency Grants.  

We have spent billions of dollars to deliver water to the Southwest, and because of climate change and population growth, it will take billions more to sufficiently save and manage that water. To paraphrase a comment I heard from Adel Hagekhalil, general manager and chief executive officer for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California: to tackle this crisis, the reality is that we need reservoirs of money in addition to reservoirs of water.