AGCI Insight

Strength in numbers: Collaborating on the Colorado River in a changing climate

August 29, 2022
Boats float through the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, May 2022

We’re sitting in a veritable paradise. The Colorado River rushes beneath our rubber raft, clear and green in the early morning. Towering canyon walls rise above us, robust slabs of red-stained limestone support overlying layers of shale and sandstone. Somewhere above us on the rim of the Grand Canyon, visitors peer down on the thin ribbon of green river snaking a delicate line through an incomprehensibly vast canyon. And yet the awe-inspired landscape leaves me feeling uneasy and sick. 

A single trickle of water drips from one of two caverns in the Redwall Limestone above us. Half-brown ferns dangle from the cliffside, feebly grasping the desiccating wall. My mind is transported back to 2013 when I last stood on this very patch of Earth looking up at Vasey’s Paradise, an unexpected oasis in the Marble Canyon section of the Grand Canyon. Two gushing waterfalls streamed from the cliffside. Healthy hanging gardens decorated the cliff, striking green hues against a red backdrop. We filled jugs with water for drinking; we walked carefully through an oasis studded with vines of poison ivy, hummingbirds, and insects. Today we drift past without stopping. The flow is too low to fill even a single water jug.

Vasey’s Paradise in the Grand Canyon, seen from the river at an earlier time when its waterfalls still flowed reliably. Today, the flow is variable and is often just a trickle.

The dwindling flow in Vasey’s Paradise spring is echoed across the 246,000 square miles of the Colorado River basin. A few days’ float downstream, Dutton Spring has ceased flowing altogether. Instead of half-green ferns clinging desperately to a last ditch at life, brown plants crisp underneath our feet. I have no memory of this place, but the friends around me who have seen Dutton’s spring in full flow look around the cavern with long faces and hollow eyes. 

The mechanisms driving changes in the Colorado River are mirrored around the globe: changing precipitation and rising temperatures. The legal infrastructure of water use in the Colorado River was designed for stasis and based on grossly optimistic water volumes. Today, users who rely on water from the Colorado River grasp at climate models and embrace a future of dwindling water supplies and uncertain timelines. More than ever, a sustainable future for the Colorado River basin depends on collaborative efforts and trust. 

“More than ever, a sustainable future for the Colorado River basin depends on collaborative efforts and trust.”

“Whiskey is for Drinking, Water is for Fighting”

For a river whose water is allegedly saved “for fighting” (according to a popular saying attributed to Mark Twain), the Colorado River has a rich history of collaboration and innovative solutions. A complex deal made in 2016 ensures that 1,250 cfs of water flows through Colorado’s Glenwood Canyon, regardless of the operating status of the power plant to whom the rights belong. The 2021 500+ Plan, another example of collaborative solutions, implements voluntary and compensated water cuts by Arizona, California, Nevada, and the United States to help maintain an additional 500,000 acre feet of water in Lake Mead. These incremental, multi-party solutions may seem small, but in aggregate they hold together a system that might otherwise be cracking at the seams.

At the heart of collaborative solutions is a desperate need for reliable, cutting-edge quantitative data and modeled projections of the Colorado River basin. When every drop counts, snow sublimation rates, evaporation from reservoirs, and soil moisture deficits make or break water deliveries to agricultural communities and municipalities. A group of federal, state, and local water agencies  recognized the need for robust, thorough research to back decision making in the basin and commissioned a 600-page report, Colorado River Basin Climate and Hydrology: State of the Science. This comprehensive report provides a foundation for both the working group and other decision makers to draw from. Even beyond the State of the Science report, decision makers and scientists are joining forces to tackle some of the hardest questions facing the Colorado River Basin. The Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions (CCASS) at the University of Arizona has led three workshops bringing together scientists and stakeholders, including representatives of all seven Colorado River states, two Mexican states, multiple Native American tribes, water managers, and agricultural interest. Stakeholders worked collaboratively with scientists to provide access to pre-existing data, identify new data gaps, establish priorities for future scientific research, and share ideas for potential solution. The scientific community is also currently exploring new data-sharing techniques, including a Colorado River wiki, to expedite data sharing among myriad data users.  

Data sharing and collaborative solutions are critical for management of the endangered Colorado River, yet the scientific community researching the river is vast, and sharing the newest models and data is time-consuming and challenging. Issues that compound the standard complexity of interdisciplinary communications include the need to disseminate results beyond the scientific stakeholders to reach legal, management, and political communities that are strategizing for sustainable water development and use in the Colorado River. 

The Colorado River is changing fast. Springs are drying, reservoirs are dropping, and fear is growing among water users. But the time for fighting is long gone. Our current strength lies in our numbers and in the creative, collaborative solutions we can dream up together. Vasey’s Paradise may not burst from the walls of limestone in cascading waterfalls ever again. But we still have the capacity to adapt to life in a drying basin and develop sustainable solutions to overwhelming problems.