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As states argue over who should cut their Colorado River use, a new plan puts the environment first

April 7, 2024 by Nicole Masson

*All articles are shared for educational purposes and do not necessarily reflect the views of APA UT.

The Salt Lake Tribune by Anastasia Hufham, Link

Last month, the seven U.S. states that use Colorado River water released two divergent plans for how that water should be managed after 2026 when the current agreement expires. Their proposals centered on operations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the country’s two largest reservoirs, the levels of which are instrumental in determining how much water each state gets.

But a coalition of environmental organizations felt that those plans — and the discourse surrounding which states should have to cut their water use — drowned out a crucial consideration: the environment.

So, last week, they submitted a plan of their own.

“Our plan explicitly integrates environmental values and resources into the planning, while also trying to meet the needs of people,” Taylor Hawes, the Colorado River Program director for The Nature Conservancy, said.

“We want to make sure that the environment is truly factored in, and not just in the narrowest scope possible,” she added.

The Nature Conservancy, along with six other environmental groups, submitted their proposal to the Bureau of Reclamation, a federal agency that oversees water projects across the country. Their plan includes ideas for moderating water temperatures for endangered fish and wildlife, preventing invasive species from taking hold and helping imperiled habitats recover.

Environmental organizations have influenced Colorado River management in the past. In 2007, they suggested that states take on voluntary water cuts for conservation purposes. That plan was implemented as the Intentionally Created Surplus program.

But water managers for the states have questions about the feasibility of the environmental groups’ proposal.

“We’ve got to be realistic about what we’re trying to accomplish,” said Amy Haas, executive director for the Colorado River Authority of Utah, which collaborates with other Colorado River Basin states to make management decisions.

“There are a lot of intriguing elements,” Haas said about the groups’ plan, “but they remain undefined.”

The Cooperation Conservation Alternative

Called the “Cooperation Conservation Alternative,” the environmental groups’ proposal presents different ways to manage the Colorado River for decreasing flows, increasing temperatures and drier conditions.

The groups propose considering climate factors when deciding how much water to release from Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

By looking at trends in soil moisture and temperature, which influence how much water from snowpack ends up in reservoirs, Hawes said, water managers can better understand how much water will be available.

“Our hope is that the more ideas that are on the table, the more robust the conversation can be, and maybe we can find a path forward that works for the whole region,” Hawes said.

The groups also introduce the idea of a “Conservation Reserve” in their proposal, a pool of water created from water conserved by the states.

Read the rest of the article here.

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