Authors Say Plan For The Worst On Colorado River

Jul 6, 2021

  The Colorado River provides water to 40 million people around the West, including New Mexico, but the historic drought gripping our region has prompted a 20 percent drop in flows in the river. Reservoirs are drying, with Lake Mead at its lowest levels since it was filled in the 1930s. As scientists incorporate these changes into future projections, an article in Science magazine urges them to plan for even greater declines in the river. Co-author John Fleck says there are important lessons to learn from a hydrologist who studied the river a century ago. Fleck is director of the Water Resources Program at the University of New Mexico. His co-author is Brad Udall, senior water and climaate research scientist in the Colorado Water Center at Colorado State University.

JOHN FLECK: The early part of the 20th century, the science on which we base all our water management today was really being invented. And there was this amazing character named Eugene Clyde LaRue, who was a hydrologist for the US Geological Survey. And so LaRue, being a good scientist, and also a somewhat aggressive and abrasive intellectual, told people ‘Look the things that you're planning to do, you need to remember when you do them that sometimes this river has drought, sometimes this river has lower flows, and in the long run, it doesn't have as much water as you might think there is,’ and LaRue was ignored. It's a historical truth. But it's also a parable for our time where, you know, we now face climate change and climate change and science is telling us a really stark truths about the decline of water here in the western United States. And we need to pay attention to the problems we have as a result of ignoring LaRue and not repeat those mistakes.

KUNM: And modelers at the Bureau of Reclamation have been incorporating climate change into their projections for river flows for some time now. But you and your co-author, Brad Udall, are questioning if they're going far enough. Why is that?

FLECK: There's a tendency for the political system to put pressure on the Bureau of Reclamation modelers, to make it more difficult for them to do the serious climate change scenarios, because that would then require the Bureau to go to the States, especially in the Upper Colorado River Basin and say, ‘There is not the water for the plans that you think you want to have.’ But we need to have that realistic view of the risks climate change poses, if we're going to make the best decisions going forward.

KUNM: So there's a new round of negotiations coming up over water allocation, what are you and your co-author asking the water management community to consider?

FLECK: We want to be sure that the modeling includes some reasonable, but extremely dry scenarios, so that the planners have a plan in place. So we know what we will do if some of the worst climate change scenarios are realized. We need to be ready for that, so we know that here in Albuquerque, there is a risk that we will not get our full amount from the San Juan chama project.

KUNM: What kind of difficult decisions lie ahead for all of us?

FLECK: So this is an interesting problem, because one of the things that we have seen again and again, in the Western United States and cities and farm communities is that once we know how much water we're going to get, even if the news is bad, we've been really good at conserving water and living within our new means. If you ask people, whether they want more or less water, they're always going to say more water. So the challenge is coming to agreement on lower allocations. And letting all of us know what that lower allocation is going to look like, so then we can plan for it. And you know, water conservation success in the urban West is enormously successful. Water use is going down everywhere, even as population is going up. We've seen farm communities continue to be really successful using less water, but everybody would like more. So nobody's going to sort of voluntarily raise their hand and say, ‘Yeah, we're happy to have less.’ And so negotiating those agreements where everybody agrees to live with less and agrees on a set of numbers, or what that might look like, is really going to be the hard part. Because I'm really confident that, you know, once we come to agreement on what the allocations are going to be, we'll learn to live with them. We're really adaptable.

KUNM: What should we be doing right now as citizens to prepare for a future with less water from the Colorado?

FLECK: I think the first and most important thing is for communities to recognize that coping with less water is a permanent phenomenon, that we cannot expect the wet times to return, and we need to cooperate with our leaders when they come to us and say, ‘Hey, there's not as much water as we thought y'all are going to need to cut back.’ We've been pretty good. I mean, Albuquerque is amazingly successful water conservation story. We know how to do it and now we know we need to do more. And that requires cooperation from the bottom up at the level of citizens, and that requires leadership on the part of our politicians who are willing to tell us these unpleasant truths and ask for our cooperation. You know it’s probably not a good idea to have a lawn anymore. We have to make those choices.