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Opinion | The Coming Crisis Along the Colorado River

Reliant on the Colorado River with ambitions to grow, cities in the basin must share in the pain. It is inequitable to expect the agricultural sector to take painful cuts even as some states envision unrealistic futures in which additional water can be diverted for growing populations. Cities must adapt, and there are proven models for doing this.

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The climate, and the world, are changing. What challenges will the future bring, and how should we respond to them?

The Las Vegas metro area, for example, has managed to stretch out its small 1.8 percent of the river through recycling and removing enough turf to circle the globe, saving billions of gallons of water in the process. It has actually grown while reducing its Colorado River consumption over the past two decades. Other cities can learn from Las Vegas’s example. Outdoor irrigation is a large driver of water consumption, yet decorative, water-guzzling grass in medians and along roads — with no practical purpose — dots the Southwest. Investing in recycling and turf conversion can allow water managers to stretch out their water supplies.

But matching the current supply with demand won’t be enough to correct the flaws in the rules that govern the river’s water. In addition to overestimating supply, the Law of the River is riddled with injustices and has historically ignored the interests of Indigenous communities and the environment.

During a recent conference in Boulder, Colo., the National Audubon Society’s Jennifer Pitt said that the river’s framework “may be no longer functioning today for those who have water rights, but for those stakeholders and interests who never were included, starting with the compact, it has never worked.” Thirty Native American tribes in the Colorado River Basin hold priority rights to more than one-fifth of the river, yet many of their communities lack access to that water. And because the agreements governing the river prioritize the maximum use of water (and then some), so much water is removed that the river rarely reaches the once-biodiverse delta where it should empty into the Gulf of California in Mexico.

Ms. Pitt, the head of Audubon’s Colorado River Project, and other experts at the conference said it is imperative to plan for not just a river where supply meets demand but to go one step further — to conserve even more water and move away from living on the “razor’s edge,” where crisis management trumps any other value.

It took a web of policies to build the system we have today, and it will take a web of guidelines, investments and coordination to reframe our relationship with the river. If “developing” the West was once an imposition of brute will, bolstered by unrealistic water forecasts, today’s work is just the opposite: a reality check about our climate and our need to make do with less water.

Daniel Rothberg is a reporter for The Nevada Independent, where he covers the environment, water and energy. He is writing a book about water scarcity in Nevada.

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