Reviving Rivers: A Sign of Hope for the Colorado

By Suzanne York,  6degreesofpopulation.org.

With over 7 billion people on the planet, demand for water for household, agricultural, and industrial use is increasing even faster than population growth.  Many areas, such as the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico, are already experiencing competing demands on water in a region heavily reliant on this most precious of natural resources.

Specifically, much of that water comes from the Colorado River, and at a high environmental cost.  Nearly 90 percent of the annual flow from the Colorado – 5 trillion gallons – goes to California, Arizona, and five other states in the Colorado River basin.  And while it used to reach the Gulf of California, today the river no longer makes it to the sea.  Mexico gets a paltry 500 billion gallons a year, per a treaty with the U.S.

Amidst a lot of doom and gloom about water scarcity, there is a sign of hope for the Colorado River Delta, as recently reported by the New York Times.

Minute 319 is an agreement with Mexico that guarantees that water flow from the Colorado empties into the Gulf of California and calls for more water sharing between the U.S. and Mexico.  It is being lauded as a model agreement.  Former U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said that “What we’re doing now in the Colorado River basin provides an international model for how to resolve water issues.”

The agreement calls for a five-year program to provide a total of 158,088 acre-feet (195 million cubic meters) of water to the lower river and its delta, which amounts to only about one percent of the river’s historic annual flow over five years.  Still, it is a start, and local environmental groups believe it will help restore native habitat and revitalize the delta ecosystem, restore the flow of the Colorado to the sea, and serve as a model of binational cooperation.

According to water expert Sandra Postel, “This cooperation, which was hard won, not only binds the two nations more tightly together, it opens the door to more creative solutions for managing the limited waters of the Colorado.”  Creativity and cooperation will be needed as climate change and population growth increases the urgency to get it right.

What is also needed is a new view on how people and nature interact.  The New York Times article quoted Francisco Bernal, director of the Mexicali office of the International Boundary and Water Commission (which administers the treaty) as saying “We want to conserve enough water to share with the environment.”   It would be more appropriate to say that nature is sharing water with people.  As the Age of the Anthropocene progresses, new ways of thinking will be needed to conserve and manage resources and to maintain a decent quality of life.

 

In the meantime, water conservation should be a priority. Whether this region continues to grow or whether population should decline, water needs to be conserved for future generations. Sacrifices will have to come from agriculture, municipalities, households, developers, and businesses. Policies that support drip irrigation, rainwater harvesting, wastewater treatment, switching to water efficient crops, and local water users associations will be needed in addition to conservation.

Agreements such as Minute 319 should be given every bit of support, and a chance to become a model of success, as water sharing amongst countries will most certainly become more common as demands on water increase and climate change impacts increase in severity.  Water strategies that sustainably balance the demands of all users, including nature, will help countries better face the challenges ahead.

A comment made by Ken Salazar sums up the attitude that should guide policy: “We are connected truly as two peoples by our reliance on the Colorado River,” Salazar said. “In fact the Colorado River in so many ways makes us one people.”

 

Suzanne York is a senior writer with the Institute for Population Studies

 

[photo credit: telemetry9, http://www.flickr.com/photos/telemetry9/5254915024/sizes/l/in/photo...

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