Colorado Thirsts for Change

Can adaptive management solve the state’s water crisis?

by Joel Minor, guest writer; illustrations by Erick Nelson

Like all desert cultures before us and every desert culture to come, Coloradans are obsessed with water. As they should be. A rapidly growing population, climate change, and the gradual death of the state’s family farms have all raised questions about the future allocation of our precious water supply, especially given that short-sighted policies presently govern it. Adaptive management—the idea that natural resources should be allocated based on ongoing scientific inquiry—is one way to ensure that our water is used to benefit both Colorado’s people and its abundant natural beauty.

The last time human civilization peaked in Colorado, a mysterious period of drought resulted in its collapse, and the Ancestral Puebloans (better known as the Anasazi) were forced to abandon their cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, with many of their presumed descendants adapting to a less water-intensive agricultural method in the river valleys of New Mexico and Arizona.

The Anasazi weren’t wrong to be cautious about relying on complex water transfer mechanisms to slake the thirst of their mesa-top agricultural endeavors. Colorado is the nation’s third most arid state;  less than one half of one percent of its land is made up of puddles, creeks, and reservoirs big enough to swim in. On average, any given spot in the state will receive sixteen inches of precipitation each year. According to the National Climatic Data Center, this means we’re the seventh most arid state in terms of annual precipitation,  most of which is snowfall in our much-lauded purple mountain majesties. But only a quarter of that precipitation actually drains east towards the Front Range, where 80 percent of our population lives.

As a result, it is no coincidence that the allocation of water has come to be a paramount political concern in the state, just as it is no coincidence that six years ago, CC alum and current Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar won a Senate seat on a platform of fighting for Colorado’s land, water, and people. Some would say that the priorities of many of the state’s politicians fall exactly in that order.

Many technological and social advances have helped keep the taps running a little longer—but at unimaginable cost to the state’s ecosystems and citizens. We’ve dammed Colorado’s rivers so much that most can be easily waded across during a spring thaw. Endless brown prairies have given way to green patches of irrigation. Bluegrass lawns and tree-lined streets have replaced arid tallgrass fields only broken up by the occasional cottonwood blockade along a creek. We’re sucking our aquifers dry at ever-accelerating rates. Thirsty Front Range suburbs greedily fight each other to make family farmers all over the state multi-millionaires overnight by purchasing their water rights. And the state’s water law is more complex, contentious, and legally revered than anything in Tutt Library besides the Bible.

Although it’s too complicated to be explained in anything shorter than a book, the basic idea behind Colorado’s—and indeed, most of the western United States’—water law is the “prior appropriation for beneficial use doctrine”; also known as “first in time, first in right.” In the wetter eastern states, water law is based on the English Common Law model. Landowners adjacent to a body of water own the right to as much water as they need, so long as it doesn’t infringe on the reasonable rights of their neighbors to use water as well. But the West has a different history. After acquiring western lands from various Native American tribes through convoluted and un-enforced treaties, manifest destiny-based federal land policies—especially various Homesteading Acts—transformed the “Great American Desert” into an agricultural paradise. A different water policy was necessary in the arid West to promote growing a range of crops that simply didn’t have the drought tolerance necessary to be successful in the rain-starved Great Plains.

Years of costly litigation have made fortunes for many a Colorado lawyer and made it clear that the first individual to divert water from a stream for a beneficial use—including agriculture, ranching, mining, industry, municipal operations, or household consumption, but excluding conservation, recreation, or ecological integrity—controls the rights to that water forever. But only as long as they keep using it. Any water left over in the stream officially becomes available for diversion by any member of the public if it isn’t used. As a result, every drop of water that falls in Colorado, from raincloud to drain, is claimed by an owner, usually with a waiting list dating back to the 1890s.

This system has had devastating effects on a variety of sectors of our state and our nation. Agriculture has become extremely costly in recent years, especially as aquifiers on the Eastern Plains run dry. Small family farms increasingly find it more economical to sell what water rights they have to the thirsty suburbs. This transfer of rights contributes to urban sprawl, frees up land for the expansion of gigantic corporate agro-businesses, and raises the price of delicious local produce like Rocky Ford Cantaloupes. Furthermore, costly interstate water litigation battles sap state budgets in a time of unusual fiscal crisis. For example, Colorado pays millions annually to Kansas in settlement for a single water dispute—in the next fiscal year alone, the cost is estimated to be $1,172,176.

But perhaps the most devastating effects are ecological. Since every drop of water allocated by a water right must be used for the right to be maintained, there is no incentive to leave any water in streams for conservation purposes. On a larger scale, there are the well-known, detrimental results of the Colorado River literally running dry before it reaches the Gulf of Mexico (or even the Mexican border). But on a smaller scale, low water flows decrease the viability of a variety of marine species like the whooping crane, the Piping Plover, and migratory fish, including the endangered greenback cutthroat trout, razorback sucker, and humpback and bonytail chubs. In arid environments ranging from the sagebrush mesas of the western slope to the high mountain prairies of the San Luis Valley and South Park to the eastern plains, a constant flow of water is more critical to the ongoing function of the ecosystem than perhaps any other resource.

Lack of legal incentive for conservation combined with Colorado’s growing human population, decreased precipitation, more rapid snowmelt, and the depletion of fossil aquifer water all seem likely to push an already fragile environmental situation over the brink of ecological disaster. In the long run, it’s clear that we’re going to be faced with a choice: radically adapt our lifestyles to deal with the reality of water scarcity, or moderately adapt our water management policies in the short term to avoid future disaster.

One of the most frequently advocated potential avenues for change in Colorado’s water policy is adaptive management. Adaptive management is a crucial yet fairly intuitive idea in environmental policy and natural resource management theory. According to a basic definition adopted by the EPA, adaptive management involves developing a system to monitor changes in a watershed based on social and environmental objectives. The actual ecosystem serves as an ongoing experiment to evaluate the impact of the plan, which is then modified in order to most effectively carry out its original goals based on observed changes to the ecosystem.

While it may sound somewhat reckless to use Colorado’s fragile native ecosystems as testing grounds for crazy new natural resource management plans, adaptive management can be one of the easiest and most politically effective ways of introducing scientific reasoning into environmental policy. As long as policies stipulate that a precautionary approach be taken to protect ecosystems in the process of adapting water allocation, and that they be oriented for conservation rather than utilization, it is unlikely that the process of learning more about the role of our rivers in ecosystems will damage those ecosystems. And, given the highly contentious political nature of water use in Colorado, it seems unlikely that a reckless—rather than precautionary—policy will be approved.

Adaptive management systems have been successful in improving the situations of ecosystems worldwide. In the 1980s, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, the States of Washington, Oregon, Montana, and Idaho, and a plethora of sovereign Tribes adopted a comprehensive adaptive management system. This unprecedented example of intergovernmental cooperation was enacted to conserve salmon and other fish species in the greater Columbia River basin. While the process has hardly been smooth, and the results have hardly been ecologically perfect, things are certainly looking up for many fish species that were overfished to the brink of extinction before the policy was implemented.

Adaptive management has also proven successful in a variety of locations worldwide where it has been implemented as a mechanism of comprehensive watershed management. Most notably, comprehensive adaptive management strategies have been very successful in their application to conservation in arid regions similar to Colorado, like New South Wales and South Australia.

Adaptive management is not a trial-and-error set of scientific shots in the dark; it is a method of “learning while doing,” a recognition of the  uncertainty inherent to any situation in which the unpredictable intricacies of ecological and economic systems interact, and an ongoing attempt to learn more about a situation in order to guarantee that new and better approaches are constantly made available. It embraces resource management as an iterative process, a positive feedback loop that can be constantly improved upon based on what scientists and policymakers observe as new data is gathered each year.

It is, of course, politically unlikely that any change to water law in Colorado will come easily; but there is hope. Federal legal precedents recognize the rights of states to determine their water policies, so long as those policies do not violate interstate water compact obligations. As a state that is functionally upstream of everywhere, this can be quite tricky for Colorado. The most important fact is that Colorado can adapt its water law to reflect the realities of life in 2010, instead of 1876, and given that the state will eventually be forced to make a change, it ought to begin the process now.

Adaptive management is perhaps one of the most politically palatable options because it allows both social and environmental considerations to be the basis of an original resource management plan. A comprehensive water management plan for the state would undeniably be costly, time-consuming, and politically painful to create. But, at least theoretically, such a plan could start by recognizing all existing water rights, and then begin gradual experiments and changes with excess and newly available flows every year. The flexibility inherent to an adaptive management system allows for incremental and politically tolerable change, with the long-term impact of a comprehensive paradigm shift towards conservation and ecological integrity, rather than over-utilization and potential extinction. By setting goals for our society’s most crucial resource, gathering data about the world around us, and determining a course of action based on those goals and that data on an ongoing basis, we can set a political framework that best allows us to adapt to a world of ongoing change.

We should learn our lesson from the Anasazi. In the face of mounting uncertainties about the future of our water supply in a world of a changing climate, growing human population, and rapid economic development, our once sparsely-populated state should embrace a resource management strategy that is able to face ecological uncertainties. Adaptive management—by constantly seeking new scientific information, processing that information, and using it to construct new, flexible policies that will best address the needs of Colorado’s citizens and ecosystems—could do just that.

Colorado Thirsts for Change


1 Comment

Filed under Adaptation

One response to “Colorado Thirsts for Change

  1. Elizabeth B.

    This is an excellent argument for integrating adaptive management into Colorado water law. Is there currently any support for adaptive management of water among Colorado citizens and politicians?

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