Colorado River water managers have done remarkably little on pushing for policy action
Experts urge a stronger response to existential threat
Climate change is robbing the Colorado River of water and threatening water security for 40 million people living in the Southwest. But prominent Colorado water managers, citing political concerns, are shying away from action on climate, favoring instead adaptation to rising temperatures and sustainability in their own operations.
The climate news surrounding the river is often grim. Scientists have shown that flows have declined nearly 20% from the 20th-century average and that human-caused higher temperatures are responsible for about one-third of that. They have also shown that every 1 degree Celsius of warming results in a 9% reduction in flows. A record-setting snowpack this past winter led to above-average runoff conditions, but that good news follows the fact that water levels in the nation’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, dropped to historic lows early this year.
And it is predicted to get worse. Scientists at the World Meteorological Organization said last month that we are more than likely headed for a period of warming in the next four years, driven by El Nino, that will see record-breaking heat. This will push the Earth 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels for at least one year between now and 2027. The 1.5-degree Celsius mark is a major threshold; experts have warned that this amount of warming will result in far more impacts such as droughts and heatwaves.
Yet, despite a clear recognition of the scale of the climate problem, Colorado water managers have done remarkably little when it comes to pushing for climate action on a main cause of water shortages: rising temperatures caused by humans burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas. Experts agree the world needs to quickly transition away from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy such as solar and wind power.
Managers instead have focused almost entirely on climate resilience and adaptation by funding programs that help water users adjust to the impacts of shortages and, in some cases, have worked to reduce their own carbon footprint and increase sustainability in their operations. “Climate resilience” and “drought resilience” have become popular buzz phrases in the Colorado water world.
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But experts say these approaches don’t address the root cause of the problem and that water managers have a responsibility to pivot from climate adaptation to mitigation. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — an arm of the United Nations representing 195 countries and considered an international authority on climate change — adaptation and mitigation is necessary to avoid the worst losses and damages.
“This is their resource,” said John Berggren, a water policy analyst with Western Resource Advocates, referring to Colorado River water managers. “It’s not disconnected, it’s not tangential. Climate change is impacting their ability to provide water, and therefore I think they have a responsibility to be advocating for policy change at every level of government.”
Climate scientist Brad Udall has been beating the drum on this issue for years. Udall’s 2017 paper with researcher Jonathan Overpeck was one of the first to illustrate just how much of an effect rising temperatures were having on the Colorado River. A hotter atmosphere can hold more water through evaporation, and plants suck up more water as heat increases. Udall and Overpeck’s research found that an average of one-third of the declines in flows can be attributed to human-caused higher temperatures.
Udall’s family is steeped in the history of the Colorado River. As he writes in the forward to the book “Cornerstone at the Confluence: Navigating the Colorado River Compact’s Next Century” (2022), his father, Morris, was a U.S. congressman from Arizona who shepherded the Colorado River Basin Project Act through the House of Representatives in 1968 and his uncle Stewart was secretary of the interior during the 1960s, who promoted the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s vision for the river. His great-great-grandfather John D. Lee founded the famous Lee’s Ferry, now the dividing point between the upper and lower Colorado River basins.
Brad Udall, a senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University, has been one of the loudest voices in recent years calling for audacious leadership on issues of climate change and the river. He often says that climate change means water change. He said water managers have a responsibility to address climate change and that it’s frustrating to watch people retreat to their silos.
“It’s disheartening to me, the idea that it’s somebody else’s problem and the potential for disaster that exists because people are just focused on their little areas of expertise and what they think is their responsibility as defined by their job title versus what I would argue is their responsibility to humanity as a whole, which might not be in their job title but should be,” Udall said.
During his presentation at the 2019 Upper Colorado River Commission meeting in Las Vegas, Udall told water managers that adapting to impacts doesn’t go far enough, and he suggested tools for mitigation such as carbon pricing and tax credits for renewable energy. He said not nearly enough is being done.
“How many times can we say this is a full-on, five-alarm fire that we’ve got to address immediately, and yet nothing happens?” Udall said. “It’s kind of as if people don’t understand the historic times in which we are operating right now. This is a once-in-human-history pivot point.”
Hot-spot mission scope
When General Manager Andy Mueller was hired at the Colorado River Water Conservation District in 2017, he told his new board the two biggest challenges facing the district were its anemic bank account and climate change. The money problem was largely remedied in 2020 when voters throughout the 15-county district overwhelmingly approved ballot measure 7A, raising an additional $5 million a year for the River District. The majority of that new taxpayer money now goes to fund water projects, many of which are aimed at helping water users across the Western Slope adapt to the impacts of climate change.
The River District has funded projects that create a redundant water supply so that cities aren’t at risk if a wildfire affects one water source; projects that help farmers and ranchers figure out how to still grow crops with a smaller supply of water; and projects that try to predict water availability such as soil moisture monitoring and remote-sensing snowpack monitoring. Mueller said adapting to climate change underlies everything they do at the River District.
“Conversations today are largely driven by the fact that climate change has impacted the availability of water,” Mueller said. “Everything we think about at the River District is how do we prepare our water users and how do we help protect our water users in our communities from that hotter and drier future from the water-security perspective.”
The area covered by the River District is feeling climate change impacts more acutely than other areas in the West. According to a 2020 analysis by The Washington Post, a cluster of counties on the Western Slope has warmed more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees F), which is double the global average. The hot spot spans more than 30,000 square miles; is the largest hot spot in the contiguous United States; and includes some of western Colorado’s largest irrigation districts in the Grand Valley and Uncompahgre River Valley.
It’s likely that the River District’s mission — to lead in the protection, conservation, use and development of Colorado River water for the welfare of the district — will be made all the more challenging in years to come as rising temperatures cause flows to decrease even more. But Mueller said he sees addressing the causes of climate change — humans burning fossil fuels — as outside the scope of that mission. The River District hires lobbyists and has staff focused on government relations, but it does not push for climate policies that aim to curb carbon emissions.
Turning from adaptation to prevention is a massive lift and one that would change the focus of the organization, Mueller said. Add to that the fact that some of the counties represented on the district board have economies still partly dependent on extracting oil, gas and coal and it becomes even harder to take action.
“I think we have a responsibility to give voice to what climate change is doing to our communities and our water supply, and I do think the River District does a good job with that,” he said. “Do we have an obligation to lead in the prevention of climate change? I would say no, we don’t … We have identified climate change as a threat, but the idea that we have the ability to meaningfully prevent the root cause of climate change isn’t within our traditional abilities and our mission.”
The trust of the customer
Denver Water is Colorado’s oldest and largest public water utility, supplying water to 1.5 million people. The water provider gets about half of its supply from the Colorado River through transmountain diversions that take from the headwaters to the Front Range via a system of pumps, pipes, tunnels and reservoirs. Its operations and water quality have been impacted by climate-change-fueled wildfires in the watersheds where it draws this water, with post-fire debris and ash being washed into reservoirs and clogging infrastructure.
Denver Water’s departing CEO, Jim Lochhead, who has led the utility since 2010, is an attorney and the former head of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources. He has received a Water Leader of the Year award from the Colorado Water Congress.
Lochhead and Denver Water are powerful political players in Colorado. For example, after he and heads of other water utilities that pull some of their supply from the Colorado River testified at a state Senate hearing this year, lawmakers added more seats for Front Range water providers to a drought task force.
Lochhead said that every aspect of Denver Water’s operation is impacted by climate change and that climate change, population growth and the resulting impact on the Colorado River are the utility’s greatest challenges. He said Denver Water walks the talk by doing stream-restoration projects in the headwaters to mitigate the impacts of its diversions and forest health initiatives that mitigate the impacts of wildfires. The utility is preparing for a future with a less consistent water supply through increased efficiency, water recycling and projects such as the expansion of Gross Reservoir. That project is raising the height of a dam in the foothills west of Boulder by 131 feet, nearly tripling the reservoir’s capacity from 42,000 to 119,000 acre-feet.
Lochhead said Denver Water is addressing climate change in a major way: through sustainability, water conservation and energy efficiency efforts at its new campus, which has solar panels, blackwater reuse and rainwater capture for irrigation, LED lighting and has been awarded multiple LEED Green Building certifications.
“We wanted it to be a vision of the future and a vision of sustainability,” Lochhead said. “This is the most sustainable campus that has been developed in Colorado.”
Denver Water’s goal is to reduce by 2025 overall energy use and greenhouse gas emissions by 50% from a 2015 baseline, and Lochhead said they are on track to meet that goal.
But addressing the root cause of warming is a bridge too far for Lochhead, as it is for Mueller and the River District. Lochhead called climate change “a hot-button political issue.”
“We are created to be nonpolitical, and part of the trust our customers have for us is that we are nonpolitical,” he said. “To the extent that we are operating politically or we have stepped out of that role, we actually risk losing some of the trust of our customers.”
Last year, Denver Water joined a memorandum of understanding with other large municipal water providers to commit to reducing nonfunctional turf grass — a major water hog — by 30% and other efficiency upgrades. This type of collective action, along with promoting an ethic of sustainability, is how Lochhead sees Denver Water’s role in the climate crisis.
“There hasn’t been, to my knowledge, a collective discussion around reducing carbon emissions,” he said.
Making the shift to activists
Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Co. and a thought leader on climate issues in the ski industry, said water managers need to engage in solving climate change not just in their own operations but at the policy level.
A water utility getting its own sustainability house in order doesn’t do enough to make a difference and takes the blame off of where it belongs: the fossil fuel industry, which has long misled the public about the impacts of burning its products, Schendler said.
“By definition, it doesn’t do the things that fossil-fuel-industry people fear,” Schendler said. “What do they fear? Active voters, movements, legislation, public shaming, public exposure — that kind of thing. The fact that very powerful entities, businesses, water districts and trade groups won’t speak up is an astounding win for the fossil fuel status quo power structure … I would argue that it’s negligent for a water district to not engage in those things.”
In recent years, SkiCo has become a leader on climate, aligning itself with Protect Our Winters, a group that harnesses the power of outdoor athletes and recreationists to solve the climate crisis. POW focuses on large collective action and political action for systemic change, an approach that the IPCC says can work.
“Effective climate action is enabled by political commitment, well-aligned multilevel governance, institutional frameworks, laws, policies and strategies and enhanced access to finance and technology,” reads the latest IPCC assessment report.
SkiCo has made the shift from a business that merely worked to make its operations “green” to climate activists promoting policies that combat climate change. Schendler said SkiCo’s role is to wield power, model solutions, lobby, help build movements, get involved in politics and basically engage in civics. So far, water managers have not made a similar shift, even though rising temperatures represent as much of a threat to their mission as they do to the snowy winter slopes relied upon by ski resorts.
Although things can often look grim, one of the points stressed in the latest report from the IPCC is that there is still time to avoid the worst impacts if people act now to limit warming. The window to secure a livable and sustainable future is rapidly closing, but there is a window nevertheless. Seeing climate change only as an inevitability that is global in nature can contribute to inaction, said Berggren, of Western Resource Advocates.
“Sure, maybe you as a water provider aren’t going to be writing or developing international climate policy, but as a water provider whose entire mission is dependent on a resource that is being negatively impacted by this issue, … you do have maybe even a moral obligation to be advocating for our national elected leaders to do something.”
During Aspen Journalism’s interviews with a wide swath of Colorado River experts, politics emerged again and again as the main barrier for the water community taking action on climate change. Most experts echoed the conclusions reached by Mueller and Lochhead: Climate action is perceived as a liberal issue, and taking more aggressive action is seen as an overreach.
The future of water in the West may depend on shifting those perceptions. With the Colorado River crisis making international headlines, many are looking to see what water leaders will do during this pivotal time.
“It’s a moral obligation on the part of leaders in our community to depoliticize climate,” Schendler said. “If water districts can’t think 100 years in the future, who can?”
Aspen Journalism is a nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water, the environment, social justice and more. Visit AspenJournalism.org.