Colorado River deal: U-Michigan experts available

The Colorado River. Image credit: Gabriel Tovar, Unsplash
The Colorado River. Image credit: Gabriel Tovar, Unsplash

California, Nevada and Arizona have reached an agreement to cut their water use from the Colorado River. University of Michigan experts are available to discuss this historic deal and its implications.

Drew Gronewold is a hydrologist and associate professor at the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability. He uses hydrological modeling to help guide water-resources management decisions. His specific research areas include predicting runoff in ungaged basins, monitoring and understanding water quality dynamics in coastal areas, and incorporating probability theory and Bayesian statistics into watershed-scale data sets and forecasting tools.

"Negotiations over the Colorado River Compact have a long and important history that many, including people in the upper Midwest and Great Lakes, simply aren-t aware of. Having an understanding of the history behind water use on the Colorado, the Rio Grande, and their tributaries, is important not just to the citizens of California and the arid Southwest, but to everyone in the country and across the continent.

"There is a perception that the North American continent’s large river and lake basins can be managed in isolation from one another in perpetuity. It is unlikely, however, that this management philosophy will hold for the next several decades in light of climate change and increasing anthropogenic demand for water.

"Certainly, part of the solution needs to come from new approaches to how and where we store and use fresh water, and in new tools we use for short and long-term forecasting of fresh water supplies. The computational tools and policies needed to form the foundation for basin-scale water management solutions are not unique to the arid Southwest, and they represent an important component of a continental-scale water challenge that should, sooner rather than later, unify the thinking, knowledge, experiences, and resources of all sovereign nations across North America.”

Jonathan Overpeck is an interdisciplinary climate scientist and dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability. He is an expert on paleoclimate, climate-vegetation interactions, climate and weather extremes, sea-level rise, the impacts of climate change and options for dealing with it. He served as a lead author on the authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007 and 2014 reports. Overpeck’s research focus is understanding drought and megadrought dynamics and risk in the West and elsewhere around the globe.

"Flows of the Colorado River have been knocked back hard by climate change and will continue to decline until we halt global warming. We were lucky to get a great snow season this year, but a rare big snow season and the water-use reductions just offered by Arizona, Nevada and California probably won’t be enough to save the day long-term. Bigger cutbacks are going to be needed.”

Related: The West’s water crisis is worse than you think "This is a good breakthrough on short-term, negotiated strategies to conserve water in the Colorado River Basin and avoid the most serious and immediate impacts of declining reservoir levels. State and federal responsibilities have been determined, and now the inter-state negotiations begin.

"Hopefully these conservation measures, and associated federal resources, can also free up the seven states to begin thinking about the longer-term initiatives and investments needed to transition to a more sustainable approach to managing the Colorado River. The process and outcomes in the Colorado River Basin could serve as useful examples for decision-makers in other shared basins, like the Great Lakes, who are also faced with new challenges from a changing climate.”

Michael R. Moore is a professor of environmental economics at the School for Environment and Sustainability. His research interests include water resource economics and environmental economics.

"Surgery, not a Band-Aid, is needed to solve the chronic problem of overuse of the Colorado River. The agreement for cutbacks in water use by Arizona, California and Nevada will solve the current crisis, but a renegotiation of the 1922 Colorado River Compact is essential for solving the contemporary problem of lower river levels caused by climate change.

"A new agreement also needs to address two issues outside compact boundaries: supplying water to the 29 federally recognized Indigenous nations in the basin and earmarking environmental instream flows for multiple ecosystem services.”