Collective Action on the Colorado River

9 Min. Read
Ariel view of the Colorado River winding through a vibrant sandstone canyon

What’s Next for the Colorado River?

No one person can, or will, decide what happens on the Colorado. This water—this river—is simply too vital. It quenches the thirst of more than 40 million people across 30 federally recognized Tribal Nations, seven states and into Mexico; it connects communities from the mountains through the desert and to the sea, and it’s the grand architect of some of our most iconic landscapes. The story of the Colorado is in essence the story of America, and specifically, the America we want to live in. But who will be writing that story? What actions are being taken now that will have ripple effects far down the line?

It can often take a crisis to spur sentiment into action. And with catastrophic aridification weighing heavy on the West, climate change adding even more pressure, and growing populations needing more water, food and power, the hard-working Colorado has put its people on notice. 

Lesli Allison, Western Landowners Alliance | Photo courtesy Zach Altman
Lesli Allison, Western Landowners Alliance | Photo courtesy Zach Altman

“The challenge is gigantic. It’s about as daunting as it could get,” says Lesli Allison, Founding Member and Chief Executive Officer of Western Landowners Alliance. “But I have seen people in all of these different landscapes around the West actually working very well together in many cases—and I’ve seen that when people will sit down and actually do the real work of collaboration, it results in really positive outcomes.”

Last week federal officials announced that they will ease mandatory cuts to water use in the West because of a slight increase in reservoir levels thanks to one of the wettest winters on record. 

“Water is the lifeblood of the West,” says Allison. “So everybody is paying a lot of attention to what’s happening right now. I think everybody’s grateful for the reprieve, but nobody thinks that this is going to solve it all by any means.”

It’s why Allison adds that many landowners, including farmers and ranchers across the West are already implementing water conservation measures. She says, “You almost always see in crisis situations, that people seem to rise to their best. I mean, obviously there’s the old saying that ‘Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting,’ but we’ve seen the opposite of that in a number of cases where neighbors are working together to share water when it’s in short supply or working with their communities to figure out solutions.”

Colorado River Basin States | WikiCommons CC-BY-SA-4.0
Member states of the Colorado River Compact | Photo: MarginalCostWiki Commons CC-BY-SA-4.0

Investments on the Federal Level

Community-led solutions on the ground are getting a boost from unprecedented investments on the federal level. Last week, the Biden-Harris Administration announced another $50 million over the next five years to improve key water infrastructure and enhance drought-related data collection across the Upper Colorado River Basin, as part of a basin-wide collaborative effort. It’s the latest in a string of investments throughout Colorado Basin communities for water recycling, drought resiliency and conservation projects, as well as the $4 billion priority funding to the Colorado River with other drought affected basins announced last fall through the Inflation Reduction Act and a nearly $580 million allocation to continue fulfilling settlements of Tribal water rights claims. The seven basin states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming—have also agreed to decrease their water use through 2026, when the operations management plan for the basin expires.

As investments and actions continue to converge in the basin, they also pose some long-past due questions to the communities of the West—from elected officials and water managers to everyday Americans. Are we willing to make amends for historic injustices? Are we willing to sit next to our neighbors, including some we don’t always agree with, to find a path forward that leaves no one behind? Are we willing to roll up our sleeves and get to work? 

“It’s an us problem and it needs an us solution,” says Heather Tanana, a Citizen of Navajo Nation and Visiting Professor at the University of California Irvine School of Law. “Changing from the status quo is hard, but there is no other alternative. We’ve never reached this extreme before.”

Writing the Next Chapter of the “Law of the River”

The signing of the Colorado River Compact, 1922 | Photo from the digital collection of Colorado State University

Writing the next chapter of the river’s history will likely look different from the way it did at the Colorado River Compact’s origin in 1922

“One hundred years is a long time for a law like the Colorado River Compact to exist,” says Jason Anthony Robison, Law Professor at the University of Wyoming. “The need for inclusivity, the need for seats at the table, for distinct values, diverse values, diverse voices, in my mind, is absolutely essential for navigating the unprecedented circumstances that we’re in. Those connections make all of the difference. They bring the river from the realm of abstraction to the real thing.”

Robison, who edited Cornerstone at the Confluence: Navigating the Colorado River Compact’s Next Century as a part of the conversation around the compact’s 100th anniversary last year, continues to advocate for an elevated commitment to collaboration in the new management framework’s ongoing negotiations and beyond.

Allison says that everyone in the basin is going to need to be realistic about the amount of water that’s actually available, and the fact that there’s simply not as much water left to go around. She says, “People are going to have to figure out how to share water because every person’s life in the West, and actually across the country, will be impacted by the outcomes of whatever decisions get made here in the next couple of years.”

Jason Anthony Robison, Law Professor at the University of Wyoming | Photo: Chavawn Kelley
Jason Anthony Robison, Law Professor at the University of Wyoming | Photo: Chavawn Kelley

That’s something Tanana, Allison and Robison all agree on. No matter where someone lives, people are feeling the impacts of the climate crisis and it’s crucial that elected leaders listen to communities on the ground as they draw the new road map for the Colorado. Robison emphasizes that it’s imperative that, “Citizens in our constitutional democracy continue to place pressure on elected officials to think outside the box, to be brave, and to be innovative in the face of unprecedented circumstances.”

In short: Everyone has a vital role to play in this next chapter. 

“I think we’re on a pathway now, where we’re going to have to dig deep, arguably as deep or perhaps even more deeply than the Colorado River Commissioners did back in 1922, when envisioning the cornerstone of the Law of the River,” says Robison. “And inclusivity is critical.”

Tanana says more Tribal engagement will play an important role in adding different values and viewpoints and ways of thinking about problem solving. She also points to a rise of Indigenous women leading, “Going back, a lot of Tribes in the basin, including Navajo Nation, were matrilineal, and women made important decisions in their communities. That was really displaced by colonization and federal policies to put white men into these roles. We’re seeing this movement and a reclaiming of those leadership roles by many women in the basin.”

A New Role for Colorado Basin Tribes

Tribes of the Colorado Basin have lived in this landscape since time immemorial. Tanana, who specializes in the confluence of law, health and environment, says, “When the Colorado River health is impacted, it directly impacts our health. Climate change and the resulting shortage of water, specifically, are threatening this continued way of life and the practice of our culture and traditions.”

Tanana says that while the approach is becoming more collaborative, she’d like to see that build, “Not just engagement of Tribes in managing the river, but real leadership from the Tribes that is being valued by the states and the federal government; that our values and the way we interact with the environment are not just listened to, but truly incorporated into basin policies.”

Heather Tanana on the Navajo reservation in Monument Valley, Utah | Photo courtesy Heather Tanana
Heather Tanana on the Navajo reservation in Monument Valley, Utah | Photo courtesy Heather Tanana

The federally recognized Tribes of the Colorado Basin have rights to about a quarter of the water in the basin, but many still don’t have the infrastructure to access their water rights and are still working to get a seat at the table where Colorado River management decisions are being made. Tanana says that she’s seeing more stakeholders throughout the basin, including federal and state representatives, calling for outstanding Tribal water rights to be settled. She says, “It’s about bringing certainty in the system.”

That certainty is something that will bring more transparency to water rights in the Colorado Basin, and allow Tribes—and everyone—to stand on more equal footing as communities navigate an unprecedented and much more uncertain future. 

Personal Connections and Action

In addition to making space for diverse leadership and values, Tanana says that it’s vital for communities to look at what they can do in their own backyard—as well as the system as a whole. She says, “If we all do little things, we have the big compounding effect of it all, and that will help us get to where we need to go. We cannot rely solely on one industry or one stakeholder to solve it because they’re not the only ones who are going to feel the impacts. We’re all going to face them.”

Tanana adds, “We’re part of this whole system and our actions have an impact—even if it’s not immediately visible to us.” 

And Allison agrees, “People need water to drink, agriculture needs water so that we can eat, nature needs water. Our fish and wildlife need water. Our lands and our soils need water, and everybody needs water. And we have to find a way to distribute it equitably and effectively. We can choose to fight over scarcity or we can choose to partner with each other to foster abundance and resilience. And that can only happen when we each rise above our own particular special interest and really work to help one another be successful.”

The Colorado River flowing through Canyonlands National Park
The Colorado River flowing through Cataract Canyon in Canyonlands National Park | Photo: Mike Walton

The Colorado is a Relational River

So, as we collectively move through the end of summer and tip into fall and winter, no one can guarantee another record-breaking snowfall, no one can wave a magic wand and stop the climate crisis from existing, and no one can rewind to right the wrongs of the past. But we can tap into our own collective power and agency, a deep well of our own making, to chart a brighter path forward—together. 

“The Colorado River is a relational river, and the human capacity surrounding that river is seemingly infinite,” says Robison. “That capacity needs to be tapped. It will take bravery, innovation, and a commitment to inclusivity to do so. But if we do, there is so much potential. There is a proverbial brain trust of people, both in official positions and outside of official positions, that mean well and are so thoughtful about how we should navigate these unprecedented circumstances. And the existence of that human capital in that human capacity will always leave me an optimist.”

This is Part 6 of our investigative series on the Colorado River. Catch up on earlier posts.

Emily Nuchols

Emily Nuchols is a writer and the founder of Under Solen, a communications consulting firm with a cause. A fierce advocate, Emily firmly believes in celebrating every win—large and small—and that it is entirely possible to change the world one party at a time. She’s been a friend and partner of OARS since 2015.

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