How to Negotiate for Peace, Resilience, and Environment on the Colorado River

Audubon is deeply concerned about the current conditions on the Colorado River, a crisis in the making for birds and people. Current government modeling shows the potential within the next 24 months, there could be a “Day Zero” scenario where the water supply to reservoirs drops so much that large dams can no longer reliably discharge water. This endangers communities and wildlife. We recently responded to a request from the US Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) for comment on its upcoming Pre-Scoping for Post-2026 Colorado River Reservoir Operational Strategies for Lake Powell and Lake Mead Under Historically Low Reservoir Conditions”) and advocates for good governance that increases the Colorado River Basin’s resilience to climate change with improved outcomes for people and nature.

The Colorado River is legendary for supporting the growth of the American West to the point where it now supports 40 million people and underpins a more than $1 trillion economy. However, thirty sovereign tribes that have historically lived in the basin have not been included in management discussions and, in many cases, do not have access to their Colorado River water rights.

The river and its tributaries are also the basis of life in the region and are essential to the conservation of more than 70 percent of all wildlife. The lowland forest that lines the waterways of the Colorado River Basin provides important habitat for birds, including 400 species along the Lower Colorado River alone. Numerous dams and diversions have altered river flow, resulting in invasive shrubs that have replaced native trees and reduced habitat value. With less native habitat available, at least six breeding bird species that rely on the Colorado River Basin, including the Bell’s vireo, summer tangar, yellow-breasted chat, yellow-backed warbler, southwestern willow flycatcher, and western yellow-billed cuckoo, have experienced significant population declines.

Immediate water conservation is needed to prevent the short-term crisis, but conditions driving the crisis are not expected to abate, pointing to the need for structural changes in Colorado River management. To achieve structural change in such a complex, high-stakes environment, USBR and all Colorado River stakeholders—tribes, states, local governments, water users, and environmental and recreational interests—must look at the basin as a whole and work together to define solutions. Here’s what Audubon would like to see (see our letter for a more complete discussion):

  • transparency
  • inclusivity
  • Prioritizing Mexico’s role in Colorado River management
  • A broad purpose and need for federal legislation to ensure it serves the full spectrum of stakeholders, not just water rights holders
  • solid science
  • Honest assessment and communication of available reservoir water supplies
  • Decision making that anticipates uncertain future conditions
  • Management that avoids crises
  • The priority is the reliability of the water supply
  • Assessing the difference between water scarcity and voluntary, compensated reductions in water use
  • Increased flexibility in Colorado River management
  • Priority is given to ecological water needs and environmental justice
  • Considering how management options interact with other responses to Colorado River conditions

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