Southwest’s dryness shifts rivalries over water

The longest drought in 1,200 years along the Colorado River system forces stakeholders to develop trust to find shared solutions.

Paul "Paco" Ollerton and his dog, Aggie, look toward the canal system that delivers Colorado River water to his farm near Casa Grande, Ariz..

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, President Joe Biden made only a passing reference to “the devastating effects of the climate crisis.” His lack of urgency on the issue was hard to miss. Just the day before an international panel of scientific experts released an assessment of the impact of human activity on climate that United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called “a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.”

That report followed a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change in February finding that the southwestern region of North America is experiencing the longest megadrought in 1,200 years. After the driest 22 years on record, the Colorado River system, which sustains more than 40 million people across seven states and northern Mexico, is severely strained. The nation’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, have reached historic lows. They may soon not be able to generate hydropower.

Faced with this widespread extremity, the historically adversarial stakeholders in the Colorado River basin are starting to demonstrate something else that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded: that “diverse forms of knowledge such as scientific as well as Indigenous knowledge and local knowledge” provide a strong shared basis for reducing the effects of human-induced climate change. Environmentalists, farmers, city planners, and tribal nations are learning that sustaining this vital, renewable resource depends as much on trust as rainfall.

“We need to remember that everyone is struggling with this – everyone is hurting in this region right now,” says Taylor Hawes, The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River program director. “If we can keep coming back to shared values – a sustainable river system, vibrant cities, a healthy river, sustaining agriculture – we should be able to come together and find solutions. We find trust when we see that our interests are aligned.”

Water rights on the Colorado River are governed by laws established in 1922 and revised over the years to balance allocations state by state from the headwaters to the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. That system fostered enduring mistrust among different interest groups competing for water to grow crops, protect fish, and irrigate urban growth across desert landscapes. Lately, however, that rivalry is turning to cooperation. Compelled by climate change, water users are sharing technology and expertise. Cities like Las Vegas are becoming more water efficient. Farmers are shifting to crops that require less irrigation.

Perhaps more importantly, a constituency that was sidelined is starting finally to be embraced. Thirty tribal nations hold the rights to a quarter of the water that flows through the basin under rights that predate the river compact. Now as public and private stakeholders start working to revise the river’s management guidelines before they expire in 2026, the tribes are finding a seat at the table.

A novel pact signed in January between the state of New Mexico, the Jicarilla Apache Nation, and The Nature Conservancy illustrates the potential of a more inclusive approach. For years the Jicarilla Apache Nation leased water to coal mines in the state’s northeast corner. As those operations have shut down, the tribal nation has more water to share elsewhere. The new accord leases water to the state to improve water security and benefit wild fisheries.

“This first-of-its-kind project demonstrates how meaningful sovereign-to-sovereign cooperation, with support from environmental organizations, can lead to creative solutions,” said Daryl Vigil, water administrator for the Jicarilla Apache Nation, following the agreement.

As climate change forces adaptation, knowledge sharing and trust-building on the Colorado River illustrates humanity’s potential to chart a more equitable and caring future. That’s a lesson that may resonate in other places where vital natural resources face competing claims.

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