First-of-its-kind Study Reveals Not Enough Water in Colorado River to Meet Needs

Stakeholders develop strategies to support people, industry, recreation and nature

Phoenix, AZ | December 11, 2012

There will not be enough water in the Colorado River in the near future to meet the demands of the more than 33 million people in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming who depend on it for drinking water, crops, ranching, tourism, energy and business. That’s according to a new Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study issued today by the Bureau of Reclamation. The study also projects most of the shortages will occur in the Lower Basin (Arizona, Nevada and California).

The Bureau of Reclamation, the seven basin states, water supply agencies, tribal leaders and a coalition of conservation groups have been working on the study for two years analyzing supply/demand needs while understanding how a changing climate may affect water supplies.

“Having diverse interests at the table can result in more creative, sustainable and cheaper solutions,” says The Nature Conservancy in Arizona’s state director Pat Graham. “Research confirms people do not want to be in a position where they have to choose between a healthy economy and the health of their environment. They don’t have to. Investing in a solution that focuses on banking conserved water, restoring the health of our forests and watersheds and creating flexibility can save money.”

The first-of-its-kind study examined a wide array of ways to address shortages ranging from water banking and building pipelines to water reuse and urban conservation. This is the foundation to create a roadmap for the future.

One set of solutions (Portfolio C in the report) reflects a proposal by The Nature Conservancy and other conservation partners which uses a flexible, common-sense approach to bring balance back to the Colorado River. The plan relies on market-oriented solutions such as water banking, in which conserved water and water rights are re-allocated for other uses on a temporary basis. Other elements include:  

  • Agriculture and urban water conservation
  • Water reuse that treats wastewater so it can be recycled for irrigation and other uses
  • Retrofit existing power plants with technologies that are more water efficient
  • Land Management strategies to restore healthy river flows including river bank vegetation
  • Several small de-salting plants to treat salty groundwater
  • Local rain harvesting, which collects rain water for future use

There are communities that have more serious needs and fewer options than others. The cost of traditional solutions is often prohibitive. Communities across the region are developing creative responses. Flagstaff and Santa Fe are investing in watershed restoration, communities along the Front Range in Colorado are conserving water and an Arizona farmer is utilizing drip irrigation. There is great innovation occurring locally that can be scaled up to help us meet long-term needs.

Large-scale water supply projects could provide reliable water to meet future demands, but they face significant permitting challenges. They are also expensive and energy intensive. Two concepts developed by the seven Colorado River Basin states include building a 700 mile pipeline from the Upper Missouri River to Colorado and systems to turn California sea water into drinking water.

“We support modern river management options that allow us to live within our means rather than taking water from another part of the country.  These modern management options are also cheaper, faster and easier to implement than a costly pipeline and energy-guzzling de-salters,” says Taylor Hawes, Colorado River Program Director. “We recognize we must meet growing water demand needs, but we need to do so in a way that works for cities, agriculture, industry and nature.”

Study stakeholders are planning to meet early next year to recommend next steps and actions to begin resolving imbalances in the Colorado River system.

To read the complete study, visit the Bureau of Reclamation’s website. To learn about the Conservancy’s work along the Colorado River, click here.

The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the web at To learn about the Conservancy’s global initiatives, visit To keep up with current Conservancy news, follow @nature_press on Twitter.

Contact information

Tracey Stone
The Nature Conservancy


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