Grand Valley, Colorado
Grand Valley, CO, where TNC is working to avoid a water shortage. © Ken Geiger

Policy

Water Management and Drought

Meeting the Needs of Cities, Farms and Nature with Limited Water Supplies

Finding solutions to U.S. water supply challenges in drought-prone areas will require flexible and resilient water management systems that produce multiple benefits for the nation.

Chronic water shortages, rapid population growth and aging water infrastructure are increasing the potential for conflict over water resources, especially in the western United States—the fastest-growing region in the country. Native fish and birds are in decline while cities and farms struggle with reduced water supplies. In the ultimate testament to the demands Americans place on their water supplies, the Colorado River no longer reaches the sea. In many parts of the West, future demand is projected to outpace available supply.

In the search for solutions, pitting farmers, ranchers, cities and environmental interests against each other is a recipe for failure. Instead, decision-makers need to use the current drought conditions—recognizing that one wet year does not solve America’s fundamental water supply challenges—as an opportunity to work with cities, businesses and the agriculture community to demonstrate how innovative water management can reduce conflict, provide secure water supplies and restore health to rivers that flow through arid lands.

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) works with cities, individual water users, irrigation companies, businesses and other nonprofit organizations, as well as federal, state and local water managers, to bring innovation and flexibility to water management, devising new ways to store, allocate and distribute water equitably so that everyone can thrive. These solutions include water banking and other water sharing mechanisms, market-based demand management, agricultural water use efficiency, groundwater recharge networks and optimization of dam and reservoir operations.

Water use (red line) began to exceed water supply (blue line) in the Colorado River basin in the 2000s and is projected to continue to do so barring significant changes in how water supplies are managed (Bureau of Reclamation, 2012).
Water use vs. water supply Water use (red line) began to exceed water supply (blue line) in the Colorado River basin in the 2000s and is projected to continue to do so barring significant changes in how water supplies are managed (Bureau of Reclamation, 2012).

The Nature Conservancy's Solutions

To avoid water crises and mitigate the effects of drought, the following actions are necessary:

Invest in Smart Water Solutions. The Bureau of Reclamation’s WaterSMART program funds locally led water conservation projects to upgrade irrigation infrastructure, plan for future droughts and develop water markets that allow users to voluntarily move water to where it is needed most. TNC works with water users across the West to develop and implement projects to support watershed-scale solutions benefiting multiple water use sectors. The WaterSMART program needs to increase its emphasis on projects that reduce consumption, offer multiple benefits and provide flexible water management.

Support Wise Water Use in Agriculture. Since agriculture accounts for approximately 80% of consumptive water use in the United States, TNC partners with agricultural water users to enhance the reliability of water supplies while restoring watersheds and river habitats. Conservation programs and other policies in the farm bill are key drivers of water use and management decisions and, therefore, a primary source of solutions to shared water challenges.

Coordinate Federal Drought Response Actions. TNC welcomed the announcement in 2016 of increased coordination between the Bureau of Reclamation and Natural Resources Conservation Service. Aligning on-farm efficiencies with off-farm improvements will produce greater benefits than either can alone. TNC supports expanding the partnership between these two agencies to identify other opportunities for cooperation and streamlining.

Protect Endangered Species. TNC participates in collaborative species recovery programs on the Upper Colorado, San Juan and Platte rivers. The programs are recovering eight threatened and endangered species through water conservation solutions, providing Endangered Species Act compliance for thousands of federal, tribal and non-federal water projects in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico and Nebraska. Congress needs to maintain the authorization and annual funding for the programs to protect fish and wildlife and continue to meet human needs through water use and development.

Modernize Water Infrastructure Management. The United States has built thousands of large dams and other water projects to meet the nation’s need for water, food, flood protection, hydropower and navigation. But since their construction 40 to 80 years ago, the operations of very few have been fully reviewed and updated to meet current needs and to prepare for future circumstances. TNC works with federal agencies through, for example, the Army Corps of Engineers’ Sustainable Rivers Program to increase the benefits of public dams through updated operating procedures. Federal agencies, with the support of Congress, need to continue to review and update dam operations to revitalize the country’s water infrastructure and provide substantial economic, social and environmental returns.

Local residents in San Luis, Mexico, snap photos as the Colorado River flows past their town for the first time in decades.
The River Returns Local residents in San Luis, Mexico, snap photos as the Colorado River flows past their town for the first time in decades. © Nick Hall