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

Policy

Water Management

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, more frequent and intense droughts, rapid population growth and aging water infrastructure are increasing the potential for conflict over water resources, especially in the western United States. Fish and wildlife biodiversity 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:

Support Wise Water Use in Agriculture. Since agriculture accounts for up to 80 percent 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. TNC supports changes implemented by the 2018 Farm Bill and future changes that will make farm bill funding more useful and applicable to western producers and arid landscapes.

Invest in Smart Water Solutions. The Bureau of Reclamation’s WaterSMART Program funds locally led water reclamation, reuse and conservation projects to upgrade irrigation infrastructure and prepare for future droughts. 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 consumptive use of water and offer multiple benefits such as instream flows while improving the grantmaking process, including coordination with other federal assistance.

Prioritize unique water needs of Tribal Nations. Twelve tribal nations have outstanding claims to water rights that need to be quantified and settled within the Colorado River basin alone. Resolving water rights claims helps tribal nations plan for and provide the economic, environmental, cultural and public health benefits of a secure water supply. It also provides greater certainty for all stakeholders in water management decisions. In addition, historically tribal interests have been underrepresented in water management decisions. The federal government should commit to negotiating all outstanding tribal water rights throughout the West and ensure tribal interests are included in all water management decisions that impact them.

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. The federal government 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.

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