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Colorado River Basin Study Projects Imbalances in Water Supply and Demand

Posted: 02/01/2013
by Nathan Fey

Last month, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced the release of the Colorado River Basin Study – a joint effort by the US Bureau of Reclamation and the seven Colorado River Basin states – that projects water supply and demand imbalances throughout the Colorado River Basin and adjacent areas over the next 50 years.

Already, water supply falls short of demand, creating what water managers refer to as a system imbalance. With Colorado River flows likely to decline by as much as 20% over the next 50 years, and regional population expected to increase from 40 million to up to 76 million, these imbalances will become much more pronounced.  With so many people and interests competing for an increasingly scarce resource, it is clear that recreational and ecological flows throughout the basin must be clearly defined and protected by actions from all levels of government. When we consider the fact that 60% of the Upper Colorado is already diverted, the complexity of this situation becomes clearer.

In the American Southwest, the challenge of protecting aquatic ecosystems and recreational streamflows while meeting the water needs of municipalities, agriculture, industry and hydropower are intensifying.  With evidence of continued variability in winter snowpack, water supplies declining, and regional population increasing, powerful stakeholders are positioning themselves to ensure that their current and future water needs are met. AW is no different. We have and will continue working to ensure that paddler interests and instream flows are protected throughout the Colorado River Basin now and in the future.

The Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, the first of its kind,  describes the risks to Basin resources like water delivery, electrical power resources, water quality, recreation resources and ecological resources.  The inclusion of recreation as a resource category is a major victory for American Whitewater - increasing the ability of water managers to preserve boatable flows.  AW played a key role by providing Reclamation with data assigning ‘acceptable’ or ‘optimal’ flows for a specific sub-set of river segments that are important to the paddling community. This was made possible thanks to information compiled following our summer 2011 flow survey, and underscores the importance of participation in AW-orchestrated flow studies. Because AW was able to provide defensible, quantitative data, the BOR included flow ranges for some boatable segments, and evaluated trade-offs between recreation opportunities and other resources. Without this data, it would be easier for water managers to advance long term demand strategies that overlook our members’ interests.

In recognition of AW's leadership and contributions to the Study, our staff were awarded the Partner in Conservation Award by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

"There's no silver bullet to solve the imbalance between the demand for water and the supply in the Colorado River Basin over the next 50 years – rather, it's going to take diligent planning and collaboration from all stakeholders to identify and move forward with practical solutions," said Secretary Salazar. "Water is the lifeblood of our communities, and this study provides a solid platform to explore actions we can take toward a sustainable water future. While not all of the proposals included in the study are feasible, they underscore the broad interest in finding a comprehensive set of solutions."

The study includes over 150 proposals from study participants, stakeholders and the public that represent a wide range of potential options to resolve supply and demand imbalances. Proposals include increasing water supply through reuse or desalinization methods, and reducing demand through increased conservation and efficiency efforts. The scope of the study does not include a decision as to how future imbalances should or will be addressed. Reclamation intends to work with stakeholders to explore in-basin strategies, rather than proposals - such as major trans-basin conveyance systems - that are not considered cost effective or practical.

Spanning parts of seven states, the Colorado River Basin is one of the most critical sources of water in the western United States. The Colorado River and its tributaries, including the Yampa, Green, Dolores, Gunnison, and San Juan, provide water to about 40 million people for municipal use; supply water used to irrigate nearly 4 million acres of land, and is also the lifeblood for at least 22 Native American tribes, 7 National Wildlife Refuges, 4 National Recreation Areas, and 11 National Parks.

The full study – including a discussion of the methodologies and levels of uncertainty – is available at

American Whitewater's Report on Recreational Flows in the Basin is included in the Appendix of the Full Report.

Colorado Stewardship Director
Nathan Fey
1601 Longs Peak Ave.
Longmont, CO 80501
Phone: 303-859-8601

Associated Projects

Colorado River Basin Supply Study
American Whitewater's staff and contractors are working to develop quantitative metrics that help the US Bureau of Reclamation evaluate impacts to recreational stream-flows across the Colorado basin.
Gunnison Basin (Colorado) Stewardship Program
Our new Gunnison River Basin program will define and protect recreational flow needs as part of regional and broader Upper Colorado River Basin stewardship strategies. By quantifying flow needs in the