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Voicing the Hard Truths: The Future of the Colorado River – An Interview With Doug Kenney

Doug Kenney WEB

We’d like to believe that our training, experience, and perspective gives us some special insights to the river’s challenges—and in some cases it does; but I suspect our bigger role is often just saying those things that many others already understand, but can’t publicly acknowledge…

Our colleagues are leading the charge around climate change and water in the American West. We talked with and spotlight the inspiring work of Dr. Doug Kenney and the Colorado River Research Group (CRRG).


My colleagues and I in the Colorado River Research Group (CRRG) have just published a new report to the website entitled: “A Look at the Interim Guidelines at Their Mid-Point: How Are We Doing?”  As the title implies, the document provides a little background about what the Interim Guidelines are, but primarily, it focuses on the next step forward that needs to be tackled, perhaps as part of a new Interim Guidelines agreement, namely: addressing the structural deficit.  The unfortunate fact is that “normal” levels of releases from Lake Mead (i.e., those sufficient to support 7.5 million acre-feet (MAF) of consumptive use among AZ, CA and NV) are about 1.2 MAF higher than “normal” inflows to the reservoir.  The water wonks call this the “structural deficit,” and it requires a permanent – dare I say “structural” – solution based on a reconsideration of what we consider as “normal.”

I know this is a little wonky, but let me put it this way.  Last year in “The First Step in Repairing the Colorado River’s Broken Water Budget,” we observed that the “first step” in solving the supply/demand imbalance was to put the brakes on planned efforts for new depletions from the river.  This new report essentially outlines the second step: reduce consumption in those areas where current levels of use are clearly unsustainable.  The math is really simple; the politics are another matter entirely.

Also note that we’ll be announcing this new report on Twitter, a first for our group.  Follow us on @TheCRRG if you want to be sure to receive future updates, as we have a few more products coming soon.

~ Doug


What prompted you to go out on a limb and bring together this group of high powered academics?  

I’m not sure I’d call us “high powered,” but the part of your question I’ll focus on is this notion of going “out on a limb.” The reality is that many of the key decision-makers in the basin often do not have the freedom to say what needs to be said, as they are accountable to very specific constituencies with very narrow agendas. Academics, on the other hand, have the luxury of looking at the big picture, and the autonomy to talk about the hard truths. That’s our job, our professional obligation. We’d like to believe that our training, experience, and perspective gives us some special insights to the river’s challenges—and in some cases it does; but I suspect our bigger role is often just saying those things that many others already understand, but can’t publicly acknowledge for fear of angering important constituencies or undermining delicate partnerships. So we do that for them. We provide that cover.

What’s next for your group?  

We are constantly reassessing the state of affairs in the basin, as well as the new knowledge coming out of the research community, and making strategic decisions about which messages can be most useful. As suggested above, we are very interested in identifying ways to incentivize better water use, which by necessity pushes us into the delicate subjects of markets and agricultural water use. On a different note, we’d like to focus some more attention on the environmental assets in the basin, and how the environment is too often viewed as merely a “constraint to work around” as managers do the serious work of serving human consumptive uses. The Colorado is more than a plumbing system; it’s a river. We’d also like to delve more into the issue of our warming climate—we are nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer this century than last—and how it is influencing both supplies and demands in the basin. A lot of the impacts that people attribute to drought are, in reality, probably more a function of warming. That’s a big deal: droughts end, but warming may not. So that’s a sampling of some areas—and some messages—where we continue to research, deliberate, write, and speak.   There’s plenty to keep us busy.

How do we get to a more sustainable place in the Basin, i.e., what’s the theory of change?

The primary road forward is pretty obvious: we need to consume less water. Average demands (consumption) on the system already equal average supplies (runoff), and that’s even before you consider the chronic environmental water shortages in basin, and the accelerated pattern of groundwater overdrafting in some parts of the basin. The climate change projections, as well as our recent experience with the warming that has already occurred, tell us that we’ll almost certainly see streamflow volumes dropping further in the future. Yet, in the Basin Study, every state in every scenario projects additional demands. Absent some importation of vast amounts of “new water,” that just cannot happen—the numbers won’t add up. There’s not a water user in the basin that wants to hear that, and there’s not a decision-maker that wants to tell them that. But it’s one of those “hard truths” that has to be said, and it has to be said again and again. So we do that. It’s impossible to expect good decisions in the basin unless that message is front and center.

But that’s not where we leave the conversation. It doesn’t accomplish anything for us to throw grenades and then retreat behind ivy covered walls. The reality is that there are many practical and proven ways forward. Most major cities in the West have absorbed huge population growth for several decades now without increasing total consumption. Likewise, water use in agriculture has also been flat over that period, while yields have gone up considerably. And this has happened despite the fact that the incentives—political, economic, and otherwise—rarely reward water users for being more efficient. In fact, the opposite is often true; for example, a farmer that shifts to a crop or technology that uses less water may risk having the volume of their water right reduced, or the city that decides to defer a proposed new diversion may rightly fear that it merely empowers another user to rush in to claim the unappropriated water. So the path forward—the “theory of change”—is largely about reshaping incentives so the very skilled water managers in the basin can accomplish great things.

Gather more insights about The CCRG by reading  “A Think Tank for the Colorado River’s Future” – a piece done by National Geographic.

Dr. Kenney researches and writes extensively on several water‐related issues, including law and policy reform, river basin and watershed‐level planning, climate change adaptation, and water resource economics, and is the founder of the Colorado River Governance Initiative.  He has served as a consultant to a variety of local, state, multi‐state, and federal agencies, including several Interior Department agencies, EPA, the US Forest Service, and special commissions (e.g., the Western Water Policy Review Advisory Commission); and national governments and NGOs in Asia and Africa.  Additionally, he has made presentations in 20 states (and the District of Columbia), 7 nations, and 4 continents.  He has a B.A. in biology from the University of Colorado, a M.S. in Natural Resources Policy and Administration from the University of Michigan, and a Ph.D. in Renewable Natural Resource Studies from the University of Arizona.

February 9, 2016

Photo Credit:  Shutterstock.com/sumikophoto

 

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