I’ve been spending a lot of time lately talking to colleagues about the current state of the Colorado River, and if there’s one word that captures their collective assessment, it is momentum. Throughout the basin, a lot of really good innovations are occurring. Conservation has, rightly, emerged as a credible management tool, and not merely something for the hippies to talk about. Cooperation among the states, between the US and Mexico, and between the water users and environmentalists, is arguably at an all-time high. Thoughtful people hold key posts in many of the relevant agencies. And so on. Sure, there’s still too many efforts to build new straws to further depletions, some key players—such as the tribes—are still struggling for meaningful inclusion, and there’s never enough money, especially for costly reforms such as improved watershed management. But compared to 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago, it’s a different world. Momentum.

But is it enough? Can incremental progress on several fronts congeal to form a comprehensive, lasting solution to the river’s problems? And can it happen on a schedule that acknowledges that the climate will continue to warm, populations will continue to grow, and that persistently low reservoir storage makes the region increasingly vulnerable should a few really dry years be around the corner. The challenges are all growing, and despite our current momentum, Lake Mead—the unofficial canary in this coal mine—is projected to drop further over the next 2 years. We are doing better—arguably, much better. Nobody should be shy in acknowledging this; some boasting is justified. But we aren’t winning yet. Can incremental reforms ultimately tip the scales, shifting the basin’s course from one of steady decline to one leading to true sustainability, or will it only delay a day of reckoning that ushers in more sweeping changes—reforms that go beyond what current negotiations envision? I don’t pretend to definitely know that answer. Nobody does. But I suspect we likely need one or more new “grand bargains” to get us to the finish line. If so, the ultimate value of the incremental reforms may be in establishing the networks and laying the groundwork for those conversations to occur. Momentum.

Dr. Doug Kenney
Doug is the Senior Research Associate, Getches-Wilkinson Natural Resources Law Center and Director of the GWC Western Water Policy Program. Doug is a member of The Colorado River Research Group; a self-directed team of ten veteran Colorado River scholars. A founding member of Carpe Diem West, he also participates on the program team. He researches and writes extensively on several water-related issues, including law and policy reform, river basin and watershed-level planning.

Doug Kenney WEB

September 10, 2016

Photo Credit:  Josemaria Toscano /



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