Basin-wide Colorado River Conservation Projects Gaining Momentum


The Colorado River is vital to the arid west. Over 40 million people depend on the river for their water supply. Since 2000, an ongoing drought has diminished the water levels in the river’s major reservoirs. In July 2014, water levels measured in Lake Mead reached their lowest point since the construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s. At 1,082 feet, the surface level of the lake is only seven feet above the level at which the U.S. Secretary of the Interior would declare a shortage on the river. The river level has dropped more than 125 feet in the past fourteen years alone.

A Bureau of Reclamation study projects water levels to drop at least nine percent by 2050. Lower Basin states, Arizona, Nevada, and California, already use their full apportionment of water and due to population growth demand is projected to increase. However the water supply on the river is projected to decrease because of hotter temperatures and drier conditions in the West. Agricultural and municipal interests in the use of the water will be in conflict with each other because of this imbalance between supply and demand. This will additionally affect the natural environment, leaving the health of the river fauna and wildlife at stake.

Plan for the Future

With the increasing probability of a shortage in the near future, Denver Water, Central Arizona Project, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Southern Nevada Water Authority, and Bureau of Reclamation are providing up to $11 million to fund new water conservation projects. A declared shortage on the river would be the first in history and affect or suspend the “Law of the River.” The Law of the River is a collection of the laws, compacts, and court decisions that have governed the use and management of the river since 1922.

In the last decade, agricultural and municipal agencies in California have worked to reduce the state’s river use. The new project is aimed at creating basin-wide partnerships to expand conservation efforts among all Colorado River water users. “The goal of this unique program is to develop new conservation programs from municipal, industrial, and agricultural water users from across the seven states which share the river,” said Pam Pickard, Central Arizona Project Board President. “The program saves water in Lake Mead and Lake Powell for the benefit of all Colorado River water users and promotes a healthy river system.”

The project will boost declining reservoir levels and contribute to the health of the entire river by keeping conserved water within the river system. In order to do this, municipal agencies and the federal government agree that collaborative action is needed to reduce the risk to water supplies, hydropower production, water quality, agricultural output, recreational activities, and environmental resources across the entire Colorado River basin.

Current Plan of Action

The Bureau of Reclamation is soliciting project proposals from the Lower Basin states for 2015 and 2016 funding allocations until November 17, 2014. Following these proposals, the Bureau will solicit further proposals from Upper Basin states. Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water, hopes to also have the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, Colorado Farm Bureau, Colorado River District, Southwestern Water Conservation District, The Nature Conservancy, and Trout Unlimited involved in the conservation efforts very soon. These partners will be working together to identify and fund pilot programs that will demonstrate the viability of cooperative, voluntary means to reduce water demand.

After this two-year period, the Bureau will examine the effectiveness of conservation efforts that this project funds and determine whether the successful programs can be expanded or extended to provide a greater protection of the river.


The title image features the Colorado River near Page, AZ and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported license. The owner does not endorse this blog.


Jim Trotter, Mega Water Utilities Join to Fund Colorado River Conservation Projects, Rocky Mountain PBS, (Oct. 23, 2014),

Rose Davis, U.S. Department of the Interior and Western municipal water suppliers developing water conservation projects as part of a landmark collaborative agreement, Bureau of Reclamation, (Oct. 8, 2014),

Ken Dewey, Western drought brings Lake Mead to lowest level since it was built, NOAA, (Sept. 4, 2014),

Rose Davis, Colorado River Basin Supply and Demand Study Interim Report Available, Bureau of Reclamation, (June 6, 2011),

About the Colorado River Basin, Environmental Defense Fund, (last visited Nov. 2, 2014).

Sean Crowley, 1st Part of Colorado River Water Supply and Demand Study Praised for Climate Impact Focus, (last visited Nov. 2, 2014).