Press Releases | What's New

Press Release: Colorado River Basin Groups Advocate for Environmental and Resilience Priorities in Proposal to Bureau of Reclamation

Mar 29, 2024

March 29, 2024 

Media contact: Annika Shamachar, [email protected] 

Denver – Today, a coalition of conservation groups across the Colorado River Basin jointly submitted the Cooperative Conservation Alternative to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) to protect the nation’s most endangered river after current management guidelines expire in 2026. Recognizing the essential role that natural systems play in supporting the Basin, the Alternative proposes a comprehensive set of operational activities to help maintain the integrity of Basin ecosystems, while working to support resilient communities, Tribal nations, businesses and agriculture. 

The Alternative arrives on the heels of separate submissions from Upper Division (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico) and Lower Division states (California, Arizona, and Nevada),  both of which propose different options for managing the nation’s two largest reservoirs amid historic drought and worsening climate change. Current guidelines governing management of the Colorado River reservoir system have proven insufficient at preventing plummeting water levels from threatening the long-term water security of more than 35 million people.

The Alternative expands the range of options for BOR to consider. Recognizing a healthy Colorado River forms the foundation of the entire region, the Cooperative Conservation Alternative provides a roadmap for sustaining water supplies for people and ecosystems throughout the Colorado River Basin. Top priorities include: 

  • Stabilizing water storage and avoiding crisis management,
  • Making mitigation and environmental stewardship part of the future operations,
  • Creating a Conservation Reserve to incentivize water conservation, stabilize the system, and protect river health,
  • Preserving opportunities for Cienega de Santa Clara, Delta flows and River connectivity,
  • Pursuing parallel resilience-building processes to adapt to changing conditions.

As part of their Cooperative Conservation Alternative, the joint groups stressed the importance of recognizing that reasonable compromises from all parties will be required to arrive at a meaningful path forward that secures the Basin’s resources for the benefit of both people and ecosystems. In the coming months, BOR will be evaluating the proposals to identify the reasonable range of alternatives it will analyze in a draft environmental impact statement (EIS), to be finalized later this year.

“Cooperative Conservation is a proposal to manage the Colorado River for multiple benefits — not just to deal with shortages — but also to maintain habitat for birds and wildlife, potentially allow Tribes to benefit from their water rights, and improve water supply reliability as climate change impacts continue to reduce the river,” said Jennifer Pitt, National Audubon Society’s Colorado River Program Director. “This is the kind of innovation we need to create certainty for the Colorado River for everyone and everything that depends on it.” 

“Over the last 17 years we have learned the hard way that we need rules and guidelines that are flexible and can adapt to the changing river conditions that impact all who depend on the Colorado River,” said Taylor Hawes, Colorado River Program director for The Nature Conservancy. “We must plan for the unexpected. Our proposal aims to incorporate more flexibility in the rules, avoid constant crisis management, and maintain the river’s health. While the Interim Guidelines are critical to managing the Colorado River, they are not enough on their own. We must also continue to work together outside of the Interim Guidelines process to ensure the sustainability and resilience of the Colorado River Basin and to develop a broader set of solutions that benefit people, nature and industry/agriculture throughout the Basin.”

“The Colorado River supports an important recreation economy, including unique hunting and fishing opportunities, which depend on healthy watersheds and the resilience of river flows,” says Alexander Funk, Director of Water Resources, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “The Cooperative Conservation Alternative sets out a holistic approach to move beyond managing for immediate challenges, such as the existing hydrologic imbalance and declining water supplies, while also acknowledging the need to ensure new operational guidelines integrate opportunities for the stewardship of fish and wildlife and enhancing the overall resilience of the basin to climate change for both present and future generations.”

“We need a savings account to protect the river and ecosystems that sustain the West,” said John Berggren, Regional Policy Manager at Western Resource Advocates. “The  Cooperative Conservation Alternative creates a Conservation Reserve to do just that. The Reserve provides a framework for water to be conserved and moved throughout the Colorado River Basin – wherever it is needed most to protect river health and support system stability. This will maximize the environmental and community benefits of every drop we save.”

“The Colorado River is foundational to the American West’s culture, economy, and environment,” said Sara Porterfield, Western Water Policy Advisor at Trout Unlimited. “Cooperative Conservation provides innovative tools that can support the shift from managing crisis-to-crisis toward finding win-win solutions across sectors to safeguard the health of the Colorado River’s ecosystems, economies, and communities.”

“The innovative Cooperative Conservation Alternative broadens the conversation about future management of the Colorado River in the era of climate change, to be more inclusive of various interests, Tribes, and the environment,” says Sinjin Eberle, Southwest Communications Director with American Rivers. “Expanding the scope of how water is managed to encompass a more realistic view of all pressures on the River puts forth a new vision to sustain the Colorado River and build resilience for the communities and ecosystems that rely on it for generations to come.”  “This proposal helps move the conversation from immediate shortages to long-term resilience,” said Kevin Moran, associate vice president at Environmental Defense Fund. “From critical wildlife habitat to historic Tribal lands to growing communities, the River is a lifeline for half a continent. It’s time our management paradigm accounted for all who depend on it. Cooperative Conservation will provide a degree of much-needed certainty for all users as we head deeper into an era of profound change.”

A comprehensive overview of the Cooperative Conservation proposal can be found here.