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Will Sarni, February 4 2021

The Colorado River Basin: Hope is not a Strategy

Innovation in public policy, technology, business models and partnerships have not kept pace with the impacts of climate change on the Colorado River Basin. The Colorado River Basin is now in the throes of the impact of “aridification” while the demand for water from urban, agriculture and industrial uses has increased. The significance of the impact on the economic, environmental and social value of the Colorado River Basin can’t be overstated.  

The Colorado River supports $1.4 trillion in annual economic activity and 16 million jobs in California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming which is equivalent to about 1/12 of the total gross domestic product in the U.S. It is estimated that if 10 percent of the river's water were unavailable (a decline quite possible under projected climate change scenarios of 10 to 30 percent flow reductions by 2050) there would be a loss of $143 billion in economic activity and 1.6 million jobs, in just one year.

“While we can hope for a return to normal precipitation or a rapid change in public policy to align demand with realistic supplies, neither will be likely.”

The Colorado River basin supplies more than 1 in 10 Americans with some, if not all, of their water for municipal use, including drinking water. The Basin provides irrigation to more than 5.5 million acres of land and is essential as a physical, economic and cultural resource to at least 22 federally recognized tribes. In addition, dams across the Colorado River Basin support 4,200 megawatts of electrical generating capacity, providing power to millions of people and some of the U.S.'s largest cities.

We have arrived at this point where we are facing an additional twenty percent decline in water flow by 2050 and the potential decline of thirty five percent by the end of this century.

While we can hope for a return to normal precipitation or a rapid change in public policy to align demand with realistic supplies, neither will be likely.  

Instead, we need an innovative path forward driven by mobilizing capital to invest in innovative technologies and business models supported by new public – private – non-governmental organization (NGO) partnerships and cross industry sector collaboration.  

All of this must happen at speed and a bias for action.  Innovation in public policy will follow and deliver large scale solutions to ensuring there is adequate water for economic development, business growth, social well-being and ecosystem health.  

The time is now for innovation.

Written by

Will Sarni