Watershed Resilience through Restraint, Recovery and Reverence

A little more than a century ago, modern society’s first plan for the Colorado River watershed took shape. Its focus, move the river’s contents to those who might use it.

Though opportunities for hydropower generation, recreation and environmental mitigation have since factored into Colorado River management, storing and distributing surface water retains primacy.

Such emphasis, however, has failed to ensure water security for the 40 million people now reliant upon the Colorado, and has allowed other river management challenges to fester unattended in the background.

Meanwhile, the advancing Anthropocene, particularly climate change impacts, is compounding the complexity and risks to this human-ecological system in ways unimaginable to the architects of the Colorado River management blueprints we continue to follow.

This systemic rigidity, increasingly runs counter to what nature, indigenous knowledge, western science and even river management textbooks make clear.

We need to concentrate less on the water flowing from the end of the pipe and embrace the entire path river system: from headwaters to delta and the communities between.

So it’s time to transition Colorado River management from its two-dimensional plumbing roots, to better incorporate all the processes water influences within the three-dimensional ecosystem upon which this society depends.

Recipe for Resilience

We believe that developing resilience in this situation depends far more on societal values than it does technical solutions or even resources. While water development may have been the core value that shaped this society, those that will deliver resilience are:


More Colorado River water has been given away on paper than the river provides, and climate change exacerbates this imbalance. Groundwater too is withdrawn at a rate in excess of recharge. Moreover, water use facilitates the consumption of other resources in limited supply, as well as enables the unsustainable development of resources like tar sands and oil shale. Emphasis must be placed not on expanding or augmenting this system, but how to thrive within natural bounds of our ecosystem.


We’re on unstable footing in most aspect of Colorado River management. Ecosystems are deteriorating under the current management paradigm.  Physical infrastructure as well as water and land-use polices require revaluation and rebuilding to ensure they are well matched for the challenges ahead.  Reversing the negative impacts of management practices on critical habitat and realizing a just distribution of water for the tribes of the Colorado must become a priority in our progress towards recovery.


Appreciation must be given for the intrinsic and physical value this watershed represents to humankind. Respect must be shown to one another through assuring equity and justice in how the basin’s resources are managed both now and for future generations. All other species with whom we share this basin too must be held in high regard. For this is the Colorado River, unique the world over, deserving of a management approach equivalent to its grandeur.

How Do We Get There?

If one devotes enough time floating the Colorado and traversing the landscape beyond its banks, the pathways toward restored balance to this treasured human-ecological system are quite clear.

Tinkering around the edges of the 19th century ideas that created this system are insufficient to meet 21st century challenges. While there’s no shortage of disagreement about present day management details, there’s growing convergence around a vision of using less, yet having more.

We in this connected Colorado River work to facilitate opportunities where consensus toward a long-term vision, and the constraints and opportunities that frame it, can begin to inform the more immediate polices guiding Colorado River management. We strive for inclusion of indigenous peoples of the basin, the science community, and more women into this important and evolving conversation. We endeavor to expand this conversation from allocating the water in the river toward stewarding the entirety of the watershed that bounds it.