Colorado Basin Institutions

Solving the Colorado River’s supply-demand imbalance is easy. There are lots of ways to do it.

  • stop farming the Imperial Valley
  • get rid of all those Phoenix lawns
  • get rid of Phoenix!
  • give all the water to the Indians (they were here first, after all) and let them parcel it out
  • Solar powered desal!

OK, it’s a silly list. But the point is that in mathematical terms, there are a lot of different ways of balancing the books. All involve sacrifice and, as OtPR likes to point out in a similar discussion to our west, “This debate, over where the next century’s water should be allocated has genuine winners and losers.” But given that the water is finite and demand is outstripping supply, we will end up with some combination of the diverse list of options for closing the supply demand gap now being discussed in the Bureau of Reclamation’s Basin Study. There’s only so much water. To borrow Stein’s law, if something cannot go on forever, it will stop.

The real question for me is what the process of stopping will look like. As a journalist, I’m all about process. One clear path forward is litigation, but I get a clear sense from my conversations with Basin water types that no one wants to go that route because of the enormous downside risk. So the alternative is some sort of process aimed at determining, insofar as the current allocation rules are insufficient, who gets how much of the shrinking pie.

That’s why the new Carpe Diem West Governing Like a River Basin report was so interesting to me, and I hope everyone interested in Colorado River Basin issues reads it. It sketches out a number of different models by which other transboundary water issues are handled, from modest and loose to prescriptive and binding:

  • Voluntary networks and linked dialogues
  • Regional goal-setting collaborative entities
  • Advisory groups with appointed stakeholder representatives
  • Regional governance authorities

For each type, the report offers a case study of how it’s been used in North America. They’re worth a read. Some good ideas therein. It’s clear that something along the lines of what’s being discussed is needed.

But what remains, and is unanswered in the report, is the meta-process question. By what process involving the existing institutions we’ve got will some sort of solutions-oriented new process arise?

Dunno. Maybe we’ll end up in court. Or we could just abandon Phoenix. (I kid, and I have apparently written this post before.)


  1. David – Thanks, but you’re just another bullet point on my list. What is the governance process by which we’ll collectively decide, “Yup, David’s awesomely smart ideas can save us!”?

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