The shortcomings of the Colorado train wreck metaphor

Hannah Holm of Colorado Mesa University had a good piece earlier this month in the Grand Junction Free Press outlining the future risks facing Colorado River water users and managers:

A heavy train is moving at 5 miles per hour toward… a cliff? A collision? And how far away might this unknown calamity be?

These were the images and questions I was left with at the Upper Colorado River Basin Water Conference hosted by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University Nov. 8-9. I deeply appreciate the fact that our presenters used such colorful language!

The heavy train is our collective use of Colorado River water, and the calamity we are facing is our potential inability to balance supply and demand in an orderly way. According to a nearly complete study on Colorado River Basin water supply and demand coordinated by the US Bureau of Reclamation, we’ve passed the point where use of the basin’s water resources exceeds the quantity provided by Mother Nature. The fact that the train wreck isn’t here yet is because of big reservoirs that store water from year to year. Climate change shows no sign of helping: The mean of all the models used in the bureau study indicates higher variability from year to year and a decline in average natural flows at Lee Ferry of 9% by 2060.

Holm’s summary of the issues is spot on. But the train wreck/cliff metaphor seems wrong to me, in ways that I fear are skewing the basin water policy and politics discussion. The train wreck or cliff metaphor suggests that the problem manifests itself as an abrupt calamity – from her lumbering 5 miles per hour to full stop crash (or over the cliff). But the nature of the problem, and therefore the needed discussion about potential solutions, is not like that.

We will not go from full water supplies, which everyone largely receives now, to zero in an instant. We will go from full water supplies to less-than-full water supplies. The policy approach to avoiding a crash is different from the policy approach to preparing for the allocation of growing shortage/shrinking supply.


  1. I think I kind-of agree with you on the problem with characterizing the Colorado River Basin issue as a “train wreck.” However, the part that stands out most to me is in Ms. Holm’s statement “…the calamity we are facing is our potential inability to balance supply and demand in an orderly way.” (emphasis mine) This inability is not a potential issue, it’s what has been happening for decades. Such balance is not a new problem, it has been the main problem ever since people moved into the CRB and their demand first exceeded the natural supply. It is why the system of CRB dams and reservoirs were built in the first place. Characterizing the issue in that way seems to ignore all of the historical sources of such problems and assumes that the institutionalization of such practices could not be avoided. We can’t (or don’t seem to want to) throw out those institutions and just start over, so the problem becomes one of nudging those institutions (including the USBR and affiliated agencies, and residents and water users, throughout the Southwest) toward better practices. A “train wreck” still seems an appropriate metaphor if the train is speeding up and there’s a curve up ahead, and if the train can’t make the curve without jumping the track, it won’t be saved from the cliff that the curve approaches. Still a bit of a stretch, I know…

  2. Pingback: Another Week of GW News, December 2, 2012 – A Few Things Ill Considered

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