Putting the water back

Laura Paskus on an encounter with Jennifer Pitt in the Colorado River Delta:

Walking through the cottonwood forest, Pitt says this landscape was destroyed before anyone figured out what to do about it. When the Colorado River started running dry in the mid-20th century, there weren’t yet environmental laws to temper or stop destructive operations or policies.

“We didn’t have a regulatory framework, we didn’t have courts, and we didn’t have any leverage,” Pitt says. “We figured that out at some point in the mid-2000s and figured out that as a conservation advocacy community our path forward had to be collaboration and cooperation. We had no choice….”

“The perspective on rivers that has allowed us, as a society, to manage them unsustainably—where our demands exceed supply, which has devastated the health of rivers—is also set up to devastate communities,” Pitt says. Fixing rivers means stabilizing water supplies for communities, both urban and rural. As water managers and stakeholders wrangle with policy, infrastructure and water uses and rights, they can also be deliberate about healthy rivers—or, she says, “remnants” of healthy rivers.

Unlike in the past, environmentalists and community advocates aren’t always on the outside, unable to apply the brakes to destructive projects or unsustainable policies, she says. And addressing climate change offers the chance to look at things differently, too.

“All those water management systems that seemed in the past so fossilized and unable to adapt to changing social values are now having to change because of climate change and the declining supply,” Pitt says. “As they’re revisiting the policy, which will change the infrastructure, which will change how water is distributed across economies and societies—now is the time for us to be at the table, helping to find the ways to at least not lose more, and in some cases, to try and rebuild.”

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