Colorado River conference: Rare accord marks its opening

Posted: Dec 9, 2019

Despite its reputation as the “most legislated, most debated, and most litigated river in the entire world” –as Marc Reiser put it in Cadillac Desert – there was a cooperative air to the start of this year’s 2011 Clyde O. Martz Summer Conference at the University of Colorado Law School.

In their keynote talks, both Michael Connor, Commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and Pat Mulroy, General Manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority stressed the importance of having people who rely on the Colorado work together to ensure our mutual survival and prosperity. “The solutions are among the people in this room,” said Mulroy.

Mulroy added that the decisions about how the river should be allocated and managed should come from various local stakeholders. “It’s imperative to work from the ground up,” she said. Without agreement among the seven basin states, Mulroy warned of possible federal intervention. “We do not want this resolved in the halls of Congress,” she said.

In that vein, Connor pointed to H.R. 1837, a radical bill pending in Congress, involving California’s San Joaquin River. The bill would turn state water rights upside down by eliminating a century-old requirement that, when possible, the federal government should defer to state water law. The bill also threatens hard-one Endangered Species Act protections, established restoration settlements and collaborative processes. “Trampling on states’ sovereignty is not good public policy,” said Connor.

‘Flexibility’ is another imperative that was highlighted time and again in the first days of the conference. Mulroy attributed some of the successes in river management thus far to abandoning competition for the resource, to a loosening of grip on Colorado River water in southern Nevada and beyond. “If we got something, it’s because we gave something,” she said. Seeing water players in other basin states as equals is as important. “They weren’t monsters, ogres, villains, thieves, child molesters in other states,” said Mulroy, they were just people trying to do right by their constituents.

Despite the optimistic, collaborative vibe, there were sobering notes as well. While high snowpack and run-off this season have offered a brief reprieve from a decade of drought, “our precarious balance is going to get worse with climate change,” said Michael Connor. “The challenges ahead are breathtaking in scope.”

Pat Mulroy looked to a future in which our children, greatly impacted by the effects of climate change, have to search for food and water. “This is the next generation,” she said, not that that far down the road. “This isn’t about growing economies, this is about survival,” said Mulroy, “Failure is not an option.”

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