Emerging values of the Colorado River Delta

Posted October 4th, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Scenarios of the future

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One of the projects that has kept me busy over the past several months is a case study conducted by the Sonoran Institute in collaboration with Island Press – and myself as a consultant, entitled Ecosystem Changes and Water Policy Choices: Four Scenarios for the Lower Colorado River Basin to 2050. The scenarios, which are based on the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) framework, explore the consequences of different kinds of water policy choices for the river’s Delta, and for human well-being. Given the broad scope of the MA, and my previous work on that and on the general subject of ecosystem services, my role was primarily to develop the conceptual framework, narrowing it down to something we could actually do that would be worthwhile, given time and budget constraints. As for the Colorado River, it was somewhat of a learning experience for me – but Mark Lellouch and Karen Hyun did an amazing job of bringing together the relevant information for this complex case and in developing most of the narrative of the scenarios. I urge you to read the more complete versions in the full report rather than in the summary version. There is also a press release here, and an article about it in the LA Times here. There was an interesting response to the Dry Future scenario when it was presented at a recent conference but first a brief overview.

But for leaks and occasional overflows in the plumbing of the Colorado River that has made it possible to irrigate 3.5 million acres, and for now 30 million people to live in a dry and largely desert region, and which would otherwise divert every last drop of water, it would be difficult to distinguish the Delta from the surrounding Sonoran desert. Given the context of what we now know to be regularly occurring long term drought in the western US, exacerbated by climate change and the water demands of an exploding population, efforts to restore the Colorado River Delta might seem like a “faith-based initiative.” However, even though in Mexico, the Delta is no longer in a collective blind spot where any water that reaches it is regarded as waste, At a conference I attended last March at the University of Utah Stegner Center, even Pat Mulroy, commonly referred to as the Las Vegas Water Czar, acknowledged the need to ensure water for the Delta.

Although reduced to 8% of its original size, the Delta remains an interacting mosaic of terrestrial, wetland, freshwater and marine habitats that support high productivity in the Sea of Cortez, and high concentrations of fish and wildlife that include numerous endemic species of fish, and over 360 species of birds, including many migratory ones for whom it is a stop along the Pacific flyway, and the largest known concentration of the endangered Yuma clapper rail. It is used for shelter and feeding by over 350,000 shorebirds that represent over 50% of all bird species in North America, and is likely important also to the endangered totoaba fish and vaquita porpoise populations that inhabit the upper Gulf of California. Last but not least, it supports livelihoods and ways of life valued by local communities, many indigenous to the region, as well as recreation and tourism. Proposals to increase the supply of water for agriculture and urban growth through repairs in the plumbing would come at the expense of the Delta and would do little to do little to resolve growing conflicts over what has become a diminishing supply of water. In addition to altering precipitation patterns, climate change also increases rates of evaporation.

In the scenarios, this kind of a business-as-usual approach, with an emphasis on continuing to develop new supplies of water, leads to a Dry Future – a scenario in which there are few choices left to be made, and those few remaining are ones that no one would be likely to choose for themselves. The other three scenarios are somewhat more optimistic but depend on whether we actually make choices, now, and are willing to pay the cost using various kinds of economic instruments that also create incentives for conservation. Survival of the Delta, unlikely if The Market Rules, will depend on whether lessons are learned from past mistakes. As we see in Powell’s Prophecy, this (in part) long anticipated situation should not come as a surprise to anyone. Finally, the improbable but not impossible scenario, that enough water is allocated to achieve a functioning Delta and Estuary Once More, is made possible by fundamental changes in beliefs and values that occurred following a series of crises in the early 21st century, which led to a recognition that ecosystems are the foundation of human security and freedom, and is helped along by a Supreme Court decision that requires protection of the endangered vaquita porpoise in extra-territorial waters of the upper Gulf of California.

These scenarios, which represent different values and beliefs about the future, are not a road map – which would require much more extensive research and analysis, but simply pull together much of the known information into a narrative form that is intended to illustrate trade-offs and what choices remain available, so as to engage stakeholders in a discussion of the future they desire for the Basin, and of what trade-offs they are willing to make. Indeed, when Mark Lellouch presented the Dry Future scenario at a recent conference, which directly addressed the theme of a session entitled “The Southwest at 50 M People; the Colorado River at 10 maf (million acre feet): What If?” – it did indeed generate audience discussion. But although these figures are well within accepted scientific estimates of population growth and reduction of flow associated with climate change, other panelists did not accept the premise inherent in the title of the session. Instead, they argued that shortages could be addressed through various kinds of market mechanisms, interstate storage and transfers, and technical measures such as desalinization, which can, in theory, provide an unlimited supply of water.

In practice, although desalinization and other technical measures do provide options, given their costs, our scenarios find it unlikely that they would help ensure water for the Delta. They would also do little to address quality of life in the region, which does not rely on water alone. In the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment framework, and as pointed out by the Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen, the most basic aspect of human well-being is to have freedom of choice and action as to how other kinds of needs are met (i.e., the ability to earn a livelihood, to maintain good health and social relations, and to be secure). It remains to be seen whether we have the capacity to make such choices. As Bob Adler also points out in his book, Restoring Colorado River Ecosystems: A Troubled Sense of Immensity, restoration of a river system such as the Colorado is first and foremost about “restoring the process by which difficult, value-laden choices are made.”

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