Opinion: Federal agencies, White House can transcend politics and work together for optimum Colorado River basin drought response

By Guest Author

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By Dave White and Bruce Knight

Stretching from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California, the Colorado River extends 1,400 miles across seven states and Mexico (or should when it isn't running dry). Nearly 40 million Americans rely on the Colorado River system for drinking water and to support livelihoods ranging from farming to industry to recreation. The importance of the Colorado River cannot be overstated; it is the heart of the southwestern United States. 

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The Basin's long-term drought, combined with increasing water use, has deeply affected the natural environment. Simply put, too much water is being diverted from the river. There is not enough water to meet human, ecosystem, and wildlife needs. 

The recently released White House Drought Resilience Plan provides some much needed guidance. The report outlines a host of long-term solutions, and also points out areas where we can immediately start work on mitigating the effects of the drought with the tools and programs we have at hand. Collaborating across Federal agencies is an excellent place to start. 

Thanks to bipartisan Congressional support, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) operates the most effective and well-funded on-farm conservation programs in the country. Programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program help farmers deploy more efficient irrigation practices while the Regional Conservation Partnership Program has the unique ability to look at watershed-scale resource concerns and engage partners to implement conservation practices to solve them. 

Within the Department of Interior, the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) operates two highly effective programs -- WaterSMART and Conservation Systems - which provide matching grants to allow communities to vastly improve the efficiencies of water delivery systems. 

What's needed now is for both NRCS and the BOR to act on the White House plan and develop a holistic and collaborative strategy to address resource concerns throughout the Colorado River Basin. 

There are examples of past success. NRCS was the catalyst behind the federal-state-landowner effort to restore and protect sage grouse habitat; an effort that was so successful that it resulted in the decision not to list the species under the Endangered Species Act. There is a rich history of cooperation between the agencies in dealing with salinity in the Colorado River issues and in carrying out the Snow Survey, but more is needed. 

Both the NRCS and the BOR are already heavily engaged in drought response efforts in the Colorado River Basin and the synergies gained by increasing the cooperation would be enormous. With a focus on improved water management, the Bureau could target its resources to improving critical irrigation delivery systems while the NRCS focuses on working with landowners to install on-farm water conservation and efficiency practices. Together, the water savings would be immense, benefiting in-stream flows, wildlife, and downstream water users. 

Developing a joint strategy would also serve to establish a long-term framework for improved water management throughout the Colorado River Basin and lay the groundwork for additional collaborative projects in the future. 

As former Chiefs of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, under both Democratic and Republican Presidents, we believe that developing an effective response to drought in the Colorado River Basin transcends politics and is vitally necessary for the health of all who live in this incredible landscape. It's time to cross the Department lines and work together to benefit not only the people who live within the Colorado River Basin, but also its wildlife and the ecosystems upon which we all depend. 

Dave White, Co-Founder and Partner, the 9b Group; Former Chief, Natural Resources Conservation Service (2009-2012)

Bruce Knight, Principal and Founder, Strategic Conservation Solutions; Former Chief, Natural Resources Conservation Service (2002-2006)

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