Governance successes and challenges along the Colorado River – Lucas Isakowitz

The Colorado River runs almost 1,500 miles, from the cold Rocky Mountains down to the dry Sonoran desert. Throughout this journey, the river passes through 2 countries and 7 states, providing food and water for some 40 million people. This summer I got to know the river intimately, through the work of The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River Program. My work focused on researching governance and finance models to help keep the river healthy, for both the humans and environmental concerns that rely on the river; I traveled around the headwaters of the river in Colorado, and then went down to its terminus in the Gulf of California. Throughout the summer I wrote several stories that highlighted the conservation successes for the Colorado River, as well as challenges and weak points that could be improved. Overall, this work gave me a grasp of the difficulty involved in governing such a complex system; but the experience also showed me that through the work of institutions, forward thinking policy, sound science and citizen engagement, sustainable management is achievable. 

Below are some of the stories that I produced this summer, highlighting the success stories and challenges along the Colorado River.

(Sprinkler irrigation on hay fields in Western Colorado. Photo credit: Lucas Isakowitz)

How to Save the Colorado River from Climate Change and Chronic Overuse” – September 2019, Time Magazine. This article explores the challenges and promises of a pilot program that aims to pay farmers in Western Colorado for their water, allowing them to forgo farming and increasing the amount of freshwater that stays in the river for downstream users.

(The upper estuary of the Colorado River hasn’t consistently received freshwater in 60 years. Photo credit: Lucas Isakowitz) 

The Death and Rebirth of the Colorado River Delta – July 2019. 25% of all rivers don’t reach the ocean. The Colorado River is one such river. It can be hard to really digest what this means – but this summer I had the chance to see the Colorado River estuary, and understand what happens when a river no longer reaches the ocean. This StoryMap details the governance, finance and societal work that The Nature Conservancy (along with a coalition of environmental partners) is doing to secure increased fresh water flows to the parched Colorado River estuary.

(The Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program is an innovative management program that has helped protect the river for the past 30 years – Photo credit: TNC).

The Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program – August 2019. This short writeup explores how a fish recovery program (backed by a legal mechanism) can be the driving force behind keeping the river safe, both for humans and fish. The Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program has worked behind the scenes for the past 30 years to help keep water users along the upper basin compliant with the Endangered Species Act. Established in 1988 and managed jointly by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the program’s goal is to achieve full recovery of the four federally listed endangered fish species in the upper basin: humpback chub, bonytail, Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker. Through the program, more than 1,000 miles of critical habitat has been protected, but also more than 2,500 water projects depleting 3.7+ million acre-feet per year have been allowed, keeping water in the river.