Dave White: My name is Dave White, and I’m a Professor in the School of Community Resources & Development at Arizona State University, and Director of the Decision Center for a Desert City.

I spent the sum­mer of 1998 raft­ing the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park, work­ing as a grad­u­ate stu­dent on a social sci­ence research project. I raft­ed more than 1,300 riv­er miles, and spent about six­ty nights sleep­ing under the most bril­liant stars imag­in­able. And this extra­or­di­nary expe­ri­ence inspired a com­mit­ment to ensure the sus­tain­abil­i­ty of per­haps the most sig­nif­i­cant nat­ur­al resource in the West, Colorado River water.

Now, riv­er rapids around the world are mea­sured on a six-point scale, with Class I being easy—little rif­fles of water and no risk. Now, Class VI are vio­lent, tur­bu­lent rapids—waterfalls real­ly, with sig­nif­i­cant risk of injury or even death, where res­cue may be impos­si­ble. Now the white­wa­ter rapids on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park are so wild that they are mea­sured on a ten-point scale. When you reach riv­er mile 179, you encounter the biggest and most fierce white­wa­ter rapid in Grand Canyon, Lava Falls. It is a ten. 

To run Lava Falls in a riv­er raft, you have to nav­i­gate a series of ter­ri­fy­ing obsta­cles. Stay to the right of the Ledge Hole!, a waterfall—really stand­ing wave, thirty-seven feet tall that can suck in the boat, toss the rafters into the water, and trap your raft in a per­ma­nent spin cycle. Now, pow­er for­ward hard and punch through the V wave! Watch out for the Cheese Grater, a huge boul­der on riv­er right. Just like that, thir­ty ter­ri­fy­ing exhil­a­rat­ing sec­onds lat­er, you’re through. What’s the reward for run­ning Lava Falls in a riv­er raft? You pull over at Tequila Beach. Celebrate. But be pre­pared to help out with the next group of rafters. 

Now some­times, of course, there is con­flict on the riv­er. Rafters dis­agree about the best path to take through the rapids. People argue about which chal­lenge is the most dan­ger­ous, or deny there’s any dan­ger at all. And some­times, after camp­ing with peo­ple for two weeks, you just don’t like each oth­er very much. Now run­ning Lava Falls takes courage. It takes skill, and expe­ri­enced lead­er­ship. And, more than any­thing it takes team­work. Your pow­er to nav­i­gate the rapids comes from every­one in the raft, pulling togeth­er in the same direc­tion at the same time, toward a com­mon purpose. 

The sto­ry of run­ning Lava Falls is the sto­ry of the Colorado River in the American West today. Right now, we are in those rel­a­tive­ly calm waters above the rapids, enjoy­ing the beau­ti­ful canyon scenery. But, now we begin to hear the omi­nous roar. In the American West we face chal­lenges man­ag­ing the Colorado River. Instead of the Ledge Hole, the Cheese Grater, or argu­ments between rafters, we face pop­u­la­tion growth, drought, cli­mate change, and con­flicts between the states. The solu­tions to these prob­lems will require courage, skilled and expe­ri­enced lead­er­ship, and collaboration. 

The Colorado River is the lifeblood of the American West. It pro­vides water to one in ten Americans across the West in cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas, Denver, and Los Angeles. Hydro pow­er plants along the riv­er pro­vide low-carbon renew­able elec­tric­i­ty. The water irri­gates mil­lions of acres of land to grow crops like alfal­fa, cot­ton, and let­tuce. The riv­er sup­ports nation­al wildlife refuges, and nation­al parks includ­ing Grand Canyon, stim­u­lat­ing over a bil­lion dol­lars in annu­al tourism rev­enue. And the riv­er is inte­gral to the his­to­ry, cul­ture, econ­o­my, of dozens of Native American tribes. 

Through a hun­dred years of col­lab­o­ra­tion, pro­duc­tive con­flict, plan­ning, and mar­vels of engi­neer­ing, we devel­oped a remark­ably robust and resilient water sys­tem that sup­port­ed eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment and pop­u­la­tion growth across the region. The sys­tem was man­aged most­ly by tech­ni­cal experts. Lawyers, politi­cians, and engineers—a group we affec­tion­ate­ly call the Water Buffaloes.” 

Now, my under­grad­u­ate degree was in American his­to­ry, so I tend to think to under­stand our cur­rent and future chal­lenges, we must look to the past. The Colorado River is man­aged through a patch­work of deci­sions, laws, and court reg­u­la­tions that are col­lec­tive­ly known as the Law of the River. These agree­ments guide the allo­ca­tion of the water between sev­en US states, and the nation of Mexico. The foun­da­tion of it all is the Colorado River Compact of 1922, which defined the rela­tion­ship between the Upper Basin states of New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado—where most of the water orig­i­nates, and the Lower Basin States of Arizona California, and Nevada, where most of the water demands were developing. 

When the states could­n’t agree on how to divide the water, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment inter­vened. The riv­er would be divid­ed equal­ly, with each basin get­ting the right to devel­op 7.5 mil­lion acre-feet of water annu­al­ly. An acre-foot is a water man­age­ment term. It’s the amount of water need­ed to flood one acre of land to the depth of one foot, or about the amount of water need­ed for two to four house­holds in the Southwest for a year. Later, anoth­er 1.5 mil­lion acre-feet was promised to Mexico. That’s 16.5 mil­lion acre-feet in annu­al allo­ca­tions. Remember that num­ber, 16.5 mil­lion acre-feet in annu­al allo­ca­tions. It will emerge fur­ther down the riv­er like a boul­der hid­den in the rapids. 

Over the next eighty years or so, we all nav­i­gat­ed the riv­er pret­ty well togeth­er. Yes there were law­suits. In 1964 the Supreme Court set­tled a twenty-five year-old dis­pute between California and Arizona, rul­ing in Arizona’s favor. Following that deci­sion, Arizona gained approval from Congress to build the Central Arizona Project canal, a $4 bil­lion aque­duct to pump Colorado River water 300 miles across the desert, uphill, from Lake Havasu City to Phoenix and down to Tucson. The CAP canal was com­plet­ed in 1985, and it sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduced Arizona’s reliance on groundwater. 

However, as part of the polit­i­cal bar­gain­ing in Congress to get the CAP canal com­plet­ed, Arizona agreed to give up all of its Colorado River water dur­ing times of severe short­age, even before California los­es a sin­gle drop. The deci­sion was crit­i­cal to keep all of the rafters pad­dling in the same direc­tion at the time. 

By the turn of the 21st cen­tu­ry some new prob­lems were emerg­ing, like flash floods alter­ing the course of the riv­er, cre­at­ing new and more treach­er­ous obsta­cles. Let’s start with the promis­es we’ve made com­pared to what the riv­er can deliv­er. Remember that num­ber? 16.5 mil­lion acre-feet in annu­al allo­ca­tions. Well, it turns out when we divid­ed up the riv­er, we based our esti­mates on an extreme­ly wet peri­od, when the ten-year aver­age was about eigh­teen mil­lion acre-feet. Well, the long-term aver­age annu­al flow is more like 14.8 mil­lion acre-feet. So we’ve promised about 1.5 mil­lion acre-feet more than the riv­er has delivered. 

That was­n’t a prob­lem for a long time since the states weren’t using all of the water that they were allo­cat­ed. And the basin-wide stor­age capac­i­ty is about six­ty mil­lion acre-feet, or four times the annu­al flow. But as states like Arizona devel­oped and began to use their full allo­ca­tion, the supply/demand bal­ance began to get tighter and tighter and tighter, like canyon walls clos­ing in on our rafts. 

Then came the drought. Since 2000, we have seen the dri­est sixteen-year peri­od in the last 100 years. And one of the dri­est peri­ods in the last thir­teen hun­dred years. The ten-year aver­age is now down to 13.4 mil­lion acre-feet. Those reser­voirs that have been so impor­tant, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, are down to about half of their capac­i­ty. Recently, we’ve seen the low­est lev­el since the dams were com­plet­ed. If those reser­voirs con­tin­ue to decline and Lake Mead reach­es a crit­i­cal thresh­old of 1,075 feet above sea lev­el, the Secretary of Interior will declare an offi­cial short­age on the riv­er. Under the rules set forth in a 2007 agree­ment between the states, Arizona los­es about 10% of its Colorado River water. If the lake drops low­er, the cuts get worse. Remember, accord­ing to the bar­gain Arizona los­es all of its allo­ca­tion before California los­es any­thing. And if the lake lev­els drop too low, the dams can’t pro­duce power. 

On top of these issues comes cli­mate change. According to the National Climate Assessment, our region will face ris­ing tem­per­a­tures, which increas­es demand. And decreas­ing pre­cip­i­ta­tion, which dimin­ish­es sup­ply. Taking all of these fac­tors into con­sid­er­a­tion, a major study con­clud­ed that with­out new inter­ven­tions, a 3.2 mil­lion acre-foot imbal­ance could exist by 2060. That’s the water need­ed to sup­ply ten mil­lion house­holds in the West. 

The rapids are roar­ing. Some of the rafters are argu­ing with one anoth­er. The riv­er guide is try­ing to keep every­one pad­dling togeth­er. How will we make it through? 

First of all we need to under­stand that the solu­tions for the next 100 years are dif­fer­ent than the solu­tions from the last cen­tu­ry. These new solu­tions are based on coop­er­a­tion, and the recog­ni­tion that the vital­i­ty of the American West depends on every­one pad­dling togeth­er. At Arizona State University, the Decision Center for a Desert City is work­ing to bring togeth­er sci­en­tists with water man­agers, pol­i­cy­mak­ers, envi­ron­men­tal­ists, farm­ers, and oth­er stake­hold­ers to coop­er­a­tive­ly devel­op the solu­tions, the knowl­edge, that we need to fos­ter sustainability. 

These solu­tions include man­ag­ing demand through smart conservation-based incen­tives: tech­nol­o­gy and pric­ing; expand­ing the reuse and recy­cling of reclaimed water; devel­op­ing cli­mate adap­ta­tion plans; and fos­ter­ing more inno­v­a­tive and adap­tive insti­tu­tions; and focus­ing our water deci­sion­mak­ing on max­i­miz­ing the eco­nom­ic and qual­i­ty of life ben­e­fits of each gal­lon of water invested. 

And there is increas­ing evi­dence that these solu­tions are work­ing. Cities across the West are becom­ing remark­ably effi­cient. The city of for Phoenix for instance has reduced its per capi­ta con­sump­tion by 30% over the last twen­ty years. This allowed the city to add over a mil­lion new res­i­dents and use the same total amount of water. In the Phoenix region, we now recy­cle almost 90% of our waste­water, and use that water for pro­duc­ing pow­er, irri­gat­ing crops, and water­ing landscapes. 

Climate plan­ning is now reg­u­lar­ly incor­po­rat­ed into water man­age­ment across the West. Federal agen­cies are learn­ing to antic­i­pate and adapt. At the Decision Center for a Desert City, we devel­oped WaterSim. We worked with stake­hold­ers to build a dynam­ic water bal­ance mod­el to explore how water sus­tain­abil­i­ty is influ­enced by var­i­ous sce­nar­ios of pop­u­la­tion growth, drought, cli­mate change impacts, and water man­age­ment deci­sions. We’re using this mod­el to test dif­fer­ent poli­cies and to encour­age collaboration. 

We’re becom­ing more inno­v­a­tive and adap­tive in our insti­tu­tions. Recently the cities of Phoenix and Tucson entered into a water-sharing agree­ment that will encour­age ground­wa­ter aquifer recharge in both areas and save the cities mil­lions of dol­lars. Along with the city of Phoenix, the Decision Center for a Desert City launched the Western Mayors Water and Climate Summit to cre­ate a net­work of cities work­ing at the cut­ting edge of sus­tain­abil­i­ty and shar­ing best prac­tices. The Bureau of Reclamation devel­oped the Pilot System Conservation Program to encour­age water con­ser­va­tion across the basin, unleash­ing the pow­er of inno­va­tion and entrepreneurship. 

And the states are not wait­ing for a dec­la­ra­tion of short­age to occur. The lead­ers of the states of Arizona, California, and Nevada are work­ing right now to nego­ti­ate a vol­un­tary cur­tail­ment in advance of any fed­er­al dec­la­ra­tion, to ensure that we can main­tain water in the basin and keep those lake lev­els above the crit­i­cal thresh­olds. This is bold lead­er­ship, and the states deserve cred­it for engag­ing in these delib­er­a­tions ahead of the cri­sis. California has even agreed to take cut­backs in their deliv­er­ies to avoid that big boul­der in the mid­dle of the river. 

Courage, lead­er­ship, team­work. These are the qual­i­ties that it takes to run Lava Falls in a riv­er raft, and these are the same qual­i­ties that it will take to solve our sus­tain­abil­i­ty chal­lenges in the Colorado River Basin. We’ve made it through some big rapids in the past. But the biggest tests are yet to come. Let’s all pull togeth­er, dig those pad­dles into the water, and have some fun along the way. Thank you.