Forging New Partnerships to Protect America’s ‘Hardest-Working River’


Forging New Partnerships to Protect America’s ‘Hardest-Working River’

Ted Kowalski

Senior Environment Program Officer

The Colorado River is known as America’s hardest working river for good reasons.

It is the source of drinking water for more than 36 million people. It irrigates 5.7 million acres of farmland, representing 15% of all U.S. crops. It sustains 234,000 jobs and a $26 billion recreation economy.

The problem today is that demand for the Colorado River’s water has surpassed the supply. A growing population, combined with warmer and drier conditions linked to climate change, mean that we need new and creative solutions for water management.

The good news is that there is a shared sense of urgency – among the seven river basin states, local communities, tribal governments, the federal governments of the United States and Mexico, and conservation groups – to tackle the myriad challenges facing the river. This week, the Walton Family Foundation was proud to join the Gila River Indian Community, the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the City of Phoenix to pledge to proactively work together to conserve water to provide greater water security for Arizona’s more than 6 million residents and businesses.

This agreement to develop conservation solutions builds on the creativity and leadership that was demonstrated by the Colorado River Water Conservation District, the Bureau of Reclamation and others, who stood up the System Conservation Pilot Program a couple of years ago. This program allows water users to temporarily, voluntarily and in a compensated manner conserve water for the benefit the system, and we are proud to support the future of this type of program.

“Solving our most difficult long-term water challenges like the over-allocation of Colorado River water will require innovation and collaboration,” said Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton. “We are embarking on a creative new way for the Gila River Indian Community, Phoenix and others to help build drought resiliency together to protect the Colorado and Lake Mead for the long run.”

This water conservation agreement establishes a long-term partnership and is “an important step to continue cooperative efforts to help slow the falling elevations at Lake Mead,” said Gila River Governor Stephen R. Lewis.

Prior to signing the agreement, I joined our partners on a tour of the Olberg Dam Underground Storage Facility, a riparian aquifer recharge project that restores portions of the Gila River on the tribal community’s reservation and recharges the Community’s aquifer.

It was exciting to see some of the Tribe’s infrastructure, which further demonstrated to me that GRIC is both creative and a leader in the water space. It was truly impressive to see how the Tribe is working efficiently and proactively in order to manager their water resources in a sustainable manner.

“This pilot program has provided valuable information as the Community develops a permanent recharge program here and pursues recharge at other sites,” said Thomas Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

The foundation’s goal is the long-term sustainability of the Colorado River. Solutions will take cooperation, collaboration and creativity. We recognize that there are other important partners, and we intend to keep building on this collaborative approach, but this week we took another step toward these goals.

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