29 March 2024

The Cooperative Conservation Alternative

Cooperative Conservation Alternative for Post-2026 Colorado River Guidelines

Conservation groups within Water for Colorado submitted the Cooperative Conservation Alternative to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) to protect the Colorado River — the nation’s most endangered river — after current management guidelines expire in 2026. 

Based on lessons learned in operation of the 2007 Interim Guidelines (in place currently), a deep understanding of basin system dynamics, and a commitment to collaborative, equitable water management, the conservation organizations developed a shared recommendation for strategies needed to address current limitations in Colorado River operations.

Aerial view of Reflection Canyon, Glen Canyon, Lake Powell. Credit: Justin Reznick

The conservation groups’ Alternative expands the range of options for BOR to consider. Recognizing a healthy Colorado River forms the foundation of the entire region, the Cooperative Conservation Alternative provides a roadmap for sustaining water supplies for people and ecosystems throughout the Colorado River Basin. Top priorities include: 

  • Stabilizing water storage and avoiding crisis management,
  • Making mitigation and environmental stewardship part of the future operations,
  • Creating a Conservation Reserve to incentivize water conservation, stabilize the system, and protect river health,
  • Preserving opportunities to protect the Cienega de Santa Clara, flows to the Colorado River Delta, and connectivity of the Colorado River’s habitat,
  • Pursuing parallel resilience building processes to adapt to changing conditions.

Current guidelines governing management of the Colorado River reservoir system have proven insufficient at preventing plummeting water levels from threatening the long-term water security of more than 35 million people. The Alternative arrives on the heels of separate submissions from Upper Division (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico) and Lower Division states (California, Arizona, and Nevada),  both of which propose different options for managing the nation’s two largest reservoirs amid historic drought and worsening climate change. In the coming months, BOR will evaluate the proposals to identify the reasonable range of alternatives it will analyze in a draft environmental impact statement (EIS), to be finalized later this year.

Dive Deeper

Learn more by reading our one pagers on the Cooperative Conservation Alternative

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Cooperative Conservation Alternative?

Cooperative Conservation is a full proposal for how the Bureau of Reclamation can take action to manage the Colorado River reservoirs to balance the needs of human and natural systems under the shadow of climate change and increasing water scarcity. It integrates science, stakeholder interests, and environmental stewardship into Colorado River management, and offers a set of comprehensive operational strategies intended to help maintain the integrity of Basin ecosystems, while working to support resilient communities, Tribal nations, businesses and agriculture.

What strategies does the conservation groups’ alternative propose for the BOR to consider?

Core elements of the Cooperative Conservation Alternative include: Dual Indicator Operations, opportunities for management through stewardship targets and mitigation goals, opportunities for Colorado River Delta Flows, and a Conservation Reserve tool. We encourage you to explore our one-pagers and read the proposal itself for a deeper dive into these ideas.

What does the Alternative actually do?

It proposes a holistic approach to operating Lakes Powell and Mead in a manner that integrates scientific insight, stakeholder inclusivity, and environmental stewardship. It broadens the range of alternatives that Reclamation will consider to go beyond management for distributing water between the basins, and offers a framework for optimizing every drop of the Colorado River to better ensure it can remain a life-sustaining resource going forward. It calls for assessing the health of system storage and sufficient impact analyses. It outlines a regime for rebuilding storage, and introduces an innovative tool – Conservation Reserve tool. Importantly, it also keeps options open for reaching future agreements with Mexico and with Basin Tribes.

What does it NOT do?

It does not suggest how shortages should be absorbed within the Basin, and it does not lock in Powell operations for implementing the Long-Term Experimental Program or other programs going forwards. In proposing to assess the health of the System’s reservoirs, the Alternative also does not mean to suggest or imply that water from the Upper CRSP Units should be moved prematurely to Powell or lower to address water demands in the Lower Basin.

What happens now?

BOR will take the proposals submitted in March/early April to develop a reasonable range of reservoir management actions to analyze in a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) to be completed later this year. As part of their Cooperative Conservation Alternative, the joint groups stressed the importance of recognizing that reasonable compromises from all parties will be required to arrive at a meaningful path forward, and expressed their ongoing interest in engaging with Reclamation, the Basin States and Tribes, and stakeholders to ensure the Basin’s resources are secured for the benefit of people and natural ecosystems for both current and future generations.

Who proposed the Cooperative Conservation Alternative to be considered as part of the Bureau of Reclamation’s NEPA process for developing post-2026 Colorado River Guideline Operations and Strategies?

The Cooperative Conservation Alternative is based on the collective efforts of Colorado River specialists from American Rivers, Environmental Defense Fund, National Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Trout Unlimited, and Western Resource Advocates.

Does Cooperative Conservation propose reservoir operations from Lake Powell and Lake Mead that prioritize natural systems and the environment over the needs of people in the Basin?

No, Cooperative Conservation provides an innovative, comprehensive strategy aimed at addressing the pressing and evolving challenges facing the Colorado River Basin, its ecosystems, and the diverse community of sovereigns and stakeholders who rely on its resources. It is intended to propose operations to broaden the conversations regarding solutions to ensure the integrity of Basin’s natural systems are considered while working to support resilient communities, Tribal nations, businesses and agriculture.

Does Cooperative Conservation propose to rely on storage from the upper Initial Units of the Colorado River Storage Project Act (Flaming Gorge, Navajo, and Blue Mesa) to help supply water users in the Lower Basin?

Short answer – No.

Nothing in the Cooperative Conservation proposal is intended to suggest that CRSP Initial Units should be used to supply water for Lower Basin uses. Rather, Cooperative Conservation proposes to look at available storage within the Colorado River system reservoirs as an indicator of the system’s health to help inform what should be considered a reasonable release from Lake Powell or delivery from Lake Mead.

By assessing the health of relevant system storage to inform operations of Powell and Mead, the Colorado River community can:
(a) avoid concern over where water is stored that has led to disagreement
(b) move away from the tier/cliff operations of the present guidelines that lead to striving to hover slightly above the next tier.
(c) open the door for greater flexibility and adaptability in reservoir management
(d) help the Colorado River community anticipate what to expect for operational conditions at Powell and Mead for upcoming years i.e., serve as an indicator of how the facilities can be expected to operate in future years

While Powell and Mead are undeniably the primary drivers of the Colorado River reservoir system, conditions at these other system reservoirs (as well as Lakes Mead, Havasu, and Mohave in the Lower Basin) help anticipate the health of the system for the current and future year. For example, if Mother Nature has reduced precipitation/hydrology enough in a given year or series of years that reservoir supplies at an upper CRSP Initial Unit does not reach a “normal” range of storage in that year (or years), the release from that facility during the normal course of operations is likely to be lower than otherwise assumed and the inflow to Lake Powell as a result will be less as well. Cooperative Conservation proposes that releases out of Powell should anticipate that reality instead of having to absorb it. In this way, the reservoir operations are doing more than reacting to conditions as they arise, but proactively preparing for the likely trend to expect in the current and future year.

Does Cooperative Conservation propose curtailment of or reductions to water uses within the Upper Basin?

For modeling purposes only, the Cooperative Conservation proposes for Reclamation to evaluate under its post-2026 NEPA process annual reductions within the Basin of up to 5 maf to expand the range of impacts considered under a wider range of hydrologic conditions.

Except for the first 1.5 maf, which is applied to Lower Basin uses in line with other proposed alternatives, Cooperative Conservation does not assign who or how remaining supply reductions should be absorbed. This is because Cooperative Conservation recognizes that changes to reservoir release regimes at Lakes Powell and Mead implicate the rights and authorities of federal, state and Tribal entities as well as stakeholders throughout the Basin, and that ongoing negotiation and discussions will be essential to best inform how reduced supplies should be applied within the Basin. The Conservation Groups who proposed Cooperative Conservation look forward to working with Reclamation and others to identify what scenario(s) would be most useful to fully inform the post-2026 NEPA analysis going forward. Regardless of the scenario(s) that are ultimately adopted, this Alternative is only intended to provide Reclamation additional options for broadening the range of the post-2026 EIS analysis and is NOT an expression of opinion as to the reasonableness of any proposed alternatives that have been submitted at this time.

Would water stored and released within the Conservation Reserve impact Upper Basin interests?

Water created and stored in the Conservation Reserve would be invisible when evaluating conditions to inform what Lake Powell annual system releases should be from year to year. The conserved water would have to be verified and accounted for throughout its time in the Conservation Reserve and would be subject to evaporation/system assessment and spill. When a water user asks to withdraw its conserved water from the Conservation Reserve, such withdrawal would be subject to any discounts made for evaporation/system assessment and spill and distinct from the annual release volumes for system water from Lake Powell. With these criteria, the point would be to make sure the Conservation Reserve does not interfere with or affect Upper Basin interests.

If the Upper Division decides to participate in the Conservation Reserve, the tool could be expanded to meet the goals and interests as identified in the Upper Division at a later date.

Why are releases through the Colorado River Delta flows in Mexico considered as part of the Cooperative Conservation proposal?

Although Mexico’s participation is essential to effective Colorado River management, the process for developing the post-2026 Guideline Operations and Strategies is separate from binational collaboration through Treaty Minute negotiations. To avoid precluding opportunities to achieve useful binational agreement, Cooperative Conservation proposes Delta Flow releases for EIS modeling considerations consistent with existing Colorado River binational frameworks between the U.S. and Mexico.

How do parallel programs, processes and actions fit in the Cooperative Conservation Alternative?

The post-2026 Guidelines are essential to helping the Colorado River community proactively manage water supplies, but they are only a piece of a comprehensive puzzle that is needed to increase resilience and adapt the Colorado River Basin to uncertain future conditions.

Improving the resilience of the CR system will require all sectors and landscapes. It must look to protecting and restoring forests, headwater streams and water dependent habitats. It also requires adapting agriculture to a hotter and drier future by improving practices, updating infrastructure and identifying opportunities for water-saving crops. It will also require water conservation and efficiency by urban, industrial sectors in addition to the agricultural sector. To achieve this and provide the stability needed, the CR Basin requires long-term, coordinated, and targeted actions to mitigate natural hazards, improve resilience, and combat the urgent, broad, and diverse challenges facing the Basin.

Cooperative Conservation calls for Reclamation to prepare a meaningful environmental impact statement that informs the Colorado River community on the appropriate measures to pursue in parallel to the Guidelines to prepare the Basin going forward.

Photo Credits: 

Topper Image — Russ Schnitzer

Management Through Stewardship Targets — Sinjin Eberle

Mitigation Goals as a Cornerstone of Post-2026 Guidelines — Abby Burk

The Conservation Reserve Tool — Justin Reznick

Maintaining Opportunities for Colorado River Delta Flows — Sinjin Eberle