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Press Release: First-Ever Colorado River Basin Tier 1 Shortage Shows Need for Greater Resilience to Climate Change

Aug 16, 2021

Denver, CO — Today, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation declared the first-ever Tier 1 shortage in the Colorado River Basin, triggering mandatory water curtailments on top of the voluntary ones in the Drought Contingency Plans (DCPs) throughout the Lower Basin and illustrating the severity of the climate crisis in the West. 
In response to the declaration, the Water for Colorado Coalition released the following statement:
“This historic declaration is one of many firsts we’ve seen in the Colorado River Basin this year, and is indicative of the dire impact drought and climate change are having on our rivers and water supplies. The need for increased resilience to heat, fire, baked soils and reduced river flows is not hypothetical — without urgent action, our watersheds, communities, and economy will continue to experience devastating impacts.
“Colorado and its fellow Basin states cannot rely on one-time lifelines or last-ditch emergency responses to our long-term water challenges, but rather must develop and implement collaborative solutions from the headwaters right here in the Rocky Mountains throughout the entire Basin. By doing so, we can increase urban and agricultural water efficiency, conservation and reuse, while also improving forest and watershed health, which will allow us to build resilience for people, fish and wildlife as the region adapts to this new, abnormal reality.”
The Tier 1 shortage declaration comes on the heels of several other emergency actions within the Colorado River Basin this year, including the release of water from three reservoirs along the Colorado River system — Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa, and Navajo — this summer and into the fall to maintain water levels in Lake Powell and related hydropower at Glen Canyon Dam. It also is reflective of a larger pattern of climate-related impacts on Colorado and western water, demonstrated below:
  • Nearly nonexistent flows this summer in the Dolores River meant those who rely on this water for crop production received only 5-10% of their usual allocation this year. Extremely low flows that caused a massive fish die off have also led to voluntary fishing moratoria in the area, affecting the local river-related recreation economy, which generates as much at $711 million a year in the San Juan, Dolores, and San Miguel basins.
  • Low flows and high air temperatures in the Yampa River have spiked water temperatures to as high as 75 degrees this summer, causing voluntary and commercial closures of the river. This significantly impacts the local economy that relies on rafting, fishing, and other river-related recreation for as much as $425 million in annual output.
  • Devastating mudslides and flash floods from burn scars and dry soils, including a mudslide along I-70 that shut down the interstate for two weeks, have led to millions of dollars in damage, uncertain delays on a major artery for the state, and an official state of emergency declaration from the governor’s office. 
The Water for Colorado Coalition has experts available from our nine partner organizations to discuss implications of the Bureau of Reclamation’s shortage declaration for the Colorado River, the interconnectedness of drought, fires, and climate change in Colorado, and opportunities for increased resilience — including the recently-released Ten Strategies report. The report examines ten strategies for the Colorado River Basin that will help our communities adapt to, respond to, and mitigate the continued extreme risks of climate change to ecosystems, economies, communities, and the water resources that support them.
About the Water for Colorado Coalition 

The Water for Colorado Coalition is a group of nine organizations dedicated to ensuring our rivers support everyone who depends on them, working toward resilience to climate change, planning for sustained and more severe droughts, and enabling every individual in Colorado to have a voice and the opportunity to take action to advocate for sustainable conservation-based solutions for our state’s water future. The community of organizations that make up the Water for Colorado Coalition represent diverse perspectives and share a commitment to protecting Colorado’s water future to secure a reliable water supply for the state and for future generations.

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