10 ways policymakers can support climate resilience in the West

It seems every day I come across a heartbreaking headline about how extreme heat, wildfires and ongoing drought are plaguing the West.

Indeed, the climate crisis has hit home in the Colorado River Basin and is threatening everything from agriculture to water supplies. The basin’s two main reservoirs­ — Lakes Powell and Mead — are at record low water levels, threatening the water security essential to communities, wildlife, recreation and agricultural production across the Southwest.

To help policymakers address these pressing climate challenges, EDF contributed to a recent report, Ten Strategies for Climate Resilience in the Colorado River Basin, authored by Martin & McCoy and Culp & Kelly, LLP, that analyzed multiple approaches to building climate resilience and identified the top 10 priorities.

The Ten Strategies report describes potential climate resilience solutions for the Colorado River Basin and makes the case for major investments in them. The executive summary and full report can be accessed at: www.tenstrategies.net.

The top 10 strategies

To identify the top 10 strategies, the report authors asked a series of questions, including:

  • Could the strategy help the basin adapt to ongoing climate shifts?
  • To what extent would the strategy reduce pressure on existing water supplies?
  • Would the strategy help mitigate climate change?
  • Could the strategy strengthen economic resilience in communities?

Strategies that had the potential to address two or more of these challenges were included in the final list.

The top 10 investment strategies include:

  1. Prioritizing forest management and restoration to maintain system functionality and biodiversity.
  2. Restoring highly degraded natural meadow systems to improve local aquifer recharge, water retention, reconnect historic floodplains, and support productive meadows and riparian ecosystems.
  3. Promoting voluntary farming and ranching principles and practices that enrich soils, enhance biodiversity, restore watershed health, and improve overall ecosystem function and community health.
  4. Upgrading diversion, delivery and on-farm infrastructure and operations, including irrigation systems.
  5. Developing on-farm operational shifts and market and supply chain interventions to incentivize water conservation — for example, shifting to lower water-use crops.
  6. Incentivizing conservation technologies, indoor and outdoor conservation programs, and direct and indirect potable reuse.
  7. Incentivizing modifications and upgrades to reduce water use and increase energy efficiencies.
  8. Purchasing or reallocating water rights from closed or retiring coal plants to be used for system or environmental benefits, or other uses.
  9. Improving land management practices to reduce the dust on snow effect, which controls the pace of spring snowmelt that feeds the headwaters of the Colorado River.
  10. Implementing solutions to reduce evaporation from reservoirs and conveyance systems.
Federal policymakers need to start investing in climate resilience measures now because rivers, forests and communities are already suffering the impacts of climate change. Click To Tweet

Urgent need for federal investment

Federal policymakers need to start investing in measures like these now because rivers, forests and communities in the basin are already suffering the impacts of climate change.

Sen. Michael Bennet’s Climate Resilience Framework is an excellent start. And, thanks to the leadership of Sens. Mark Kelly, Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and others, the bipartisan Senate infrastructure bill is on track to fund $100 million for natural infrastructure projects in the WaterSMART program, $2.1 billion for ecosystem restoration and $100 million for multi-benefit watershed health projects.

Local, state and tribal governments must be actively involved in decisions about how to allocate these and other funds to maximize the benefits for communities and the environment.

Ultimately, the Ten Strategies report can help policymakers identify new policy priorities and develop project plans to build resilience in the Colorado River Basin and beyond.

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