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2016 State of the Rockies Report

The Scales of Western Water


The heart of the Rockies Project has always been the undergraduate research work performed by the fellows, and it is showcased in this 2016 State of the Rockies Report. Two of our student fellows researched the role of Native peoples and water: in balancing development needs and recreational river runners on the Navajo Nation (Maya Williamson, Fighting the Grand Canyon Escalade Project: Examining Navajos and River Runners as Cultural Stakeholders), and in addressing the often-ignored water quality issues on Native reservations in the West (Jonah Seifer, Native American Water Quality Rights: How the EPA’s Treatment as a State Program can Strengthen Tribal Sovereignty in the Southwest). This research took our students through New Mexico and Arizona, engaging officials from the Pueblo of Isleta south of Albuquerque, and interviewing stakeholders across the Navajo Nation. These projects are complemented by Burkett Huey’s focus on a potential Colorado River compact call and water pricing (Water Transfers in Colorado: Past, Present and Future), and John Jennings’ investigation on water ethics and how farmers manage their water with ethics in mind (A Paradigm Shift in Water Management Among Colorado Farmers and Ranchers). That research led Burk and John to interact with agriculturalists on Colorado’s Western Slope, learning about water transfers and irrigation efficiencies firsthand. 

From the ethics of agricultural water use to the cultural value of water in the Southwest, the sections of the 2016 State of the Rockies Report focus on different "Scales of Western Water." Each of our student sections are included below.

Download the full 2016 State of the Rockies Report. 

Water Transfers in Colorado: Past, Present, and Future 

In our first of four sections for the 2016 State of the Rockies Report, Rockies Project Fellow Burkett Huey investigates the history of water transfers in Colorado and opportunities for recognizing third-party effects in future transfers:

"The West’s growing population challenges the current farming-dominated water appropriation as cities seek to buy the most senior rights from irrigators. This, in turn, leads to the term ‘buy and dry,’ because the practice of selling irrigation water can result in economic downturn for farmers and widespread negative, third-party effects throughout rural communities. However, water transfers don’t always have to place an economic burden on agricultural communities. Some examples of rotational fallowing and water leasing mechanisms in Colorado and across the West show that water transfers can provide water for urban areas and maintain the rural, agriculture livelihood."

Native American Water Quality Rights: How the EPA’s Treatment as a State Program can Strengthen Tribal Sovereignty in the Southwest

In our second of four sections for the 2016 State of the Rockies Report, Rockies Project Fellow Jonah Seifer addresses water quality issues on Native American reservations and the role that the Environmental Protection Agency's "Treatment as a State" program can play in expanding Tribe's sovereignty:

"The prior appropriation system of water rights used in the western United States does not properly account for the diminishing quality of water as it flows towards the ocean. Native American tribes are often disadvantaged by this dynamic, and until recently, were relatively unable to protect themselves from the potentially hazardous discharges of upstream appropriators. Today, the Treatment as a State program administered by the US Environmental Protection Agency is allowing tribes to seek approval of authority to regulate the quality of water that enters their reservation. This new state of primacy over environmental regulations can help increase water security for all users, develop critical water infrastructure for tribal members currently without it, and promote an environmental ethic more consistent with a particular tribe’s traditional values and practices. All of these results amount to strengthened tribal sovereignty. The Treatment as a State program is imperfect, however, and the EPA’s implementation must be fundamentally modified to fully recognize the congressional intent behind the Clean Water Act."

A Paradigm Shift in Water Management Among Colorado Farmers and Ranchers

In the third section of the 2016 State of the Rockies Report, Rockies Project Fellow John Jennings examines a changing water management paradigm with Colorado's Gunnison River Basin as the backdrop for his research. John interviewed farmers and ranchers across the basin gathering their opinions towards some of Colorado's current water issues:

"With the ongoing drought, projected population growth, and the impending effects of a changing climate, the arid Rocky Mountain region must reexamine its relationship with water. Although state water planning initiatives, such as the Colorado Water Plan, basin roundtables, and numerous local and national nongovernmental associations, address critical water issues in the West, many of these initiatives seem to boil down in large part to economics and oversimplify complex ways diverse stakeholders value water. While the importance of the economy and jobs is undeniable and should not be ignored, the lack of other values incorporated into discussions about water policy must be recognized."

Opposing the Grand Canyon Escalade Project: Navajos and River Runners as Cultural Stakeholders

Cover_ConfluenceIn our last of four sections for the 2016 State of the Rockies Report, Rockies Project Fellow Maya Williamson addresses the proposed Grand Canyon Escalade project and investigates the perspectives of Navajo people and Grand Canyon river runners:

"At the eastern limits of Grand Canyon National Park, on the border of the Navajo Nation and over 20 miles away from the nearest town, is the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers. The confluence, which is considered a sacred place for pilgrimage and prayer by many Navajo and Native American people, is currently the site of a major development proposal. Confluence Partners LLC, a group comprised of lawyers, large-scale development planners, financiers, and members of the Navajo Nation seek to construct a multi-billion dollar resort on the South Rim of the Canyon, as well as a gondola down to the canyon floor. The project has garnered media attention for its controversy, and four years down the line, Confluence Partners continue to face resistance from Navajo People, the tribal group Save the Confluence, as well as the Grand Canyon Trust and other national conservation organizations. The debate over the Escalade Project reflects a larger debate over the role of cultural values alongside economic values."