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The Basin Study

The history of the West is written in water. This key chapter will decide how the story unfolds for future generations.

The Colorado River's flows help support tourism economies in seven states.

The Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, initiated in January 2010 and released in December 2012, was prepared by the Bureau of Reclamation and agencies representing the seven Colorado River Basin States (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California). Other stakeholders including conservation organizations and tribes were consulted. In some cases, the Study reflects substantive input from these groups, and in others these groups continue to have appreciable concerns about the Study’s content.

The Study contains four major phases: 1) Water Supply Assessment, 2) Water Demand
Assessment, 3) System Reliability Analysis, and 4) Development and Evaluation of
Opportunities for Balancing Supply and Demand.

The purpose of the Study is to define current and future imbalances in water supply and demand in the Colorado River Basin and the adjacent areas of the Basin States that receive Colorado River water over the next 50 years, and to develop and analyze options and strategies to resolve those imbalances. It also strives to demonstrate the risk to the users of the river posed by climate change, which will deplete average annual flows by almost 9 percent by 2060.

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As we enter a new era of uncertainty about the Colorado River, one fact is beyond reasonable dispute. We need to change the way we manage the Colorado River to protect its flows and the economic and environmental bounty they produce.


The Study provides four recommendations including options and strategies to resolve the supply/demand imbalances through 2060. One of the recommendations was developed by the states and includes a call for a huge, expensive pipeline and new desalination plants with orders of magnitude larger than the largest plants that currently exist in the United States. Another recommendation was developed by Environmental Defense Fund and other NGOs that demonstrates that we can fill the gap through practical, flexible, common sense, market-based options like conservation, water banks, and reuse, without the need for huge taxpayer investment in massive infrastructure projects. The two other recommendations were developed by the Bureau of Reclamation, based on different combinations of the states’ and NGOs' recommendations.

All recommendations offer:

  • agricultural and urban water conservation
  • water reuse (the treatment of wastewater so it can be recycled for irrigation or other uses)
  • conversion from existing, inefficient power plants to more water efficient renewable and natural gas plants

The states’ outline for the future:

  • A pipe dream: relying on the construction of a 700-mile pipeline that would travel from the Upper Missouri River through public and private land and pump water 2,000 feet up in elevation.
  • Would require huge amounts of energy to counteract the effects of gravity and pump water uphill.
  • Does not address the environmental threats to stretches of the river and its tributaries that are critical to the region’s economy.
  • Would require constructing five desalination plants, each four times as large as the largest current U.S. plan being built in California.

The idea of building our way out of this problem may be tempting but it’s not realistic. The pipeline would cost billions of taxpayer dollars and generate a prolonged public controversy.

Our Vision

It’s our job to be responsible users of the river so people, businesses, farms, ranches and wildlife will continue to benefit from this national treasure and to ensure the preservation of the Western way of life.

Our vision offers:

  • Solutions that emphasize conservation, which is cheaper, faster and easier to implement than costly, wasteful new pipelines or impractical, energy-guzzling plants to turn salt water into drinking water.
  • Conservation as the practical, flexible, common-sense option. It relies on market-oriented solutions, such as water banking, in which users are compensated to save water and these water rights are “banked” for later use. These approaches will ensure we have the water we need for a thriving economy and prosperous communities, and also protect the river and the ecosystems, wildlife and businesses it supports.
  • Support from organizations that have a stake in the river’s future: Western Resource Advocates, The Nature Conservancy, Protect the Flows, Nuestro Rio and the Environmental Defense Fund.