Why is a Colorado River conservation agreement so difficult to achieve?


Nearly two months ago, the seven states in the Colorado River Basin missed a federal deadline to negotiate deep cuts in their water use.

Finally, there are concrete actions. Water managers in California, which uses more water from the Colorado River than any other state, have agreed to cut their use by one tenth in 2023. That is, if other stakeholders agree to reductions and the federal government sweetens the deal with conservation funding.

Without meaningful conservation, all actors risk running out of water and hydropower. So why is it so difficult to negotiate this agreement?

It’s one thing for two entrenched parties to come to an agreement. But along the Colorado River, seven states that have fought over it for decades must reach a major conservation agreement.

“When you have multiparty negotiations, they’re really, really difficult,” said Mori Taheripour, a conflict resolution expert at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. “People get stubborn, and self-advocacy makes you move further away from collective problem solving.”

It is therefore important that the water districts of California have taken the first step. But this is only the first step towards an agreement.

And Daniel Shapiro, author of the book “Negotiate the non-negotiable” sees major obstacles. “In general, the design of the process seems perilous.”

We cannot know exactly what is going on in these closed-door talks between dozens of water managers. But we know there is ego at play, there are identity politics and old resentments between farming communities and cities, upper and lower basin states. There is a lot of money at stake.

“People cling to their own positions. They concede – if at all – very stubbornly, and they all threaten to go to court,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro thinks the basin states could use a referee. And maybe group therapy to help them focus on the common threats they all face: impending water and hydropower shortages that would affect millions of people.

Kyle Roerink kept a close eye on those talks for the nonprofit Great Basin water network.

“If there are FBI or CIA hostage negotiators out there who are willing to help water managers get in touch with reality, we could definitely use their help,” he said. .

Roerink said these were crisis negotiations. But you wouldn’t know that by looking.

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