The Renewable Resources Report

RNRF Report on Sustaining Western Water

In December 2015, the Renewable Natural Resources Foundation (RNRF) convened a Congress on Sustaining Western Water. A report summarizing the presentations, findings, and recommendations of the congress is now available.

IMG_0343The Colorado River near Moab, Utah.


  • Drought and Water Use in the Western United States: The Western Water Landscape
  • Legal Issues and Constraints on Western Water Resilience
  • Pathways to Sustaining Western Water:
    • Sustaining Water Use in the Arid Southwest
    • Sustaining Water Use in the Rocky Mountains
    • California: Managing Groundwater for Drought, Clean Water, Food Security and Ecosystems
  • Water Transfers
  • Land-Use Policy and Water in the West
  • Forested Watersheds in a Hotter, Drier West: Meeting Adaptation Challenges
  • Managing Western Fish, Wildlife and Plants in an Era of Changing Climate and Increasing Drought
  • An Approach to Scenario Planning in the Colorado River Basin: The Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study


Water scarcity in the western United States has shaped development in profound ways, and it will continue to do so in the years ahead. The resilience of historical development and water law will be put to the test over the next century and beyond as the region faces more intense and longer-term droughts.

More severe droughts, changing precipitation patterns, environmental needs, and water quality issues pose new challenges to the adaptive capacity of an already constrained and over-allocated water system. RNRF congress speakers and delegates highlighted an array of technological, policy, and management responses to promote both short-term solutions to drought and long-term resilience to climate change impacts on the region’s water system. These responses are discussed throughout the report. Highlights include:

  • Recognizing connected surface and groundwater hydrology. Surface water and groundwater have been historically managed under separate bodies of law despite their connected hydrology. Recognizing this interconnection is essential for sustainable and holistic management of the hydrologic system.
  • Water storage. The western states rely on storage in reservoirs, snowpack, and underground aquifers to balance water supply and demand, as well as seasonal variation in precipitation. As snowpack storage declines, increased reliance on aquifer storage requires a regulatory framework for ownership, as well as a scientific and engineering assessment of the water’s fate once pumped underground.
  • Conservation and efficiency. Water conservation and efficiency improvements can maximize benefits from an existing water allocation. However, these initiatives can affect the distribution and availability of water in the system by limiting return flows.
  • Water transfers and marketing. Water transfer and marketing mechanisms have been successfully implemented throughout the West to move water from low- to high-value uses. Long-term success of these mechanisms is dependent on the sustained goodwill of involved parties. Individual water transfer regimes and markets must be tailored to best suit the regulatory circumstances of a given region.
  • Land-use planning. Development must be conditioned on water availability in the West. Coupling decisions about land use with water planning can prevent damage to investments from water scarcity, protect people and infrastructure, and sustain healthy watersheds.
  • Watershed restoration. Restoring functionality to degraded and stressed watersheds promotes resilience via enhanced water quality and ecosystem function. Successful watershed restoration efforts require partnerships and the involvement of all water stakeholders. The best available science should be applied to solve problems on a water- shed-by-watershed basis.
  • Long-term collaborative solutions. Water users and decision-makers must work collaboratively to enhance the predictability of water supplies and increase the capacity for drought and climate resilience in the years ahead.
  • Scenario planning. The integration of many possible supply and demand scenarios in the long-term planning process of a watershed enables a comprehensive assessment of resource vulnerability, preparing the state for robust decision-making about future management options.

These and other technological and management responses must be considered and applied within the context of existing water law. Despite its challenges, water law will continue to offer the flexibility needed to facilitate solutions to the water challenges faced by western states in the years ahead.

While the conversation on water scarcity often focuses on human needs, environmental flows are critical and must be protected. Ongoing drought conditions pose a serious challenge to the adaptive capacity of fish, wildlife and plants. Natural resources agencies and partners are implementing short- and long-term strategies to promote ecosystem health and save threatened species. However, financial constraints and the severity of this challenge are limiting success.

Ultimately, forward-thinking investments in resilience will enable continued economic prosperity in the western states, but many water users—particularly agriculture and ecosystems—will face daunting obstacles.

Download the complete report here. Click here for more information on the 2015 Congress including speaker PowerPoints and video recordings of presentations.


Related Posts:

Drought: A Growing Challenge for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Managers

Water and Growth in the West

Closing the Water Demand-Supply Gap in Arizona

What if California’s Drought Continues?


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