A historic course change on the Colorado River

When it comes to water, there is rarely consensus among agencies, municipalities and environmentalists. Agreement among multiple states and nations? That’s just not something that happens.

Until it does.

Today, there is water flowing in the Colorado River Delta — where water has not flowed regularly for half a century — all because water managers, conservation organizations and policymakers in both the United States and Mexico were able to find common ground. When this common ground is intersected by an international border, you know you’ve surmounted an obstacle previously considered insurmountable.

Someone cue music heralding the “new era of Western water management.” That’s what some have dubbed this recent breakthrough. While the description might be sensational, it isn’t hyperbolic. We are in the midst of what appears to be a paradigm shift in the way we manage one of Earth’s most precious yet over-allocated natural resources, at least in this unique corner of the planet that we call home — the Colorado River Basin.

For those who wonder why it took so long to reach this point, it’s important to consider the context. Historically, Western water law focused on prioritization among users, with tenets such as “first in time, first in right” and “use it or lose it.” The philosophy behind this structure was to have an explicit understanding of each entity’s limited water rights. Little consideration was given to other stakeholders or even the river system itself. However, it appears as though we’ve found ways to respect the rights of stakeholders while identifying innovative and creative ways to work together. In other words, we believe we’ve finally cracked the code.

Like most change, this newfound spirit of cooperation was born of necessity rather than magnanimity. There now exists a mutual understanding that all Colorado River water users will suffer if even one sector experiences a catastrophic shortage. Delta communities in Mexico watched the river run dry long ago, but the entire system now faces longer periods of drought and the increasingly acute side effects of climate change. Las Vegans, dependent upon the Colorado for 90 percent of their water supply, are watching Lake Mead’s shoreline recede. It’s unsettling, but from this crisis is arising a new and better way of managing the river.

At a signing ceremony held in late 2012, officials from the United States and Mexico quietly changed the trajectory of the Colorado River, which represents the lifeblood of 40 million people and a region representing the world’s fifth-largest economy. Adopted by the U.S. and Mexican sections of the International Boundary and Water Commission, Minute 319 to the 1944 Treaty with Mexico stands as one of the most significant water policy shifts of this era.

In the ultimate example of a “win-win” scenario, everyone involved in the accord saw benefits.

■ The seven states that share the Colorado River gained increased certainty regarding Mexico’s participation in potential reductions, increased reservoir storage in Lake Mead to help stave off that eventuality, and an unprecedented opportunity to make infrastructure investments in Mexico that will provide needed water to communities in both Mexico and the United States.

■ Delta residents rejoiced along with river lovers from around the world in seeing water once again flow all the way to the Colorado River Delta — if only for the duration of the pulse flow.

■ For its part, Mexico gained the ability to temporarily defer water deliveries while saving that water for the future.

Perhaps even more important than the individual benefits derived, however, was the realization that this type of multilateral cooperation was possible and in fact advantageous. Minute 319 represents a carefully calibrated set of balanced benefits for both countries that charts a course toward greater cooperation and partnership.

As the pulse flow to the Colorado River Delta comes to an end this month, we should all celebrate the success of a unique international experiment. The limited nature of the pulse flow does not diminish the progress we have made. Just as Minute 319 was built upon the successes of previous agreements, the next great leap forward in cooperative Colorado River management will have as its foundation this historic accord.

David Festa is vice president of West Coast operations, as well as the national Land, Water and Wildlife Program, at the Environmental Defense Fund. John Entsminger is general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the Las Vegas Valley Water District.