According to a recent scorecard released by Stanford’s Water in the West Program and consulting firm AMP Insights that assessed policies of the Colorado River Basin states, Colorado has the most state legal support for environmental water transfers, while Arizona has the least. Water transfers are a way for water rights owners to legally redistribute water rights for environmental purposes, such as replenishing wetlands or aiding wildlife habitats.
The 1,450-mile Colorado River is one of the most important water systems in the U.S., providing water to 35 million people and 4 million acres of farmland, according to the report. Its “watershed,” the Colorado River Basin, encompasses parts of Colorado, California, New Mexico, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah and Arizona.
But overuse, drought and climate change threaten the basin’s viability, while the basin’s enormous size presents unique policy challenges. For much of the basin’s history, policy did not protect water use for wetlands, habitats, streams and scenic beauty. Environmental water transfers, which are new to the last 30 years, can be a powerful tool to redirect water for environmental purposes. The transfers may also create revenue for rights holders.
“These transfers can help fish and other aquatic species, provide an alternative revenue source for water rights holders and play a role in broader water markets,” Leon Szeptycki, executive director of Water in the West and one of the report’s lead authors, told Stanford News.
Researchers assessed the seven states on four key components of support for transfers, including explicit legal authorization of water rights as well as the rights’ scope and process for implementation. Colorado received the overall highest score, particularly because its unique Water Courts system must review and approve each transfer. The system is well-established amongst governments, businesses and NGOs, and state law has clearly defined the process and enforced transfers consistently.
Meanwhile, Arizona, which houses some of the basin’s largest metropolitan areas, has the least-developed policies for water transfer. The state technically recognizes environmental water transfers, but its statutes lack clear language defining processes or enforcement of such transfers.
All states, however, still have significant room for improvement in policy implementation, the report said. Colorado’s extra level of review, for example, makes the approval process lengthy and expensive. This puts its policies a step behind those of states in the Pacific Northwest, wrote the scorecard authors. California, which ranked second behind Colorado, has struggled to approve transfers in a timely manner and enforce rights, in part due to staffing shortages.
Water in the West was established in 2010 as a partnership between the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Bill Lane Center for the American West to “address the West’s growing water crisis and to create new solutions that move the region toward a more sustainable water future,” according to its website. The program brings together Stanford faculty, researchers and policymakers to investigate water management and create solutions for increasing water scarcity.
Researchers hope the report will spur further examination of policy and encourage continuous improvements.
“The goal of this effort is to help agencies, governments and legislators understand and prioritize ways to increase market-based environmental water transfers in their state,” Szeptycki said.