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2016-17 State of the Rockies Project

Inclusive River Governance for a Changing West

Recognizing the critical role water plays in the American West, we continue our commitment to critical assessment of conservation issues with this year’s comparative investigation into governance of the West’s two great rivers: the Columbia and Colorado. While the hydrology of the two basins may differ, the issues surrounding each river’s management present many parallels. Of major significance is the multi-jurisdictional and multi-stakeholder nature of management: both watersheds touch seven states and extend into neighboring countries with the headwaters of the Columbia River in Canada and the terminus of the Colorado River in Mexico. While there is an enormous difference in the average annual flows of each watershed, with the Columbia River’s average annual discharge nearly ten times the Colorado River’s, the uses of water and invested stakeholders show many similarities.

Mountain Studies InstituteFurthermore, rapid changes are occurring across the American West, from climate change to demographic shifts. The occurrence of a strong El Niño during the winter of 2016 will add an additional variable to each region’s water management, as precipitation and temperature shift away from traditional norms. The natural variability of a strong El Niño event, and the response by water users across the West, will present some insight into the greater volatility under the anticipated scenarios of a changing climate. Thus, climate and its role on the changing West will also be a salient and common element of student research.

In addition to a changing climate, demographics and the cultural fabric of the American West are changing with an influx of new residents and rapidly growing urban populations. With a shifting and increasingly diverse population, recognition of environmental values has increased. Furthermore, groups that have historically been denied their water allocations, such as tribes, are gaining ground in securing their water rights and protecting their culture. In some watersheds, a changing West has amplified contention over water governance, while in others collaborative processes have evolved as an inclusive governance mechanism. The very rivers championed and used by first nations may be a broader and more tangible way to effect governance changes in water across the West. By comparing these changes across river basins, the Rockies Project hopes to better understand the challenges to inclusive river governance as well as innovative solutions for a water-stressed future.

2016 Summer Research 


With a group of five students with diverse academic backgrounds, State of the Rockies is engaged in its fourteenth year of academic research. Each of our student fellows has adopted a particular focus of "inclusive river governance" to then explore and explain for the larger campus audience, and for our regional stakeholders and followers. Student fellows have been investigating their project through the student-faculty collaborative research approach that the Rockies Project has been utilizing for the last thirteen years. In addition to on-campus research, the students also conducted extensive field research and interviews through the Colorado and Columbia River Basins. This year's research focuses include:

  • Endangered Fish Recovery and the Social and Economic Factors Affecting Restoration
  • Native American Water Rights and Deferred Justice
  • The Columbia Basin Fish Accords
  • Decision-making for Dam Development and Deconstruction in the West
  • Climate Change and its Affects on Snowpack as Freshwater Storage

By examining common themes related to river governance and water management students identified similar challenges affecting both the Colorado and Columbia Rivers. By addressing issues from this large perspective, opportunities to share information and successes is also possible. The final product of this student work will be published in our 2017 State of the Rockies Report, due to be published in the spring of 2017.