The Colorado River is in trouble and preserving its waters is essential for nearly 40 million people across Northern America. That’s the message of an editorial co-written by John Fleck, director of the UNM Water Resource Program, in the May 28 issue of Science Magazine.

“It is tempting to use today’s 20 percent flow decline as the new baseline—that is, modeling future reductions on the basis of what has already been observed,” the paper states. “But only by planning for even greater declines can we manage the real economic, social, and environmental risks of running low on a critical resource upon which 40 million North Americans depend.”

Managing Colorado River risk outlines the historic battle between scientists and policy makers; with the former saying best-case scenario should not be used as the baseline for future projections. However, policy makers tend to use these best-case scenarios, which results in overly optimistic predictions.

Fleck and his co-author, Brad Udall at Colorado State University, challenge this perspective, calling on policy makers to be more stringent in water allocations in order to preserve it for future generations. It also briefly describes climate factors that should be taken into consideration and how those are impacting water flow and regeneration rates.

“The scientific challenges are formidable. Although the direction of change—a shift toward less river water—is clear, the details can be murky. This is a challenge for the handoff from science to the world of policy and politics. But we cannot allow that murkiness to stand in the way of taking seriously what the climate science is telling us.”

Read the full editorial in the May 28, 2021, issue of Science Magazine.