Colorado River Conversations Project


Integrating Science
and Identifying Solutions

Lead CCASS ContactKathy Jacobs

Colorado River Conversations Project

The Colorado River provides a partial water supply for nearly 40 million people in the seven Basin States and Mexico and is considered the lifeblood of the southwestern US. This highly managed river system has been transformed historically by engineering, and now by climate changes that eclipse forecasted impacts. Sustainability of hydrologic, ecologic, economic and environmental resources is threatened. A renegotiation of the Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead must be complete by 2026.

Colorado River Conversations (CRC) facilitates interdisciplinary, science-based conversations to contribute ideas for future management of the Colorado, setting the stage for Guideline renegotiations. CRC is a convener of people, ideas, and processes related to hydrology and climate science research, new modeling efforts, and the interests and potential roles of water users in the basin. CRC’s efforts have included a conference, workshops, scenario planning, and support of graduate student research on Colorado River collaboration and stakeholder engagement. Colorado River Conversations is a collaborative effort between CCASS and Martin & McCoy LLC, funded by the Walton Family Foundation.


Colorado River Conversations Conference, October 2019


CRC's Goals and Projects



Develop broad, interdisciplinary science agenda for Guideline renegotiations 2017 Workshop
Support use of existing knowledge from western science and traditional ecological knowledge by decision-makers

2018 Workshop

2020 Climate Tool Kit (coming soon!)

Encourage inclusive discussions on the future of Colorado River management

2019 CRC Conference

2019 Masters Project, Mexico’s Evolving Role in Colorado River Governance

Plan for the unexpected 2019-2020 Scenario Planning Process

Colorado River Basin-wide Scenario Planning (2019-2020)

The Colorado River basin-wide scenario planning process consisted of three workshops over a 10-month period (June 2019-April 2020). With the help of an advisory committee, organizers identified experts in all seven basin states, including those from water utilities, agriculture, water user associations, academia, NGOs, tribes and Mexico. About 30 participants attended each workshop.

The overarching goal of the scenario planning workshops was to explore the areas of uncertainty outside the parameters of most planning discussions, particularly extreme climate conditions such as extreme drought, megafloods, as well as social, economic, environmental, and political/governance extremes. The aim was to collectively co-create a broad set of scientifically supported “what if” storylines, explore implications, and develop low-regrets solutions across storylines.


Colorado River Conversations Conference (2019)

The Colorado River Conversations Conference, held in Tucson on October 28-30, 2019, brought together 110 citizens of the Colorado River Basin. Participants included people from all seven basin states, Mexico, and six Tribal Nations. The goal of the workshop was to convene conversations and providing a gathering ground for researchers, practitioners, and stakeholders who seek innovative ideas for managing the Colorado River’s services by:

  • Presenting the current state of hydrological, ecological, social, and climate science
  • Sparking conversations about management objectives, operations of the Colorado River as a system, and preparing for extreme events
  • Generating and discussing alternative approaches to river management for consideration
  • Respecting cultural and spiritual values

Virtually all participants spoke about managing the river as a system and advocated for increased attention to social and physical sciences to design new management systems. Heading toward 2026, participants emphasized the need to expand the conversation beyond shortage guidelines and reservoir operations so as not to miss an important window of opportunity to address a variety of important issues.


"The responses and questions that the scenarios elicited from all of the participants has helped fill out my understanding of the Basin and the issues/challenges [of] the decision context. Thus, I can now better shape the decision-support info that I try to provide to stakeholders."

- Colorado River Scenario Planning Workshop participant on how they might use what they learned in their own work

Mexico’s Evolving Role in Colorado River Governance

CCASS sponsored the Master’s Project of Mariana Rivera-Torres (pictured), a recent graduate of the MS Water, Society, and Policy program who earned the School of Natural Resources and Environment’s “Best Thesis” award!

Mariana conducted research on recent trends in binational collaboration in the Colorado River Basin to better understand the evolution of Mexico’s role in river basin governance from 2000-2019. Her research relies on a review of recent academic scholarship, reports, and binational agreements, as well as interviews with 22 U.S. and Mexican key actors in the Colorado River binational relationship, representing federal, state, NGO, water users, and academic institutions.

Findings highlight an ebb and flow of conflict and cooperation, centered around the Colorado River Joint Cooperation Process (CRJCP) in 2008, and provide 10 lessons learned.  Overall, the binational relationship has evolved towards greater collaboration, as both countries aim to move beyond a historically bilateral water management approach into an integrated regional management system. Post-2008, trust has been generated and strengthened, and Mexico has shifted from a passive to an active role in Colorado River governance.

Recent Publications



For more information, please contact CCASS Director Kathy Jacobs at