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Water, Water—Not Everywhere

While the rest of the world focuses on ending the worst public health crisis in more than a century, Matt Rice ’94 is resolved to mitigate the next global catastrophe coming rapidly around the bend.

Climate change is already affecting millions of people in the watershed of the Colorado River, one of the fastest-heating regions in the world. The 1,450-mile river and its tributaries flow through seven western states, sustaining 40 million people and more than five million acres of agriculture, and fueling a $1.4 trillion annual economy. But the region recently concluded its 20th consecutive year of drought, enough to suggest that this warming trend isn’t going away.

Rafting on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

Rafting on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

“It’s the new normal,” Rice says. “It’s the aridification of the entire basin.”

As the director of the Colorado River Basin for American Rivers, an advocacy group based in Washington, Rice’s work is aimed at getting people in the region to recognize the urgency of the unfolding environmental disaster caused by global warming—and then hopefully to adapt before it’s too late.
“The projections are terrifying,” Rice says. “We’re looking at a 20 to 40 percent reduction in water availability in the Colorado River basin by 2050. That crashes a whole region of the country.”

There are already glimpses of a much drier future. This summer in Colorado, when more people than ever burst out of COVID-19-related lockdowns to go rafting, fishing, tubing, and otherwise enjoy the outdoor splendor, several rivers had to be shut down to all recreation due to low flow. The mass closures weren’t unique to 2020; they happened the year before, as well, and two years before that, and two years before that.
What scientists have realized, Rice says, is that the melting snowpack from the Rockies every year no longer is enough to regenerate healthy supplies downstream, as it had been in the past. Droughts have a way of compounding problems—the warming climate dries out the earth, which absorbs more and more water from the hills each year. The downstream effect is hotter temperatures, requiring more frequent irrigation in areas like Yuma, Arizona, which grows 90 percent of the country’s winter vegetables.

Today, the Colorado is one of the few major rivers in the world that doesn’t empty into the sea. “It’s supposed to,” Rice says. “But we use all that water”—five trillion gallons—“before it gets to the delta” in eastern Mexico.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of Rice’s job is tailoring solutions to replenish the rivers without antagonizing the region’s ranchers and farmers, many of whom hold so-called “water rights” passed down for generations. Water users in many western states must file with their state water resources agency for a water right, which turns into a property right of sorts that is tied to the land or a specific use; in fact, farmers can lose their rights if they don’t put all their allotted water into beneficial use.

Matt Rice ’94 at Warm Springs Rapid, Yampa River, Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado.

Matt Rice ’94 at Warm Springs Rapid, Yampa River, Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado.

This, you can imagine, poses some difficulty for conservationists like Rice.
“The status quo is a very powerful thing in the West when it comes to water,” Rice says. “I’m not vilifying agriculture at all. But in order to get where we need to go, there’s a huge cultural shift we need to make.”
Rice’s passion for the environment grew out of his lifelong “obsession” with the rivers and fishing. He grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and has been fly-fishing for “as long I can remember.” While at Taft, he’d often hitch a ride off campus to go fishing with Rico Brogna, the former Major League Baseball player and son of Taft’s longtime baseball and football coach Joe Brogna.
After college at Montana State in Bozeman—a pilgrimage spot for anglers—he joined the Peace Corps and spent four years in Zambia, where he met his wife, Gwyn. He introduced rural subsistence farmers to fish farming, teaching them ways to divert water, build irrigation ditches, grow ponds, and sell fish. He experienced firsthand the importance of having access to clean water, lessons he took back with him to the United States and his graduate studies at the University of Denver before finding his way to American Rivers.
Sometimes, Rice admits, his work can seem like squeezing water out of the Washington Monument. But there are reasons to feel encouraged. On November 3, for instance, American Rivers helped bring a ballot measure before voters in 15 counties in western Colorado to provide much-needed funds for water preservation. Even though it meant taxes would go up, the measure passed with 72 percent of the vote.

At Nankoweap, Grand Canyon

At Nankoweap, Grand Canyon

Another motivating factor for Rice is taking his wife and their three boys, Curran, 9, Mac, 7, and Walker, 5, on fishing trips on the rivers he loves so much. Sustaining that tradition long into the future will require that more people not “take that water for granted when they turn on the tap.”
“The health and future of the Colorado River is not a partisan issue,” Rice says. “The math just isn’t there. We see how much water we’re using, we see our water availability diminish, and it really is kind of an ‘all-hands-on-deck,’ ‘we’re all in this together’ situation.”

—Zach Schonbrun ’05