The Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery and San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Programs

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Case Description
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Geolocation: 37° 11' 7.9289", -110° 53' 37.6294"
Total Population 88,000,000 millionmillion
Total Area 280,000280,000 km²
108,108 mi²
Climate Descriptors Arid/desert (Köppen B-type), alpine
Predominent Land Use Descriptors conservation lands
Important Uses of Water Agriculture or Irrigation, Domestic/Urban Supply, Hydropower Generation, Other Ecological Services


Over eight million people in one of the United States’ most water stressed regions depend on water from the Upper Colorado River Basin, including the San Juan River. From 1960 to 1990, the Upper Basin states experienced large population growth. During the same period, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973 protecting imperiled species. (Endangered Species Act of 1973).

The passage of the ESA along with increased pressures on the basin’s resources set the stage for potential conflict over imperiled fish species in the river systems among the region’s water users, environmentalists, and the government. In 1983, FWS drafted a proposal to protect four endangered species in the Colorado River: the Colorado pikeminnow, the humpback chub, the bonytail, and the razorback sucker. The threat posed by potential ESA-related lawsuits set the stage for the creation of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery and San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Programs.

Stakeholder groups composed of water users, government agencies, Native American tribes, Upper Basin states, and environmentalists created the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery and San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Programs in 1988 and 1992 respectively. These Programs allow water users the right to continue to develop their legal water rights and construct water projects while protecting and recovering the fishes through flow management, habitat restoration, hatchery releases, control of nonnatives, beneficial capital projects, and research into the species’ natural histories.

The Programs have stabilized and increased the populations of all four species, though only two of the four species will likely be delisted by the official end of the program in 2023. At the same time, the Programs have facilitated the development of 2,500 water projects by granting them automatic compliance through the Programs, instead of necessitating project-specific ESA review.

The Programs have achieved success for a variety of reasons. The initial negotiation environment encouraged the parties to collaborative on creative solutions with limited alternatives to this approach. The Programs have achieved ongoing success due to working transparently, openly engaging stakeholders across sectors, focusing on science-based results, adaptively managing the program, fostering grassroots support and turning this into political support, providing on the ground funding, simplifying water project development, and establishing trust and relationships among the involved stakeholders over more than two decades.

Natural, Historic, Economic, Regional, and Political Framework

Issues and Stakeholders

Conflict between maintaining water flows and habitat for legally protected endangered fish and water users with legal rights to water consumption in the Upper Colorado Basin

NSPD: Water Quantity, Water Quality, Ecosystems
Stakeholder Types: Federated state/territorial/provincial government, Sovereign state/national/federal government, Non-legislative governmental agency, Environmental interest, Industry/Corporate Interest

Water users want to maintain their legal rights to the Colorado and San Juan Rivers’ water resources. At the same time, the federal Endangered Species Act, supported by environmental groups, mandates that four protected species within the rivers have adequate water flows and quality and protected habitat.

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2016 - 2017 Highlights: Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Program and San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program(Issue brief). (2017). Retrieved from 106–392, 106th Cong. (2000) (enacted). Benke, A., & Cushing, C. (2005). Rivers of North America. Amsterdam: Elsevier/Acad. Press. Brooks, Richard Oliver, Ross Jones, and Ross A. Virginia. (2002). Law and ecology: the rise of the ecosystem regime. Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate, Print. Bureau of Reclamation, Lower Colorado Region. (2008). The Law of the River. Retrieved 2017, from Chart, T. (2017, April 28). Tom Chart Case Interview [Telephone interview]. Colorado’s Water Needs. (n.d.). Retrieved 2017, from Endangered Species Act of 1973, § 93–205 (1973). "Endangered Species Act of 1973." Department of the Interior U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 1 (1973): 1-41. Text of the Endangered Species Act. Retrieved 2017. "Endangered Species