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
Water Features: Colorado River, Colorado Basin
Riparians: Colorado (U.S.), Utah (U.S.), Wyoming (U.S.), New Mexico (U.S.), United States of America
Water Projects:
Agreements: Colorado River Compact, 2007 Interim Guidelines for Colorado River Operations, 1944 US-Mexico Water Treaty


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.


  • Colorado
  • Wyoming
  • Utah
  • New Mexico
  • The U.S. Department of the Interior
  • The Western Area Power Administration
  • Jicarilla Apache Nation
  • The Southern Ute Tribe
  • The Ute Mountain Ute
  • The Navajo Nation
  • The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
  • The U.S. Bureau of Land Management
  • The Nature Conservancy
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  • Upper Basin Water users and associations

Analysis, Synthesis, and Insight

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Key Questions

Future analysis

Future analysis could compare the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery and San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Programs with the Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program. While both Upper Basin Programs have achieved relative recovery and substantial water project success, the Lower Basin Program, which is larger in scope and receives substantially more funding has struggled to achieve similar results. (Larry MacDonnell personal communication). Future Aquapedia cases could explore the differential successes in recovering species in the Upper and Lower Basins as well as the causal factors.

Integration across Sectors: How can consultation and cooperation among stakeholders and development partners be better facilitated/managed/fostered?

This case demonstrates how the right negotiation conditions, transparency, time to develop trust, and other factors foster cooperation.

Transboundary Water Issues: What considerations can be given to incorporating collaborative adaptive management (CAM)? What efforts have the parties made to review and adjust a solution or decision over time in light of changing conditions?

The parties have changed the primary focus of the Programs over time as the needs and obstacles have evolved. At first, the Programs focused on achieving certain flow regimes and developing habitat for the protected species, and as these problems have been addressed, the Programs have shifted their focus to control of nonnative species, the largest current threat.

Transboundary Water Issues: How can packages or options that link issues creatively or build on possible technology innovations be employed to create non-zero sum choices within negotiations that include water resources?

A pivotal moment in this case occurred when water users changed their focus from protecting their water rights to working to recover the endangered fishes. This turn allowed them to continue to use their legal water allocations while working towards the delisting of the species.

Transboundary Water Issues: How can mutual trust amongst riparians be nurtured? What actions erode that trust?

This case shows that time, transparency, and jointly developing science can developed trust among involved parties.