Utilizing sustainability criteria to evaluate river basin decision-making: the case of the Colorado River Basin


Increasing demands, climate change and variability, and over-allocation pose tremendous challenges for the sustainable management of water resources. Federal river systems such as the Colorado River Basin provide an opportunity to understand multi-level governance challenges to sustainability as well as opportunities to improve decision-making processes. This paper seeks to understand what components of the decision-making process are important for meeting sustainability criteria. This research uses the Colorado River Basin in a multi-method study designed to understand how those specific components not only highlight challenges to sustainability, but also how they may be utilized to further sustainability objectives. Results suggest that process components such as stakeholder participation, decision-making transparency, and fairness are important considerations in the sustainability of a river basin system. Further, a nuanced analysis of the process suggests that these components provide guidance for how decision-making might be improved. This includes emphasizing problematic hydrological or institutional events, reconciling transparency and decision-making efficiency, and acknowledging that all users in the system will need to undertake shortages. Results also suggest how the state and federal governments have specific roles in implementing and facilitating these processes.

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  1. 1.

    The Basin faces some of the prominent challenges that many river basins around the world must confront in the coming decades, most notably over-allocation and reduced flows due to increasing temperatures in the region (Udall and Overpeck 2017).

  2. 2.

    Wyoming, State of v. Colorado 259 U.S. 419, 42 S.Ct. 552, 66 L.Ed. 999 (1922)

  3. 3.

    Arizona v. California, 376 U.S. 340, 84 S.Ct. 755, 11 L.Ed.2d 757 (1964)

  4. 4.

    The complete protocol, including instructions for the coding process, can be found in Online Resource 1 or be made available by contacting the author.

  5. 5.

    Due to funding constraints, other forms of incentives were unavailable (e.g., cash or mailed surveys). Lower response rates can be expected for single-mode web only surveys without other incentives for participation (Millar and Dillman 2011; Bethlehem 2014).


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The author gratefully acknowledges the reviews and feedback from the special issue editors Drs. Dustin Garrick and Lucia De Stefano, two anonymous reviewers, and the journal editors. Additional thanks to Drs. Lisa Dilling and Deserai Crow for their comments and support.

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Correspondence to John Berggren.

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Berggren, J. Utilizing sustainability criteria to evaluate river basin decision-making: the case of the Colorado River Basin. Reg Environ Change 18, 1621–1632 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10113-018-1354-2

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  • Sustainability
  • Water governance
  • Colorado River Basin
  • Participation
  • Transparency