Colorado’s Upper Arkansas River Basin is home to a voluntary and collaborative water management program that aims to optimize river flows for white-water rafting in the summer and fish ecology in the spring and fall. Surprisingly, the program has largely been overlooked by academics even though it has been in place since the early 1990s. This study offers the first close examination of how the basin’s Voluntary Flow Management Program (VFMP) currently functions and its prospects for the future. In particular, the study examines the VFMP’s resilience to two climate change-related variations to streamflow – earlier spring runoff and more frequent drought – which are expected to test even the most robust collaborative water management programs in the coming years. The research employs a mixed methods approach in order to analyze the VFMP’s intertwined social and hydrologic components. In-depth interviews with VFMP stakeholders are coupled with publicly available stream gage and snow telemetry data to provide a multifaceted view of how the program influences the Upper Arkansas streamflow. The analysis reveals that VFMP stakeholders have developed a collaborative management system that is capable of adapting to meet program flow targets in many (but not all) water years. Drawing from these results, the discussion ponders whether these adaptations will be sufficient under increasing hydrologic stress. This study takes place during an important juncture for the VFMP, as a new generation of water managers joins the program and parties undertake a regular 5-year renegotiation of the program’s terms in the spring of 2021.
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