New Colorado River rules will be hard to agree on. A new report shows just how tricky it could be

State leaders are reluctant to volunteer major water cutbacks, trying to soften the blow that could be dealt to growing cities and agricultural economies if new reductions are rolled out.
The Colorado River flows near Hite, Utah on July 4, 2022. The river's water supply is shrinking, and states are caught in a standoff about how to cut back on demand. A new federal report shows common goals in solving the crisis, but divisions about how exactly to reach them. (Alex Hager/KUNC)

by | Oct 20, 2023 | Environment

States that use water from the Colorado River are drawing nearer to an important deadline for negotiating the river’s future. A new report from the federal government shows states are aiming to agree on a plan to cut back on water, but still remain divided about how to share the shrinking supply that flows to tens of millions across the Southwest.

The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages reservoirs and dams across the Western U.S., released the results of its “scoping” process on Thursday. During a two-month stretch over the summer, Reclamation gathered input from states, environmental groups, tribes and others with a stake in the river’s future. The desires expressed by water users will help inform the Environmental Impact Statement, a federal document which outlines the amount of water released from major reservoirs. A draft of that document is expected by the end of 2024.

Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said there were some common threads in the feedback her agency received.

“There’s consensus that there needs to be an ability to operate the system more sustainably for the future, that hydrology may lead to drier conditions, and that there needs to be an understanding between supply and demand,” Touton said.

How exactly to bridge that supply-demand gap, though, is the existential question of ongoing river negotiations. State leaders are reluctant to volunteer major water cutbacks, trying to soften the blow that could be dealt to growing cities and agricultural economies if new reductions are rolled out. That’s left them mired in a standoff about how to proceed.

For example, in a letter from the Upper Colorado River Commission – a group representing Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico – leaders outlined a list of priorities. The first of those points the finger at other states further downstream, saying that Reclamation’s new rules should address the supply and demand gap and “will require permanent Lower Basin reductions under most if not all operating conditions.”

Other letters, signed by state and agricultural leaders in the Lower Basin, say that post-2026 rules need to comply with the “Law of the River,” a longstanding collection of legal agreements that gives preference to the West’s oldest water users, many of whom operate in the Lower Basin.

Elizabeth Koebele, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno, has been reviewing the comments submitted to Reclamation.

“It’s unsurprising that the vast majority of the calls for action and letters describing potential action are focused on changes in the Lower Basin,” she said. “I think there’s a real strong focus on ‘let’s get the Lower Basin’s house in order, and then we can focus on the rest of the system.’”

Camille Calimlim Touton, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, speaks at a conference in Boulder, Colorado on June 8, 2023. She said the agency’s next river management plan needs to be adaptable to a future with unpredictable climate conditions. (Alex Hager/KUNC)

Koebele also co-authored a letter of her own.

“In the scoping process everyone feels the need to put their stake in the ground, tho show their most prominent need or value,” Koebele said. “In these initial processes, people are just trying to get what they really want out on the table even if they know they might need to negotiate back from that.”

The roughly 24,000 letters written to Reclamation providing input covered a wide range of priorities. The agency said it fielded more than 300 unique submissions from the public, tribes, states, federal agencies and non-governmental organizations. Reclamation also received more than 21,000 form letter submissions, the majority of which came from individuals.

Fifteen tribal groups submitted comments to Reclamation, with many pointing out the need for greater inclusion of tribes’ needs in the next set of Colorado River rules. A total of 30 federally recognized tribes use water from the Colorado River, and have historically been excluded from high-level talks about how its water is shared. Despite holding rights to about a quarter of the river’s flow, many tribes lack the funding and infrastructure to use their full allocations.

“We should reject the historical exclusion of tribes, and other outdated policies that have led to inequitable and unsustainable results, and take advantage of this opportunity to create a more equitable and sustainable management system for the Colorado River,” Edward Velarde, president of the Jicarilla Apache Nation, wrote.

Other letters from tribes that use the Colorado River also emphasized the potential to correct historical wrongs in water management, calling for post-2026 rules to give Indigenous communities more certainty about their water supplies and better opportunities to be compensated for water they don’t use.

The challenges ahead

Reclamation is tasked with creating a plan that doesn’t just satisfy the needs of water users who turn on their taps, but also those who use the river along the way – human or otherwise. Many letters from the public and environmental groups highlighted the need to manage the river in a way that sustains habitats for birds, fish and other plants and animals that depend on the water source.

Meanwhile, other letters cited the need to keep water in Lake Powell, a man-made reservoir that stashes a massive amount of water in the Utah and Arizona deserts. The nation’s second-largest reservoir has grown into a hotbed of recreational activity since its filling in the 1960s. Sharp drops in Powell’s water levels have jeopardized boating opportunities and hydropower generation, but have been celebrated by environmentalists.

None of the comments made to Reclamation represent binding decisions about water management, but might give some clues as to what state negotiators are talking about behind closed doors. They’re due to come up with new rules for water sharing by 2026, when the current guidelines expire.

Boats sit in Lake Powell near Bullfrog, Utah on July 7, 2022. Letters sent to Reclamation show the wide variety of conflicting interests that new river guidelines will attempt to satisfy. Beyond the oft-discussed tensions between cities and agricultural regions, Reclamation will attempt to address the needs of conservationists and recreators alike. (Alex Hager/KUNC)

In recent years, dry conditions have forced some groups of states to agree on relatively small, temporary water-saving measures. But pressure from the federal government has revealed thus-insurmountable tensions between states.

In January, six of the seven states that use Colorado River water submitted comments right before a federal deadline for suggestions about how to conserve water. California refused to sign on, even though the state is frequently aligned with Arizona and Nevada on regional water issues. In August 2022, the federal government threatened massive mandatory water cutbacks, and states failed to agree on an alternative before the deadline. Ultimately, federal authorities did not follow through on their threat.

Those seven Colorado River states have long been divided about sharing the river’s water. The Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico are often opposed to the opinions of their Lower Basin counterparts – California, Arizona and Nevada. Decades-old tensions still run hot ahead of the 2026 deadline, and climate change has only made those discussions more contentious.

Dry conditions, fueled by climate change, have been steadily shrinking the Colorado River for more than 20 years. In the same period, water managers have been forced to stretch the dwindling supply across populations that are growing by the millions. Meanwhile, the agricultural industry uses about 80% of the river’s water, and decisions to reduce the amount of water used by farmers and ranchers are seen as politically unpopular.

One point upon which many river users seem to agree is the need for long-lasting guidelines that can withstand changing climate conditions long into the future.

“You need to be able to plan for a future that anticipates the hydrologic shifts and challenges,” Reclamation’s Touton said. “We need to be able to adapt and adapt quickly as conditions change, but we’re building that in from the start.”

Pre-2026 negotiations are playing out against the backdrop of the Colorado River Compact, a century-old document that imposes somewhat inflexible legal boundaries on current talks.

This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported by the Walton Family Foundation.

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About Alex Hager

Alex is KUNC's reporter covering the Colorado River Basin. He spent two years at Aspen Public Radio, mainly reporting on the resort economy, the environment and the COVID-19 pandemic. Before that, he covered the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery for KDLG in Dillingham, Alaska.

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