In tense Colorado River talks, Becky Mitchell takes a stand for Colorado and tribal water rights

LAS VEGAS — Around 8 a.m. Dec. 13, Becky Mitchell swapped flip-flops for heels, donned a blazer and headed out of her Las Vegas hotel room to fight for Colorado’s right to water in a drier future at the biggest water gathering of the year.

At the 2023 Colorado River Water Users Association meeting last month, Mitchell, 49, would glad-hand and spar with 1,700 of the Colorado River’s most powerful water users. As Colorado’s first full-time Colorado River commissioner, Mitchell’s job is to make sure Coloradans don’t lose out as the seven basin states vie for the critical, and limited, resource.

“There’s always some tension within the seven states whether we portray it or not,” Mitchell said. “It’s good for people to see that. We’re dealing with important issues.”

Mitchell, originally from Hawaii, is a Colorado School of Mines graduate who has worked on Colorado water issues for the state since 2009. In addition to serving as Colorado’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission, she has also been the director of the state’s top water agency, the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

Now, she’s one of seven state leaders, and the only woman, at the center of negotiations over the crisis-plagued river where warmer temperatures, drought and overuse are jeopardizing vital resources for 40 million people.

Instability in the basin, which provides 40% of Colorado’s water, is just adding to the pressure. Cities, industries and farms could face more severe water shortages by 2050, according to the state’s water plan.

“If you’re not passionate about this, you’re not paying attention,” Mitchell said. “When you look at the science and the history, I don’t know how it doesn’t move you.”

For the federal government and the seven state commissioners the main task at hand is to plan how water is stored and released from the basin’s two largest water savings banks, lakes Mead and Powell, after 2026, when the current operating rules expire.

Based on their decisions and climate conditions, the river and its reservoirs could continue to dry up, as they nearly did in 2021 and 2022, or they could be brought back into balance, with demands for water reduced to match the river’s shrinking supplies.

“Everyone is intent on protecting the interests of their particular constituency,” said Estevan López, New Mexico’s Colorado River negotiator. “Things can get tense at times in these discussions. These are difficult issues for all of us.”

Mitchell in action

A typical day for Mitchell involves a steady flow of meetings, either in Colorado or across the basin states, with the political leaders, experts, utility managers, water users and others in the water community. The conference represented all of that, on hyperspeed, crunched into one windowless, enormous conference hall.

“These things are overwhelming. I think people think I’m more of a people person than I am. I actually like to definitely recharge as much as I can,” Mitchell said, which mostly involved a U2 concert, karaoke and family time at the conference.

The annual gathering offers a chance to hammer home key points in a public forum with attendees from across the Upper Basin — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — and the Lower Basin — Arizona, California and Nevada, Mitchell said.

Her main point: There’s only so much Upper Basin states can do when water users are already getting cut off each year, she said, while walking, coffee in hand, past slot machines and French-themed shops at Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino.

She headed into the first big conference meeting, where she and other state representatives on the Upper Colorado River Commission delivered prepared remarks and state updates to the audience. For Mitchell, that meant rehashing her “irrefutable truths,” a set of standards by which she’ll vet any agreement the basin states propose.

Occasionally, someone stopped her in the hallways or at meals for sidebar conversations. (“Xcel accepted!” one person shared, referencing a historic agreement to purchase some of the oldest water rights in Colorado from Xcel.)

The next morning, tensions flared at the panel as she spoke stridently about her concerns about the negotiations and limitations on the water supply in Colorado, where at least some farmers, ranchers and other water users see their water shut off early as supplies shrink.

Several Coloradans said they felt well-represented by Mitchell during the conference, including leaders of the two tribes with reservation land in Colorado, the Southern Ute and the Ute Mountain Ute.

“She’s strong in heart and mind to get the message out. Being blunt sometimes takes that,” Ute Mountain Ute Chairman Manuel Heart said. Mitchell has advocated for tribes on a whole new level, and without her, they’d be stuck in the status quo, Heart said.

“She’s letting everybody else know: She stands with the tribes, and Colorado stands with the tribes,” said Lorelei Cloud, acting chairwoman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. “That’s a big statement to make.”

Working outside of the mold

Mitchell doesn’t fit the traditional mold of a water buffalo in Colorado. Some attendees privately groused that Mitchell’s approach at the panel was too aggressive or her tone too scolding.

Several Coloradans said they loved Mitchell’s spirited and fiery manner. Many Coloradans at the conference were proud of her, said Ken Curtis, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District.

“She did have to earn some respect over some time, and I think she’s earned it,” Curtis said. “Anytime there’s somebody new appointed to a position like this, that pretty much the whole state water community is watching, it’s got to be rough.”

Commissioner Becky Mitchell, Colorado’s representative in Colorado River Basin negotiations, talks with Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, on Dec. 13, 2023, at the Colorado River Water Users Association conference in Las Vegas. (Shannon Mullane, The Colorado Sun)

The slowly changing stereotype of a “water buffalo,” an insider term for negotiators of Colorado River agreements, is that of an older, white and male figurehead.

Mitchell is not those things. In her home life, she is the mother of five adult children, three of whom she adopted from Ethiopia where she frequently returns to work on water issues.

At the conference, her big laughs occasionally came with a slight snort, and once or twice, she broke out a Running Man-style dance move in the conference halls. She was frequently the most forceful speaker on the stage, and in past speaking events, she’s gotten choked up while talking about water issues.

“People really see her sincerity, speaking from the heart, and they’re willing to do the same,” said Robert Sakata, a Colorado farmer and member of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

Mitchell said she has made a conscious decision to not shrink herself in the face of criticism. It is an example taught to her by her mother, she said, and one that she tries to teach to her daughters.

“There’s been a couple times when I’ve tried to be quieter or politer to make myself heard, and it hasn’t worked,” Mitchell said. “I’ve had to make a choice to be in a place that’s more uncomfortable for me. … What we’re fighting for is too important to make myself small to make myself feel comfortable.”

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