Western states to release competing Colorado River proposals after tense negotiations stalled

It’s time to accept reality in the Colorado River Basin.

That’s what Colorado water experts are hoping for as officials in seven states get ready to release two major proposals for how to manage the drought-challenged river. The plans are due Monday to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and will have implications for how water is distributed to 40 million people in coming decades.

The Lower Basin — Arizona, California and Nevada — and the Upper Basin — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — initially tried to reach a unified proposal, but couldn’t bridge their differences during tense and difficult negotiations, leading each basin to prepare its own proposal.

Ahead of the fast-approaching deadline, 10 Colorado water experts said they want to see a plan that provides certainty to everyone, including farmers and cities — one that matches water use to the water actually available in the basin, is flexible enough to adapt to a changing climate, and details how to handle future water cuts.

“My stance there is like, a pox on all your houses for not being able to sit down and figure that. You, states, need to figure that out,” said Jennifer Pitt, the Colorado River Program director at the National Audubon Society. “That’s their job right now.”

The state negotiations are part of a basinwide attempt to adapt to changing conditions in the 246,000-square-mile river basin that spans the Western U.S., two Mexican states and the lands of 30 Native American tribes.

Over the past two decades, the river basin has experienced its driest period in 1,200 years. Researchers estimate that higher temperatures caused by climate change have cut the basin’s water supply by 10 trillion gallons.

The negotiations focus on a set of drought rules established in 2007 that expire in 2026. The interstate agreement governs water storage and releases at the basin’s two largest reservoirs: Lake Mead, on the Nevada-Arizona border, and Lake Powell, on the Utah-Arizona border. Together, these enormous reservoirs can store up to 53.9 million acre-feet of water, or about 92% of the reservoir storage capacity in the entire Colorado River Basin.

The 2007 rules still allowed states to draw more water out of their water savings banks, i.e., storage reservoirs, than the river deposited into the reservoirs. By the early 2020s, the reservoirs had dropped to historic lows, and water officials were operating in crisis mode. Additional agreements, in 2019 and 2023, were not enough to stabilize the system.

Basin state officials have been meeting for months to negotiate new post-2026 operations at Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell and Hoover Dam at Lake Mead.

The talks are part of a long-term planning process overseen by the Bureau of Reclamation. This spring, Reclamation will take state proposals into consideration while evaluating different alternatives for how water is stored and released by the dams. Reclamation aims to share drafts of those alternatives by December.

Although the seven states could not agree on one proposal, the Upper Basin officials are willing to keep coming back to the negotiating table, said Commissioner Becky Mitchell, Colorado’s top negotiator, during an Upper Colorado River Commission meeting Monday.

“We have a deadline coming up,” Mitchell said. “I believe there will be a two-basin approach. I believe that an attempt to rebuild the storage in Lake Powell and Lake Mead is critically important, but so is a focus on actual hydrology and common sense.”

Becky Mitchell, Colorado River commissioner for the state of Colorado, speaks about water issues during a panel at the 2023 Colorado River Water Users Association conference in Las Vegas on Dec. 14, 2023. The panel featured each state’s top negotiator on Colorado River issues. (Shannon Mullane, The Colorado Sun)

What Colorado water experts are watching

Like millions of people across the basin, Coloradans depend on the Colorado River’s changing flows.

All of western Colorado, home to the Colorado River headwaters, lies within the basin, and Colorado River water is used by farmers, cities, industries, wildlife and more around the entire state. With so much unpredictability in the river basin, the negotiations and federal process need to protect water supplies and provide security to water users, said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

“We’re talking about the ability of those communities to plan a future. Any future requires that you have the essential building block of water,” Mueller said.

Colorado water experts also said they want to know how the states will boost the storage in lakes Mead and Powell. And when it comes to water cuts, how do states plan to distribute the shortages?

Colorado water experts and state officials have said, repeatedly, that all of the basin states need to operate within the basin’s actual water supply — the “wet” water, not just the “paper” water allocations outlined in legal agreements.

The river’s average annual flow between 2000 and 2023 was about 12.44 million acre-feet. Water law, however, allocates about 17.5 million acre-feet to the basin states and Mexico. That doesn’t account for water rights held by tribes, which have legal claims to about a quarter of the river’s annual flow.

One acre-foot supports about two families of four to five people for one year.

Mueller said he’ll be watching whether, and how, the proposals plan to adapt water use to match the river’s flows.

Steve Wolff, general manager of the Southwestern Water Conservation District, said Upper Basin states should get credit for the shortages that water users already take from year to year.

In 2021, the four states used 3.5 million acre-feet of their 7.5 million acre-foot legal allocation. The Lower Basin used 9.9 million acre-feet of water, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s top water policy agency.

The Lower Basin’s usage raises questions about water accounting, said Jeff Meyers, a rancher and member of the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable. He said he’ll be watching for whether the new proposals will include water from tributaries and water lost to evaporation in the Lower Basin — two factors that are not currently counted in that basin’s usage calculations.

Lower Basin officials have said they will take responsibility for some of the river’s deficit. The next question is how, said Eric Kuhn, former manager of the Colorado River District and co-author of “Science Be Dammed.”

Peter Ortego, general counsel for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, questioned how tribal water rights fit into the proposals, specifically regarding cutback agreements.

Pitt, of the Audubon Society, wanted to know how the states planned to avoid operating on the brink of crisis, a state that makes it harder to prioritize environmental issues.

When reservoirs are at crisis levels, “it is much less likely that the concerns that we have about management of environmental resources can be heard, nevermind addressed,” Pitt said.

The main point: Colorado River operations are designed for a river that no longer exists, Kuhn said. And every time states discuss taking water cuts, the legal, political and economic resistance ramps up exponentially.

Officials can either keep taking incremental shortages, returning to the negotiating table and a crisis every few years. Or they can make a plan that is flexible enough to handle even the worst outcomes — and the biggest water cuts — now, he said.

“Each time they had to renegotiate. Each time they had a minor crisis, a major crisis,” Kuhn said. “Will the system adapt to the next serious drought? Or will we have to do what we’ve done in the last 20 years, which is scramble to react to something that the current guidelines didn’t anticipate or don’t address?”

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