State officials gear up for “difficult conversations” on the Colorado River

Fifteen years ago, deeply worried that a continued drought on the Colorado River would cause a crisis sooner rather than later, the seven U.S. states that share the river’s flows made a historic agreement to jointly manage reservoirs and share shortages that might arise.

The agreement, known in shorthand as the 2007 interim guidelines, is set to be renegotiated beginning this year, ahead of its expiration in 2026.

Another critical set of agreements, known as the 2019 drought contingency plans, are also being re-examined this year as the crisis on the river deepens.

“We’re about to engage in some very difficult discussions,” said Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the state’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission.

Mitchell’s comments came Jan. 26 at the annual convention of the Colorado Water Congress, which represents hundreds of Colorado water users and utilities, in Aurora.

The Colorado River Basin includes the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, and the Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada. It also includes 30 tribal nations and Mexico.

“One of the keys to our success is going to be that we are in line with the other basin states and the U.S. Department of the Interior, but that we are also working with other sovereigns and stakeholders to find solutions,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell and others credit the two agreements with keeping the system operational for much of the past 15 years.

“They were successful in that they slowed down the decline of the reservoirs and bought some time to see if hydrology improved,” she said. “News flash: It did not.”

Climate change, the 20-year megadrought affecting the basin, and population growth have super-charged the crisis, causing the river’s flows to decline faster than anyone anticipated, and lakes Mead and Powell to record their lowest levels since they were built, respectively, in the 1930s and 1960s.

The river system has deteriorated so quickly that last July the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation moved, within a matter of days, to begin emergency releases of water from Utah’s Flaming Gorge, Colorado’s Blue Mesa, and New Mexico’s Navajo reservoirs.

The goal was to protect Lake Powell’s ability to produce hydropower, a green source of electricity that supplies more than 50 cities and electric companies in Colorado alone.

In addition, Lower Basin states have committed to reducing outflows from Lake Mead, a move that reduces some of the pressure on Lake Powell to the north. But few believe these actions will be enough to protect the river system as the weather forecast continues to deteriorate.

The majority of the mountain snows that feed the Colorado River fall in the Upper Basin. Although recent conditions have improved slightly, with snowpack reaching average or above average levels in the western half of Colorado, climate scientists say the runoff forecast is not matching up and attribute lower forecasts to the impact of badly depleted soil moisture caused by prolonged drought.

That has left Upper Basin state water officials wondering how much more water they will have to sacrifice to protect Lake Powell.

“The Secretary of Interior took action to release 150,000 acre-feet of water from Upper Basin reservoirs to protect Lake Powell levels. 36,000 acre-feet of that came from Blue Mesa. It left that unit at 27% full. We saw the harm that caused,” Mitchell said. “It’s difficult to think how much more we can provide.”

Lain Leoniak, an attorney and negotiator from the Colorado Attorney General’s office, said officials are hopeful that the new interim guidelines will contain a road map that hinges less on operating rules and more on weather forecasts.

“We’re going to have to find a way to be responsive to extreme variability in hydrology,” Leoniak said. “We need flexibility built into any post-2026 guidelines, but we don’t want to be engaging in renegotiations every two to three years. That doesn’t work either.”

As teams from across the basin prepare to begin negotiating, Mitchell said Colorado and other Upper Basin states would push to ensure that no one state has to take on more of the burden than another, that all states, and such sovereign nations as the tribal nations and Mexico, as well as other parties, such as environmental groups, would be full participants in the negotiations.

Mitchell also said her negotiating team would push to ensure the Upper Basin states weren’t forced to give up more water than the downstream users on the system.

Under the terms of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the Upper Basin and Lower Basin states are each entitled to 7.5 million acre-feet of water annually. But any excess water received, or left unused, in the Upper Basin flows to the Lower Basin because much of it cannot be stored here. That situation has given Lower Basin states access to surplus water over the years that they have become reliant on, a fact that Mitchell and others say has to change if the river is going to be brought into balance in this drier world.

“The compact’s intention was that we all had that equal footing. The fact that there have been states that have been able to overuse while we are using less than our apportionment … we don’t want them to get used to that overuse. We have to be focused on making sure that they adjust to what is available to them,” Mitchell said.

As the 1922 compact approaches its 100th anniversary in November, Mitchell said she was hopeful that agreements will be reached in the coming months that will help balance the river and allow it to function well for the next century.

“Hopefully people will be sitting here in 100 years saying [of the negotiators], ‘They did a good job.’”

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at or @jerd_smith.

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