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Wet weather and a conservation deal ease some short-term pressure on Colorado River managers

The Colorado River flows through Grand County, Colo. on Oct. 23, 2023. A new draft plan for river management shows that a wet winter and a conservation deal from California, Arizona and Nevada has eased pressure on the region's water policymakers until 2026.
Alex Hagar/KUNC
The Colorado River flows through Grand County, Colo. on Oct. 23, 2023. A new draft plan for river management shows that a wet winter and a conservation deal from California, Arizona and Nevada has eased pressure on the region's water policymakers until 2026.

A wet winter and a temporary water conservation agreement have lifted some weight off the shoulders of Colorado River policymakers. That shift is reflected in a new draft management plan from the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency which operates major dams and reservoirs across the West.

The draft document, called a “Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement,” outlines water management plans until 2026 and reflects a shift away from short-term crisis management, as the region’s water policymakers begin to focus on a more permanent rewrite of rules for how the river is shared.

For the past few years, the seven states that use water from the Colorado River had been stuck in a kind of emergency mode. A growing supply-demand imbalance, fueled by climate change, had been sapping the water supply for tens of millions of people. Dropping levels at the nation’s largest reservoirs forced water managers to come up with short-term conservation measures to protect dam infrastructure.

Now, those water managers – a group of seven state-appointed negotiators – have more bandwidth to focus on replacing long-term rules for divvying up the river. The current set of rules expires in 2026. The Colorado River basin also includes 30 federally-recognized tribes, which have long asked for a greater voice in water negotiations, and are still pressing for a more formal role in ongoing talks. Despite holding rights to about a quarter of the river’s flow, many tribes lack the funding and infrastructure to use their full allocations.

Despite Reclamation and states highlighting a short-term conservation deal as a means of enabling relatively calm times in the Colorado River negotiation space, policy analysts say the wet winter is doing the heavy lifting.

“Mother nature totally made this possible,” said Kyle Roerink, director of the nonprofit Great Basin Water Network. “What I really see this as is a victory lap, a pat on the back, a feather in the cap for Reclamation and the states for avoiding litigation.”

Experts have warned that failure to reach agreement on water cutbacks could end in lawsuits between the states and federal government, an outcome which those stakeholders say they want to avoid.

A previous draft plan was released in April, but this one includes changes since then. The main difference is the inclusion of water data from a wet winter in the mountains. Winter precipitation in the Colorado River’s Upper Basin – where snowmelt accounts for the majority of the river’s total water supply – was 121% of average last winter. That raised water levels in Lake Powell from a record-low 22% of total capacity to 40%.

The other difference is a conservation agreement between California, Arizona and Nevada. Those states, which make up the river’s Lower Basin, are occasionally at odds over how to share water. In this instance, they’ve committed to conserving up to 3 million acre-feet. The states laid out a plan for water cutbacks in exchange for money from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to fill one acre of land to a height of one foot. One acre-foot generally provides enough water for one to two households for a year.

The draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement perhaps illustrates positive changes in the process by which the future of the river is being negotiated, said Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River Program Director at the Audubon Society. She said a publicly-available document and a public comment period are an improvement from the “windowless conference rooms” of decades past.

“The science is telling us that, in the long term, we're going to see a drier basin, so we need to make decisions about how to manage less water,” Pitt said. “I think it's extremely important that we get good at doing that through good public process that let's all stakeholders weigh in on what that will look like.”

Despite this public document, details from closed-door negotiations about the post-2026 future of the river are still fairly sparse. But John Berggren, who studies water policy at the conservation group Western Resource Advocates, said Reclamation’s latest document hints at some positive developments in Colorado River negotiations. Previously, he said, states were less likely to propose conserving millions of acre-feet, like the Lower Basin states did in their recent plan.

“It's a short-term, small thing, but it helps illuminate how the states have evolved and are going to continue to evolve in their thinking going forward for that long-term process,” Berggren said.

Berggren’s group receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also supports KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.

Long-term negotiations are still likely to be tense, as states are reluctant to cut back on water use without promises that other states will do the same. At the same time, farmers, growing cities, environmental advocates and tribes are also trying to have their needs reflected in the new set of river management rules.

“You know, there's gonna be a lot more wrangling and fighting over that long term process because it will be in place for decades,” Berggren said.

This story is part of ongoing coverage of water in the West, produced by KUNC in Colorado and supported by the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial coverage.