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Here’s what you need to know about proposals to save the Colorado River

A snowy mountain looms behind Lake Powell on April 10, 2023. States in the Colorado River's Upper Basin want to release less water from Lake Powell, the nation's second-largest reservoir. They argue they feel the strongest impacts as climate change shrinks the West's water supplies.
Alex Hager / KUNC
A snowy mountain looms behind Lake Powell on April 10, 2023. States in the Colorado River's Upper Basin want to release less water from Lake Powell, the nation's second-largest reservoir. They argue they feel the strongest impacts as climate change shrinks the West's water supplies.

The Colorado River is in trouble. More than two decades of megadrought fueled by climate change have sapped its supplies, and those who use the river's water are struggling to rein in demand. Now, with current rules for river sharing set to expire in 2026, policymakers have a rare opportunity to rework how Western water is managed.

The river is shared across seven states and parts of Mexico. It’s an area that includes about 40 million people, a multibillion-dollar agriculture industry, 30 federally-recognized native tribes and countless plants and animals.

Satisfying the needs of such a diverse group is proving difficult, and the policymakers tasked with shaping the river’s next chapter are stuck at an impasse.

The federal government operates the massive dams and reservoirs that control the river’s flow, but has mostly left decisions about how to share its water to states.

Right now, the states are divided into two groups that have bickered about water management for the past century. One group, the Upper Basin, is comprised of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico. The other, the Lower Basin, includes California, Arizona and Nevada.

Those two camps have each sent proposals to the federal government in an attempt to have their say in shaping the river’s future. Those competing proposals, along with separate recommendations from environmental advocates and tribal groups, are making it hard to coalesce around one set of rules.

The Upper Basin proposal

The Upper Basin is legally required to send a certain amount of water to downstream neighbors each year. After more than 100 years of complying with that standard, Upper Basin states contend they should be allowed to send less. The Upper Basin’s proposal puts that idea into writing.

About 85% of the Colorado River starts as snow in the Upper Basin’s mountains. Climate change, the catalyst for the region’s water shortages, is shrinking the amount of snow that falls in those mountains each year.

Because of that, the Upper Basin states argue, the Upper Basin feels the sting of climate change more sharply than the Lower Basin. Cities and farms within its four states have to adjust their water use in accordance with recent snowfall, Upper Basin leaders say, but the Lower Basin can count on predictable water deliveries from upstream.

Sending less water downstream, however, would be a violation of the Colorado River Compact, the 1922 legal agreement that provides the framework for modern water management in the arid West.

The Upper Basin’s pitch to send less water relies on a specific interpretation of the language in that agreement — one that hasn’t been tested in court. Critics of the plan, particularly leaders in the Lower Basin, say that interpretation isn’t solid enough to be such a big part of Colorado River management going forward.

The Lower Basin proposal

The Lower Basin states released their own proposal for managing the Colorado River on the same day as their upstream neighbors.

Their proposal introduces a new way of measuring how much water is stored in the region’s reservoirs and a new system for figuring out water cutbacks accordingly.

Currently, decisions about when to cut back on water—and by how much—are calculated using forecasts about water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the nation’s two largest reservoirs. The Lower Basin wants to, instead, make those decisions based on the total amount of water held in eight reservoirs, including Powell and Mead.

Lower Basin leaders say their new system would be more holistic and sustainable than the current way of doing things.

Under the Lower Basin proposal, water cutbacks would be triggered when the combined amount of water in those eight reservoirs falls below a certain amount.

Cutbacks are split into three tiers. In the first two, when reservoir levels are somewhat low, Lower Basin states would be the only ones to take less water. But when combined reservoir levels drop below 38% full, both the Lower Basin and Upper Basin would have to take cuts.

Read more about the Upper and Lower Basin proposals here.

Environmental groups submit separate proposal

A coalition of environmental nonprofits sent another proposal to the federal government. Those recommendations aim to make sure enough water flows through rivers to sustain healthy ecosystems for plants and animals.

The proposal suggests a new system of measuring water and doling out cutbacks. Like the Lower Basin’s plan, it would measure water in eight reservoirs instead of two. As an added layer, the environmental groups also suggest using recent climate conditions — like the amount of water held in soils — as a factor when deciding how much water to release from reservoirs.

The environmental proposal also wants water managers to take fish habitats into greater consideration when deciding how much water should be released from reservoirs.

In addition, the conservation groups suggest more frequent releases of water into the Colorado River Delta, an area in Mexico where the river used to meet the ocean. Considered an important bird habitat, the Delta now only has water flowing through it when policymakers decide to send it there.

Lastly, the environmental proposal recommends the creation of a “conservation reserve,” a new program that would let water users leave extra water in reservoirs to help the environment and protect infrastructure like dams, both of which can suffer when water levels are too low.

All seven of the organizations that crafted the river management proposal receive funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also supports KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.

Read more about the environmental proposal here.

Tribal groups advocate for water interests

Tribes, which have long been left out of conversations about managing water in areas they occupied long before white settlers, are also trying to shape the Colorado River’s future.

The 30 tribes that use Colorado River water are diverse and rarely agree on any one water management policy. Because of that, they sent the federal government a letter with a set of “principles” – broad reaching ideas about water management that don’t specify how much water might flow to individual states or tribes.

So far, 19 different tribes have co-signed the letter. In it, they call for three things that could give Indigenous people a bigger role in managing water:

First, they want the federal government to uphold a longstanding legal obligation to tribes by rejecting any new rules that could cut into their access to water and compensating any tribes that are forced to take cutbacks in times of shortage.

Tribes hold rights to about a quarter of the river’s flow, but many don’t have the funding and infrastructure to use all the water they’re allowed, and instead leave it in the river. In a second tenet, the letter asks the government to make it easier for tribes to take part in conservation programs – in which water users get paid to leave water in the river – and make it easier for tribes to market or lease their water to people who don’t live on tribal land.

Third, the letter asks the government to formalize tribes’ seats at the table. They have largely been left on the sidelines of water negotiations for the last century, and now they’re asking for a more set-in-stone way for tribes to have a say in talks about Colorado River policy.

Read more about the tribal letter here.

What’s next?

The federal government wants states to agree on one proposal, rather than two, before it installs any new Colorado River water rules. States say they’re working towards consensus, but signs of progress have been few and far between.

While the next set of rules won’t go into effect until 2026, the federal government wants to get the ball rolling as soon as possible. The Biden Administration is asking states to agree on one proposal before the end of 2024, in case the current administration loses the White House in the November election.

Without significant changes to the way the Colorado River is used, the problem is likely to get worse. Scientists predict that climate change will keep shrinking the water supply, meaning cutting back on demand will only get more important.


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