John Hickenlooper has been quietly convening fellow U.S. senators from six other Colorado River Basin states over the past year in an effort to assist in the increasingly frantic conservation negotiations around the parched and overtaxed waterway that some 40 million people in the Southwest rely upon.
Hickenlooper, a Democrat, sees the informal, bipartisan caucus as a way to mediate interstate disagreements over how the river should be managed — and who should have to use less of its water — in the hope of preventing federal intervention. While states’ governors may not meet on a regular basis, senators from across the river basin are frequently together in Washington, D.C.
“The idea here is that we’re looking at how to use more carrot and less stick,” he said. “The key here is the federal government is not the best one to force a deal. The best solution is going to be a solution that all seven states sign off on.”
The group of senators has been meeting every few weeks to discuss Colorado River Basin issues. The gatherings have become more frequent amid Biden administration deadlines for basin states to come to a water conservation agreement that prevents Lake Mead and Lake Powell levels from dropping too low.
The reservoirs are already at historically low levels, yet the negotiation deadlines have come and passed without a deal.
“I think the senators can provide additional information that maybe the states don’t all have,” Hickenlooper said, “and make sure that everyone is working together.”
Hickenlooper didn’t provide details on what the caucus has discussed, but he said the group has met with Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton, who warned that 4 million acre-feet in existing water use must be pared back.
“We’re all really hearing what priorities and specific issues are with each state and with the water users in each state,” he said. “As long as we understand that and are working from the same set of facts, we’re probably going to come up with a much better solution than if things degenerate into lawsuits.”
Hickenlooper said the caucus is looking to formalize itself with a chair and subchairs from the upper and lower Colorado River Basin.