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The East River flows south from its headwaters in Emerald Lake north of Crested Butte, Colorado, on May 18. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

CRESTED BUTTE — As Colorado’s first full-time Colorado River commissioner, Becky Mitchell is able to focus entirely on navigating interstate water sharing negotiations and advocating for water users around the state.

She’s laid out eight principles, or “irrefutable truths,” that guide her in that work. 

Since 2019, Mitchell has served as the director of the state’s top water agency, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and simultaneously as the top Colorado River negotiator, appointed by Gov. Jared Polis. In June, the state announced her move to full-time commissioner. 

“I have always been incredibly proud to do the work that I do,” Mitchell said Thursday after leaving the quarterly CWCB board meeting in Crested Butte. “Not everybody gets to do work in something that can have such a great impact, so I never forget how fortunate I am to be able to do that.”

Becky Mitchell, Director of Colorado Water Conservation Board, on Aug. 23, 2022. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

As commissioner, Mitchell is meeting with other basin officials about near- and long-term operations of Colorado River Basin’s largest reservoirs, lakes Mead and Powell. Lake Powell captures water from the Upper Basin — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — then delivers it to Lake Mead, which sends it to the Lower Basin — Arizona, California and Nevada. Both basins contribute water allocated to Mexico.

In total, the Colorado River Basin serves about 40 million people, and how water is stored in and released from these enormous water savings banks has the potential to impact the entire basin. 

In recent years, the reservoirs — the linchpins of the whole system — fell to historic lows, threatening hydroelectricity generation and water delivery from Lake Powell to Lake Mead. The crisis prompted tense negotiations among basin officials, including Mitchell, about how to operate the reservoirs during prolonged drought conditions in the near-term, from 2024 to 2026. 

This summer, the federal government launched a long-term planning process focused on operations after 2026, when the current management rules for lakes Powell and Mead expire. Mitchell is also representing Colorado in these long-term planning negotiations.

Mitchell’s guiding principles help inform the state’s position in Colorado River negotiations and the federal planning processes, staff said during the board meeting Thursday. 

  • Acknowledging that climate change is real. 
  • Recognizing that water users in the Lower Basin are not more important than water users in the Upper Basin. 
  • Preventing overuse in the Lower Basin.
  • Defending against attempts at compact curtailment in the Upper Basin states.
  • Operating Lake Powell and Lake Mead to respond to actual hydrology and protect storage. 
  • Preserving federal reserved water rights for Tribal Nations. 
  • Complying with federal environmental law.
  • Advancing coordination between the United States and Mexico. 

Mitchell sat down with The Colorado Sun to expand on these priorities and to talk about her new role moments after the board and staff members tearfully celebrated her work at the CWCB. Board members said she helped unite a “splintered” agency, and described her as a lovable pitbull and Colorado’s water warrior.

“Becky truly is a warrior. She has been … the fiercest warrior in the room, and I think in the entire basin,” said Lorelei Cloud, a Southern Ute Tribal Council member and the first-ever tribal member to join the CWCB. “She’s the reason I’m here, and so I’m very, very grateful.”

The following has been edited for clarity and length. 

The Colorado Sun: You’ve been in these two significant leadership positions for a few years now. As you transition into the full-time commissioner role, how do you think those past years of experience will inform your approach?

Becky Mitchell: I think one of the benefits of holding both those previous roles, but also having a broad range of experience in Colorado water for my entire career, has helped create the relationships that I think are going to be helpful as we move the state forward in terms of, what is our role as we look at the next set of guidelines for operating Lake Powell and Lake Mead and the Colorado River System.

Sun: One of the priorities emphasizes that Lower Basin water users are not more important than Upper Basin water users. What prompted that clarification?

Mitchell: It’s really an important focus on the foundational concept that was in the original compact, which is that equity component.

Sun: Equity between the basins?

Mitchell: Equity between the basins. One of the things that we’ve seen is the strive to kind of keep these uses consistent in the Lower Basin, recognizing that that’s putting the whole system at risk. We’re seeing that those uses have brought us to the place that we are at today. The drive to continue that (usage) is actually a threat to all of us. 

I think there’s also a perception that we may be able to conserve enough in the Upper Basin to allow them to continue the use at that level. And that’s just not a possibility, and I think everything we’re doing is showing that. … We are already living within the means of the river and within the means of hydrology and what Mother Nature provides. It’s hard to squeeze a lot more out of the system. We lose so much. We lose our Colorado way of life.

Sun: One of the principles highlights operating Lake Powell and Lake Mead in response to the changing hydrologic conditions and prioritizing protecting storage. What is the biggest challenge in achieving that goal and what’s a path forward?

Mitchell: I think one of the biggest challenges is that it’s going to require change, and change is difficult for everyone. I think one of the benefits we have in the Upper Basin is that we adapt to change on an annual basis, and so I think there are some lessons learned that we can offer across the board. 

We live with real world hydrology annually because we don’t have those two big reservoirs above us that can regulate our flow. Getting people to recognize that change is not only necessary, but it could be beneficial for them. There will be more certainty if you’re able to adapt to what’s actually there. 

Sun: We’ve talked about evaporative losses and transit losses, which are hot topics in negotiations because they count as a consumptive water use in the Upper Basin but are unaccounted for in the Lower Basin. Is that what you’re talking about, in terms of linking how reservoirs are operated to the river’s hydrology?

Mitchell: I think it’s bigger than just that. Some of that is yet to be determined in terms of where exactly we go, and some of that is part of the discussion that needs to be within the bounds and confines of the negotiations. But obviously, accurate accounting is going to be critical to moving forward.

Glen Canyon Dam at Page, Arizona, holds back the massive Lake Powell in August 2021. The reservoir’s elevation dropped to historic lows in 2021, raising concerns that the dam would not be able to generate electricity. The above-average snowpack in 2023 helped stabilize the reservoir’s water storage levels. (Bureau of Land Management)

Sun: Another principle highlights the role of tribes, saying solutions for overuse in the Lower Basin cannot continue to depend on tribes’ undeveloped federal reserved water rights. You’ve spoken about tribal representation before. What seems most feasible to you to move forward on structural inclusion for tribes, and what could you commit to doing today?

Mitchell: I’m not going to commit to anything today because it’s not just a commitment on my part, it’s a commitment on multiple parties’ parts. …

What we can do is show what we’ve started doing in Colorado, specifically, and commit to how we engage and what we’re engaging on with the two Colorado Ute tribes. I think that has not only set the standard in Colorado, but across the West in terms of meaningful engagement and inclusion. When you see a tribal representative on the CWCB board for the first time, that is a statement of: We absolutely have to change. We absolutely have to do better. 

Really making sure that folks are not relying on tribal waters to continue on the way that they’re currently operating — tribal waters that haven’t been developed but have been promised — it’s inappropriate. And we’ve got to figure out how to address that. We’ve got to figure out how tribes get what is needed. And not only what is needed, but what’s been promised to them. … We’re fortunate in Colorado because their rights are quantified and settled within Colorado, so that gives us some guides and boundaries of what we should be trying to do. When we talk about their settlements, it is really being in partnership with these tribes to make sure that the federal trust responsibility is fulfilled.

Sun: When you’re talking about that inappropriate reliance, is that something that you would bring up in these negotiations?

Mitchell: I’m not comfortable talking about what I’m exactly planning to talk about. These are going to be in conversations, obviously, but in terms of exactly how that looks I think there’s multiple venues. We have to look at that, not only at the state level and the Upper Basin level, but a lot of that plays into some other things.

Sun: What do you hope or expect to accomplish by the end of this calendar year in your new role?

Mitchell: I’m hoping that the biggest uptick is some real, meaningful movement on a basin states alternative with the other six basin states. Can we start working on self-management solutions that would be potentially analyzed as part of the post-2026 operating guidelines documentation and review? 

The other thing I would say is a goal by the end of this year is that we fully ramp up the robust outreach, where we’re hitting the ground and making sure that every person that needs to hear about what’s happening in Colorado — what I am doing as it relates to the Colorado River — hears about it. That I make myself as available as possible to every venue that is out there to have these discussions.

Shannon Mullane writes about the Colorado River Basin and Western water issues for The Colorado Sun. She frequently covers water news related to Western tribes, Western Slope and Colorado with an eye on issues related to resource management,...