Colorado River Basin states don’t agree on very much when it comes to the future operations of the basin’s largest water savings banks. One thing they do agree on: The current rules aren’t working.
The seven states with land in the Colorado River Basin and other stakeholders submitted comment letters Aug. 15 to the federal government for consideration as part of ongoing discussions over future operations at Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which together comprise 92% of the basin’s entire storage capacity.
The federal long-term planning process launched in June, a year after a storage crisis left water users reeling. From 2000 to 2022, Mead and Powell dropped from nearly full to less than 32% capacity, as of March 20. Water experts attribute the crisis to prolonged drought, an increasingly warm climate and overuse.
States, tribes, stakeholders and federal officials are in the midst of negotiations for both near- and long-term planning — each jockeying to strengthen their access to the vital resource.
The federal government has until Dec. 31, 2025, to make a plan that basin’s stakeholders can work with. That plan will determine how the two massive reservoirs store and release water, and will impact 40 million water users across the West, in two countries and 30 Native American tribes.
For now, it looks like they have a long way to go.
“(The seven states letter) shows where there is some agreement,” said Taylor Hawes, the Colorado River program director with The Nature Conservancy. “You might note, reading between the lines, that there’s not much that they’re able to agree on.”
Where do all seven states agree?
In June, the Bureau of Reclamation asked the public to comment on the scope of the new guidelines, which will go into effect in 2026; strategies for water management; and any other related issues that should be considered.
According to their letter, the seven basin states agree, primarily, on the basics.
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Management of Mead and Powell needs to provide reliability and certainty for the millions of people who rely on the Colorado River, they said.
All seven states agreed that the federal government must consult with them — or its management options will be “significantly limited.” And the feds shouldn’t throw out the Law of the River, the treaties, compacts, regulations and more that govern how the river basin’s water is shared.
They also agreed that the current rules aren’t working. A set of drought-response guidelines established in 2007 determines how water is stored in and released from Lake Mead and Lake Powell through Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam, respectively.
But years of drier-than-average conditions and depleted reservoirs “highlighted the inadequacy of these measures to adapt to worsening hydrology,” the states’ letter said.
The next set of rules, they say, should be interim, not permanent, so water managers can adapt to changing conditions in the future.
The states’ other key points: Finding solutions will require more collaboration, which means working closely with Colorado River Basin tribes, water users, nongovernmental organizations and others. And the U.S. needs to collaborate with Mexico in a separate but simultaneous process.
Where the basin states differ
The Upper Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah — and the Lower Basin states — Arizona, California and Nevada — agree that the Colorado River Basin has a supply and demand issue. But they don’t agree on how it should be addressed.
The basin’s water supply varies each year in response to the amount of rain and snow that falls into its 246,000 square miles. However, demand has outpaced supply as farmers, cities, industries and the environment claim the basin’s water. This imbalance has contributed to the water supply insecurity felt basinwide, including in Colorado where 40% of its water supply comes from the Colorado River and its tributaries.
Upper Basin states say that the federal government’s long-term plan needs to address this gap, which will require permanent Lower Basin reductions in most, if not all, operating conditions.
Officials in these states say that the Lower Basin states have exceeded their legal allocations while Upper Basin states regularly operate below their allocations.
The Upper Basin’s letter says one way to achieve Lower Basin reductions is to account for water lost because of evaporation and leaky infrastructure, which are estimated between 1.2 million acre-feet to 1.5 million acre-feet annually.
“The Upper Basin is starting to stake out some claims around permanent reductions in the Lower Basin, factoring in evaporative losses and transit losses,” said Hawes, who is familiar with the Colorado River negotiations. “They’re starting to lay the groundwork for that.”
The Lower Basin letter, notably, does not mention overuse, evaporation or transit losses.
Instead, the Lower Basin says the federal government’s plan should include an incentive system for voluntary conservation, augmenting the Colorado River’s supplies, and distributing those supplies efficiently, “particularly within the Lower Basin.”
The letter also notes that Lower Basin conservation efforts have contributed 5.1 million acre-feet to Lake Mead, raising its water levels by 72 feet.
Another area of contention touches on some of Colorado’s local reservoirs.
Lower Basin states say that the federal government should consider water stored in other federal reservoirs in its operations plans for Lake Mead and Lake Powell.
This would include upstream reservoirs, like Crystal Dam, Blue Mesa Dam and Morrow Point Dam, which form the Aspinall Unit located along the Gunnison River in Colorado. It would also include Flaming Gorge Dam in Utah and Navajo Dam in New Mexico.
“They want to include Flaming Gorge, Aspinall and Navajo. … That’s the hidden text,” Hawes said.
Colorado and other Upper Basin states disagree, saying that the long-term operations cannot change how these reservoirs are managed.
What’s at stake? If the upstream reservoirs are included in the operations plan, the Lower Basin states could gain more access to Upper Basin storage, which could then be called down to bolster Lake Powell’s water levels. The Upper Basin states want to avoid draining the Aspinall Unit, Flaming Gorge and Navajo to sustain Lower Basin overuse.
In the past, the federal government has pulled excess water from these upstream reservoirs only as emergency releases, like during the basin’s first federally declared water shortage in 2021.
Where does Colorado land?
Colorado’s letter doubled down on many of the Upper Basin’s points.
Colorado emphasized that the post-2026 operations rules should be based on the basin’s actual water supply each year and allow for the protection and restoration of both reservoirs’ storage.
The guidelines will need to acknowledge that climate change is real; Lower Basin overuse is unsustainable; tribes need to be able to participate for the plan to succeed; all uses should be transparently accounted for; and the rules should focus on operations at lakes Mead and Powell.
“Any assumption of reductions in use or curtailment in the Upper Basin is beyond the scope of this process,” the letter said.
The post-2026 rules shouldn’t interfere with states’ rights to administer their water and cannot favor one half of the Colorado River Basin over the other, Colorado’s letter said.
Carlyle Currier, president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, agreed with Colorado’s take for the most part.
“I think the new guidelines need to be much more definitive in not allowing overuse in the Lower Basin when the water’s not available,” he said.
He thought the role of climate change was overemphasized, when the real blame is that the basin’s water supply was not divided accurately in its cornerstone agreement, the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
His top priority, however, is that agricultural producers can still access the water that they have rights to use.
“Food security is a huge issue. … We’re fortunate in America that American farmers do provide the food that Americans need,” Currier said.
Hawes said she was happy to see recognition of climate change, although she was disappointed that Colorado’s letter didn’t directly address the role of nongovernmental organizations and the environment more directly.
“Climate change is accelerating and changing the system faster than anyone could even imagine 20 years ago,” she said. “I hope that, going forward, the parties will continue to hold that at the front of their mind, so they can be more creative about a sustainable future and not arguing about what they’ve done in the past and whether it worked or didn’t work and who got the short end of the stick.”
What one tribe wants to see
The 30 federally recognized tribes with land in the Colorado River Basin have rights to about 26% of the river’s average flow of 12.44 million acre-feet between 2000 and 2018. Two of these tribes, the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes, have land in Colorado.
The Ute Mountain Ute chairman Manual Heart said the federal government must uphold its responsibility to protect the tribe’s water rights.
Heart emphasized equity in how the basin is managed, saying that in some areas, tribal members live in impoverished conditions without adequate drinking water. The Ute Mountain Ute community of White Mesa in southeastern Utah is one example, he said.
“We all are not on a level playing field because tribes do not have the political power,” Heart said.
About a dozen Colorado River Basin tribes were still in litigation to quantify their rights as of 2021, including the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. The long-term operations plan, Heart said, should include a mechanism that would allow tribes to consume additional water as they quantify their rights.
“If this mechanism is not implemented, then the UMUT will face numerous obstacles to consumption of their water that they would not otherwise face,” he said.
Some tribes, including the Ute Mountain Ute, also have rights to water but no way to access it without the necessary infrastructure. That unused water flows downstream to be used by others — but tribes are not compensated for that use and that needs to change, Heart said.
If a tribe can use its water, but chooses to refrain, it should be compensated for any associated economic losses or expenses, Heart said.
The Southern Ute Indian Tribe declined to share their letter with The Colorado Sun.