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The future of the Colorado River won’t be decided soon, states say

A group of six people sits behind a long table with name plates in front of them.
Alex Hager
Six of the seven state representatives who will shape the next chapter of Colorado River rules speak on a panel at the University of Colorado, Boulder on Jun. 6, 2024. Those leaders say they need more time to bridge deep-seated disagreements over how to write new management rules for a shrinking Colorado River.

The future of the Colorado River is in the hands of seven people. They rarely appear together in public. This week, they did just that – speaking on stage at a water law conference at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

The solution to the Colorado River’s supply-demand imbalance will be complicated. Their message in Boulder was simple: These things take time.

“We’re 30 months out,” said John Entsminger, Nevada’s top water negotiator. “We’re very much in the second or third inning of this baseball game that we’re playing here.”

The audience was mostly comprised of the people who will feel the impact of their decisions most sharply – leaders from some of the 30 Native American tribes that use Colorado River water, nonprofit groups that advocate for the plants and animals living along its banks, and managers of cities and farms that depend on its flows.

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The conference comes in the middle of a tense time for the Southwest’s most important river. The fate of the water supply will have an impact on kitchen faucets in major cities like Denver, Los Angeles and Phoenix, as well as sprawling farm fields which grow produce that gets consumed across the nation.

The current rules for managing the river expire in 2026, and state negotiators are under pressure to agree on a set of replacement guidelines before then. The Biden Administration wants those states to find compromise before the November election, but negotiators hinted that they may take longer than that.

In March, they found themselves divided into two groups, along lines that have split Colorado River states since the early 20th century. Those two camps – the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, and the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada – submitted two competing proposals for managing the river.

A concrete tower stands in front of a low, blue lake. White marks along the red rock canyon show where the lake's levels used to be.
Alex Hager
Lake Mead, the nation's largest reservoir, sits low on Dec. 16, 2021. The federal government is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to keep more water in the reservoir as negotiators work on long-term rules for managing its supplies.

Since then, they’ve been meeting behind closed doors and say they’re working towards compromise. Details from those meetings have been scant, but negotiators do not appear to be finding much common ground, and are instead divided over major ideological differences about who should reduce their demand on the river.

“I wouldn't call it a breakdown, but I do think that there was kind of a hiatus,” said Estevan López, the water negotiator from New Mexico. “It's indicative of just how difficult these issues are and how passionate people are about protecting their state's interests.”

López and his peers stressed their commitment to reaching agreement eventually, but did not explain exactly how they plan to bridge major divisions in their ideas about water-sharing.

The states do seem to agree on one thing: they all say they’d prefer to avoid this issue going to court. But when asked by the panel’s moderator whether they would commit to avoid taking Colorado River negotiations to the supreme court, none of the state representatives said yes.

Nevada’s Entsminger said the threat of legal action, and the threat of the federal government stepping in and making a decision because the states can’t agree, are actually motivators to work towards compromise. He said the “federal anvil” hanging over negotiators has long been a part of negotiations.

New federal funding

When asked what success looks like on the Colorado River, the federal government’s top Western water official said this.

“Success is continuing the tradition of this basin.”

Camille Calimlim Touton, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, said she sees success as “continuing dialogue,” expressing optimism that the region’s leaders will find some agreement about managing the Colorado River’s next chapter.

But the “tradition of the basin,” is marked by disagreement and century-old rivalries.

When it comes to Western water, the federal government pretty much does what the states tell it. Reclamation, the federal agency which manages the West’s dams and reservoirs, ultimately puts new water rules into law, but depends on the states to help write them.

States, throughout the messy recent history of Western water management, have had trouble navigating the region out of crisis. Climate change has depleted the Colorado River’s water supplies, and the states that depend on it have struggled to cut back on demand.

Previous agreements to limit water demand have staved off catastrophe, but ultimately kicked the can down the road and set up the region’s current crisis.

But there is one thing the federal government can do. Spend.

And spend they have. The Biden Administration has earmarked billions of dollars for water projects in communities around the Western U.S. On the first morning of the conference in Boulder, they allocated a big chunk of infrastructure spending for even more water conservation.

Bundles of irrigation pipe owned by farmer Jack Vessey sit in a maintenance yard on June 21, 2022. Vessey and others tout that about 90% of the nation's wintertime leafy greens are grown with Colorado River water in Imperial Valley and surrounding farm districts.
Alex Hager
Bundles of irrigation pipe owned by farmer Jack Vessey sit in a maintenance yard on June 21, 2022. Farm owners in California's Imperial Valley say they could use less water in exchange for federal funding. Federal infrastructure money, used to incentivize reductions in water use, has been a key part of the recent approach to temporary water cutbacks that help buy time for negotiators.

Touton and her colleagues announced that $700 million from the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) would go to water saving in the Colorado River’s Lower Basin. The agency said that money will go toward “innovative projects like water distribution structures, advanced metering infrastructure, farm efficiency improvements, canal lining, turf removal, groundwater banking, desalination, recycling water and water purification.”

That’s a continuation of existing work. The federal government has already spent a big portion of the $4 billion of IRA money that was allocated for Colorado River projects. Perhaps most notably, sending payouts to farmers and ranchers that offered to pause growing in exchange for a federal check.

This latest $700 million spend may do some of the same. The agency said it could save more than 700,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead. That amount is fairly substantial – smaller than the 3 million acre-foot in water conservation proposed in a $1.2 billion deal struck in 2023, but larger than a 100,000 acre-foot conservation deal with the California farm district that uses more water than any other city or farm district in the Southwest.

The Biden Administration’s big spending on Colorado River water conservation has been a key part of buying time for water negotiators, helping to prop up water levels at major reservoirs and create space for talks about longer-term solutions. However, the spending pattern has raised some anxieties about the precedent it might set for the river’s long-term future.

Basically, this kind of funding might not come around again soon.

On the other hand, it could be a means of giving new momentum to a variety of projects that each represent a small piece of the puzzle that is a sustainable future for the Colorado River.

As one state negotiator put it, the Colorado River crisis won’t be solved by a silver bullet, but instead “silver buckshot.”

That buckshot approach is already underway. Hundreds of millions of dollars are currently at work to save water – from programs that pay farmers in rural Wyoming to pause growing and leave their water in the river to massive purification facilities that can help the Los Angeles area keep using more of the water it already has.

Tribes still calling for more representation

Tribes have long been left onthe sidelines of talks about sharing water from the Colorado River. In Boulder, tribal leaders celebrated recent moves to bring Native voices into negotiations, but made it clear that there is still work to be done.

After more than a century of exclusion, tribes are still asking for more representation. Leaders say that a seat at the table for tribes is especially important at this juncture in Colorado River negotiations.

“We’re not participants,” said Dwight Lomayesva, Vice Chairman of Colorado River Indian Tribes. “Our engagement is secondhand at best.”

Some tribal leaders pointed to new government coordination efforts over the past few years as signs of progress. Lorelei Cloud, vice-chairwoman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, pointed to a new agreement between the six tribes and the four states that make up the Colorado River’s Upper Basin.

She said leaders in water management need to build on that work.

“I'm asking everybody in here to normalize tribal voices being at the decision making table,” Cloud said. “Letting us make those decisions that affect our people.”

Lorelei Cloud, vice-chairwoman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, speaks at the University of Colorado, Boulder on Jun. 6, 2024. Cloud and other tribal leaders celebrated some of the work that has already been done to bring indigenous people into water management talks, but said there is much more work to be done.
Lorelei Cloud, vice-chairwoman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, speaks at the University of Colorado, Boulder on Jun. 6, 2024. Cloud and other tribal leaders celebrated some of the work that has already been done to bring indigenous people into water management talks, but said there is much more work to be done.

One state negotiator raised the question of whose responsibility it is, exactly, to make sure tribal input shapes the next set of guidelines for the Colorado River.

JB Hamby, the water negotiator for California, said his state had made progress with including tribal leaders, but said the federal government is on the hook for making sure tribal voices are included.

“Everybody's comments get evaluated equally,” he said. “And ultimately, that's a Reclamation/Interior decision about how that goes.”

States split into two groups to submit proposals. At least one major tribe, the Gila River Indian Community, has said publicly that it does not support the proposal put forth by Arizona, the state in which its land resides. The two competing state proposals were joined by a letter from tribal groups. A majority of tribes that use Colorado River water added their signatures to the memo, outlining common values they’d like to see represented in post-2026 river management.

Some tribal leaders said Indigenous people aren’t just being excluded, but there are active efforts to keep them from having an influence on the next chapter of water-sharing rules.

“There are whisper campaigns from some of you trying to undermine tribal positions and efforts to try to pit tribes against one another,” said Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian Community. “The old divide and conquer strategy.”

Lewis said those campaigns are not public, but thanked Jordan D. Joaquin, president of the Quechan Indian Tribe, for calling out those efforts at a recent meeting.

“During Westward expansion we were conquered by the divide and conquer strategy,” Lewis said. “We can't let that happen again here in the midst of what we're dealing with in regards to water policy.”

Lewis said those tactics won’t work, because “at the end of the day, all the basin tribes have a common bond, a historic bond, a sacred bond that trumps the artificial constructs that non-Indians have and still use to carve up” the Colorado River.

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.

Alex is KUNC's reporter covering the Colorado River Basin. He spent two years at Aspen Public Radio, mainly reporting on the resort economy, the environment and the COVID-19 pandemic. Before that, he covered the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery for KDLG in Dillingham, Alaska.