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Worry and alarm center focus of annual Colorado River conference

An image of the Colorado River cutting through a canyon in the U.S. West.
National Integrated Drought Information System

Low water levels of the Colorado River have led to shrinking reservoirs and new concerns about the future of water in the West.

Back in August, the federal government declared a water shortage on the Colorado River, which led to the first-ever shortage declaration for Lake Mead in Southern Nevada. This week, officials from the West met at the annual Colorado River Water Users Association Conference in Las Vegas.

Nate Hegyi is a reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau who covered the conference, and he joined KUNR’s Noah Glick to talk about the event.

Editor's note: This interview includes language that some readers may find offensive.

Noah Glick: Tell me about the conference. What is the purpose of the meeting and what was discussed?

Nate Hegyi: Yeah, so essentially every year, dozens of scientists, tribal leaders, ranchers, investment bankers, government and water officials, all these people come together in Las Vegas for three days to talk about how to best manage the Colorado River, which is one of the West’s main sources of drinking water and power.

Glick: There were several officials and leaders from various states at this conference. What were some of the main takeaways and what were they discussing? What were some of the main concerns that you heard from leaders?

Hegyi: I think the general vibe is alarmed and worried, more alarmed and worried than in past conferences. Before, it was like, “Hey, you know, the crap’s going to hit the fan, the crap’s gonna hit the fan.” And now it’s like, “We can see the crap going towards the fan.”

The conversations were definitely grave and alarmed. I’m really shocked by how fast the two reservoirs are shrinking. I think a lot of people didn’t think that we’d ever see this day come where Lake Powell is starting to look more like the canyon it once was than a giant lake. As I said before, warnings from the federal government that Glen Canyon Dam, which provides power to millions of folks and is on Lake Powell, might stop working as early as next summer.

Glick: That’s profound. Maybe we can shift it a little bit and try to talk about some solutions. Were there any, sort of, discussions about the future? I know states have already agreed to some voluntary cutbacks, so can you just tell me a little bit more about some of the agreements that were made or any other future plans that were discussed?

Hegyi: The flipside of the coin to alarmed and concerned was, “Hey, we need to band together now, and we need to band together better than we have in the past.” During this conference, they signed what was called a 500+ plan. It’s a pledge between the federal government and three states, three water agencies in Arizona, Southern Nevada and Southern California, to increase conservation measures over the next two years, with the goal of raising the levels of Lake Mead by about 16 feet.

We’ve also seen Southern Nevada announced that it’s going to be banning all new lawns in Las Vegas, as well as evaporative cooling. So those giant towers you see on the tops of casinos, they’re going to put a moratorium on those. So there’s definitely these calls for steep conservation measures and “Hey, we need to get together now and solve this.” And so, there was a lot of hope in that sense from tribal members to state water officials to even folks at the Bureau of Reclamation.

Glick: One of the things that you’ve reported on already is the impact that this could have to tribes and the lack of bringing tribes into the conversation. What did you hear from tribes at this conference? Were they well represented?

Hegyi: They were definitely more well-represented at this conference than they had been at conferences in the past. Their voice is definitely growing in this conversation, which is also ironic because they hold the most senior water rights to the river through treaties signed in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Next year is a pretty pivotal year. They’re going to be beginning renegotiations for a new compact. They have a seat at the table, but they’re still skeptical because there’s this history of broken promises and no results for the tribes. And so, they’re kind of going in with a lot of hope, like, “Hey, maybe we’ll be able to talk. Maybe our voice will be heard a little bit more.” But they also see a 100-year history of not having that voice. I mean, in 1922, when the first compact was signed, Native Americans didn’t have a right to vote in this country. They weren’t considered citizens. And so, while things have changed a lot, there’s still a lot of trepidation with that.

Glick: I want to ask about the future of the Colorado River in the West. In general, do you see this as an ongoing issue? Is this the beginning of something that’s going to be a regular theme for us throughout the West, especially given the impacts of climate change?

Hegyi: I think that this is arguably the issue of the West. I was thinking about this metaphor. If the West was a person, the Colorado River is our heart. And right now, we’ve got high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and we’re getting really close to having a heart attack.

I think it’s something that more and more of us need to be following and need to be paying attention to. I get it, reporting water stories can be really boring. I mean, there’s a lot of what I consider “trigonometry” with water issues in the West. It gets really confusing really quickly. But the bottom line is it’s our most valuable resource, and it’s not just the Colorado. I mean, it’s the Truckee. It’s the Yellowstone River in Montana. Our water supplies in a lot of places are dwindling, and we’ve known about it for years, but I think it’s really coming to a tipping point.

Nate Hegyi is a reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau based at KNPR in Las Vegas.

Noah Glick is a former content director and host at KUNR Public Radio.
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