Feds will take over if Western states can’t agree on Colorado River plan

Western states are still figuring out how to deal with a shrinking Colorado River. They have just months left to make a plan, or the feds will make one for them.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Glen Canyon Dam, which creates Lake Powell on the Colorado River, near Page, Ariz., on Thursday, July 13, 2023. The seven states of the Colorado River Basin only have months to agree on how the river should be managed in future decades, or the feds will move foward without their input.

The rules that have guided Colorado River operations for two decades will expire at the end of 2026. Water negotiators across the West have been devising a new set of guidelines — dubbed “post-2026 operations” — that will address water use imbalances, the effects of climate change and tribal water rights.

Now, Colorado River Basin states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming —only have a few months to finalize a plan to present to the U.S. Department of the Interior.

If they don’t, federal officials will move forward with planning post-2026 operations without them.

“Over the next three months, we are going to be frequently meeting and up to our eyeballs in negotiations with the hope and the expectation that we’ll have a proposal to the feds sometime in March,” Amy Haas, executive director of the Colorado River Authority of Utah, told The Salt Lake Tribune.

Water negotiators across the Colorado River Basin originally thought that they’d have longer to submit their plan to the Bureau of Reclamation, the agency housed within the Department of the Interior that oversees water projects across the country.

If the states don’t submit a plan in time, they could litigate the plan that Reclamation draws up or attempt to pass a plan for the river’s management legislatively. Western water managers aren’t keen to pursue either of those options.

“The Colorado River Basin has come together over the past year to create a consensus path to stabilize the system in the short term that now allows us to focus on the future,” Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said in a statement to The Tribune. “The Bureau of Reclamation is working with all partners across the Basin on what the operations of this critical system will look like Post 2026.”

Reclamation will consider the states’ timely proposal as one of several options for managing the Colorado River in future decades as they undertake the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) steps for post-2026 operations.

Haas said that she is optimistic about the states having a plan ready in time, despite the arduous months of negotiations ahead.

“If we want to control our destiny, if we want to have a stake in this, then we’ve got to put an alternative forth to be considered and evaluated,” Haas added.

When it comes to devising a plan to manage a river that sustains 40 million people, 30 tribes and many delicate ecosystems, there’s a lot to consider.

Serving as a disillusioning backdrop for negotiations is the fact that the Colorado River’s flows, which fill Lake Powell and Lake Mead, have decreased by 20% since the turn of the century. In the coming decades, water managers have to take the West’s hotter and drier climate into account.

“We’ve got to plan for the variability of hydrology, especially given climate change,” Haas said. “We have to have the tools and the flexibility to operate under a range of conditions. That’s the bottom line.”

Haas said that water negotiators are also considering this winter’s lack of precipitation in their discussions about the future.

The Upper Basin states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) will also have to work with the states of the Lower Basin (Arizona, California and Nevada) to decide how to divide the river’s water — and how to conserve it. The Lower Basin states have already promised to cut their water use by at least 3 million acre-feet through the end of 2026, as part of a separate agreement independent of post-2026 negotiations.

Negotiators must also consider the water rights of the federally recognized Native American tribes that call the Colorado River Basin home. To do so, the Department of the Interior invited all 30 tribes and the seven states to participate in a Federal-Tribal-State partnership, the first of its kind.

“We developed the first-ever Federal-Tribal-State partnership group to promote equitable information-sharing and inclusive discussions among the Tribal Nations and States in the Colorado River Basin and have had several meetings since its inception last summer,” Touton said. “As the range of alternatives for operations post-2026 are developed, Reclamation is committed to an inclusive and transparent process with all our partners and the public.”

Even if the Colorado River Basin states get their plan to Reclamation in time, that doesn’t guarantee that federal officials will approve their plan. Reclamation could accept their plan wholesale, but the agency can also pick and choose different parts of the plan to approve at their discretion to develop different alternatives for post-2026 operations.

Reclamation wants to start modeling potential alternatives in April, Haas said, to publish a draft environmental impact statement for post-2026 operations by the end of 2024.

Editor’s note 2:39 pm Jan. 8, 2024: This article was updated with comments from the Bureau of Reclamation about collaboration and tribal input in the negotiations.