As federal deadline approaches for Colorado River management, Western states say they won’t make it

The Colorado River provides water for 2 million Utahns.

The Colorado River — the “American Nile” — winds from its headwaters high in the Rocky Mountains and down through the canyons and mesas of southeastern Utah before it reaches the Glen Canyon Dam, which creates Lake Powell.

Then, the river finds a path through northern Arizona, pooling into Lake Mead ahead of the Hoover Dam. From there the Colorado River forms the border between Arizona and California, flowing south into Mexico and spilling into the Gulf of California.

The Colorado River’s water serves 40 million people — including 2 million Utah residents.

“Utah’s primary population, Utah County and Salt Lake County, is reliant on this water for economic development and support and population,” said Bart Leeflang, an assistant general manager for the Central Utah Water Conservancy District overseeing its Colorado River team. “We bring Colorado River water to the Wasatch Front and it supplies supplementary water to 2 million people.”

The seven Western states that use Colorado River water are divided into the Upper Basin (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) and the Lower Basin (Arizona, California and Nevada) based on a 1922 agreement called the Colorado River Compact.

The rules that currently guide the river’s operations are set to expire in 2026. The Bureau of Reclamation, an agency housed within the U.S. Department of the Interior that oversees water projects across the country, is in the process of developing post-2026 operations for the Colorado River and its reservoirs.

The states are negotiating their preferred plan for those operations for Reclamation to consider. Their plan has to consider extreme drought and climate change in the American West, which make for a shrinking river.

Reclamation asked the states to submit their plan in March so the agency would have time to analyze it. In January, the states’ water negotiators expected to make that deadline.

But now, Amy Haas, executive director of the Colorado River Authority of Utah, told The Salt Lake Tribune that she thinks it is unlikely that the seven states will have a unified plan by then — which means the feds won’t yet be able to consider their proposal.

“Fundamentally, I think the problem is that the two basins aren’t listening to each other,” Haas said. “I think we own that as the Upper Basin, and the Lower Basin should own that as well. We’re talking past one another and getting really wound up in rhetoric.”

That rhetoric centers around a controversial question: Which states need to cut their Colorado River water usage, and by how much?

Zach Frankel, executive director of the nonprofit Utah Rivers Council, said that the states’ disagreement over water use is ignoring the big picture. The real crux of the issue, he says, is that there is less water in the Colorado River itself.

“We need to plan for less and less water,” Frankel told The Tribune. “That’s what we do with our household income. When we make less money, we spend less money, and that’s what we need to do in the Colorado River Basin. Blaming an entire half of either watershed is not the way to reach consensus.”

The seven states can still submit a post-2026 plan to Reclamation after the March deadline, Haas said. But for now, she expects that each basin will submit its own plan to the feds for their consideration.

“The Biden-Harris administration remains committed to ensuring the long-term sustainability of the Colorado River Basin for decades to come based on the best-available science and with robust input from stakeholders across the West,” a spokesperson for the Department of the Interior wrote in an email. “We continue to work with Basin States, Tribes and other stakeholders to support the exploration and development of a broad range of alternatives and foster collaborative consensus-based approaches to alternative development.”

Water use in the Upper Basin vs. Lower Basin states

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Colorado River near Moab in July 2023.

The Colorado River Compact of 1922, which split the Colorado River Basin in half, remains the foundation of the river’s management a century later.

The Upper Basin gets its share of Colorado River water from the river itself, while the Lower Basin draws water stored in Lake Mead and Lake Powell. Climate change and reduced flows have hit the two reservoirs hard, with Mead just 37% full and Powell just 33% full. In December, Reclamation amended its forecasts to predict that Lake Powell would receive just 7.6 million acre-feet of water this year, down from their October estimate of 9.4 million acre-feet. An acre-foot is about the amount of water that two households use in a year.

The compact decrees that the Upper Basin must deliver 7.5 million acre-feet of water each year to the Lower Basin states before they can use their own 7.5 million acre-feet allotment.

The Upper Basin states, Haas said, do not reap their full Colorado River allotment because they bear the brunt of water shortages caused by evaporation and climate change, while the Lower Basin is all but guaranteed their annual allotment from the reservoirs. With drought increasingly severe in recent years, the Upper Basin has put pressure on the Lower Basin to conserve water.

“What’s disappointing about the intransigence that we see in the Upper Basin is that it’s this ‘us versus them’ mentality that we really need to put behind us,” Frankel said. “It’s really easy to put your hands on your hips and say, ‘those people down there are the problem.’”

In May of 2023, the Lower Basin states agreed to cut their water use by 3 million acre-feet from then until the end of 2026 in exchange for federal funding for water infrastructure projects.

“The fact that they’re willing to reduce use is huge, and it’s something that I think is commendable,” Haas said.

Some Utah water experts warned that while any water conservation is welcome, the model of rewarding cuts with funding isn’t sustainable.

The day may soon come when water use reductions can’t be compensated and will have to be made voluntarily for the good of the basin and the health of the river, Utah water experts said, especially given that the Colorado River’s flows have decreased by 20% since the turn of the century.

“There’s a lack of urgency about climate change,” Frankel said. “We’re at minus 20%, and we need to be planning for a future of minus 30%, or even minus 40%.”

Climate scientists have estimated that Colorado River flows could decrease by an additional 20% by midcentury and 35% by the end of the century.

Prioritizing Lake Powell and looking at tribal rights

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lake Powell near Ticaboo in October 2023.

Haas said that as the Upper Basin states move forward in submitting their own plan to Reclamation, they are prioritizing two things: complying with the 1922 compact and focusing on operations at Lake Powell.

They want to restore the health of the reservoir, Haas said, “such that we can ensure that our obligations to the Lower Basin continue to be met.”

Haas added that the Upper Basin is also concentrating on protecting its water users.

“We’ve got water users up here that, if the hydrology were better, could actually develop their entitlement, and who I’m really referring to here are the tribes,” she said.

The 1922 compact does not mention the 30 Native American tribes of the Colorado River Basin, many of which have undeveloped water rights from the river.

“We need to be able to preserve a little opportunity, a little room for the tribes to develop their entitlements, if the hydrology recovers,” Haas continued.

Despite Reclamation’s looming deadline and the states’ squabbling, Haas emphasized that Utah and the other Upper Colorado River Basin states want to develop a consensus-based plan for the river with California, Arizona and Nevada.

“We are leaving the door open,” Haas said. “We encourage and welcome future conversations with our sister states in the Lower Basin.”