Utah says it shouldn’t have to take Colorado River cuts. Other states say it needs to.

Facing extreme drought and climate change, Western states that use Colorado River water can’t agree on who needs to reduce their use.

(Cody Cobb for The New York Times) Lone Rock reflected in muddy waters at Wahweap Bay in Lake Powell. On Wednesday, the Colorado River Basin states announced different proposals for how the river's water and its reservoirs, like Lake Powell, should be managed after 2026.

The Western states that depend on the Colorado River say that they want to manage it sustainably in the face of climate change and ensure a predictable water supply for their residents.

They have diverging approaches to achieving those goals.

On Wednesday, after months of negotiations, the Upper Colorado River Basin states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) and the Lower Basin states (Arizona, Nevada and California) announced their separate plans for operating the river and its reservoirs after 2026, when current operating guidelines expire. Each basin submitted its plan to the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that manages water projects nationwide.

The Colorado River Compact of 1922 split the seven states that use the river’s water into two basins. The Upper Basin draws its water allocation from the river itself, while the Lower Basin gets theirs from the country’s largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

All seven states tried to come up with a unified post-2026 plan for both basins, but they couldn’t see eye-to-eye, resulting in the separate proposals submitted today.

The sticking point? Which states should have to cut their water use.

The Upper Basin says that burden should fall on California, Arizona and Nevada. The Lower Basin argues that the sacrifice should be shared.

“Utah is committed to living within our means on the river, but we also expect others to do the same,” Amy Haas, executive director of the Colorado River Authority of Utah, told The Salt Lake Tribune. “We are protecting our water users and defending every drop of our entitlement.”

“But,” she continued, “we also recognize that the future is uncertain. Climate change is real, we experience those impacts firsthand, and the Upper Basin, and Utah, has got to plan for a very uncertain future.”

The Upper Basin’s plan

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gene Shawcroft, commissioner and chair of the new six-member council from the Colorado River Authority of Utah, in 2021.

The plan proposed by Utah and its fellow Upper Basin states to manage the Colorado River after 2026 focuses on Lake Powell operations.

“Our proposal represents a balanced approach for Lake Powell and Lake Mead, combining immediate action with long-term planning to ensure the sustainability of these crucial reservoirs,” said Gene Shawcroft, Utah’s River Commissioner and CEO of the Colorado River Authority, in a statement. “It’s about adapting to the realities we face today and securing a water-resilient future for our region.”

Lake Powell, which straddles the Utah-Arizona border, can hold up to 26 million acre-feet of water. (An acre-foot is about how much water two households need for a year.) But the reservoir is currently only 32% full.

The Upper Basin states say Arizona, California and Nevada should have to reduce their Colorado River water use based on how much water is in Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

For example, when Lake Powell is between 20 and 81% full — which is most of the time — the Upper Basin says that between 6 and 8.1 million acre-feet of water per year should be sent downstream.

That means that under most conditions, the Lower Basin states would need to reduce their water use by 1.5 million acre-feet per year under the plan.

If matters get especially dire and Lake Powell dips under 20% full, only 6 million acre-feet of water per year would be released. The reservoir hit a record low of 22% full in Feb. 2023.

The Upper Basin states would not have to cut their water use, regardless of the amount of water stored in the reservoirs.

Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming say that this plan accounts for the “structural deficit” — the amount of Colorado River water lost every year to evaporation and transportation — which results in there being less water in the river for those states. The Lower Basin states, since they draw their Colorado River water allocation from reservoirs, don’t feel those effects.

“We’re not saying necessarily, ‘no, we won’t cut.’ We’re saying that we want recognition for the cuts we already take,” Haas said. “I don’t think that is something that the Lower Basin has been receptive to hearing thus far. We believe we are taking cuts in the form of a hydrologic shortage, and that’s reflected in the alternative that we’re putting out. It’s not as if we aren’t going to cooperate, but that we are already reducing use.”

The Lower Basin’s plan

(Central Arizona Project) Lower Colorado River Basin negotiators present their river management proposal at a press briefing on Wednesday, March 6, 2024. From left: John Entsminger, representing Nevada; Tom Buschatzke, representing Arizona; and J.B. Hamby, representing California.

The Lower Basin’s plan is more complex — and it says that Utah and the other Upper Basin states need to cut their water use, too.

Instead of focusing primarily on water stored Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the Lower Basin’s plan counts water stored in seven reservoirs across the Colorado River Basin. Doing so, according to California’s top water negotiator J.B. Hamby, “manages the Colorado River system as a whole.”

The Lower Basin would make reductions based on how much water is stored in those seven reservoirs, which collectively can hold up to 58 million acre-feet of water. Arizona, California and Nevada would take cuts when storage capacity falls between 38 and 69% full.

But they ask the Upper Basin states to start sacrificing their water when total system capacity dips below 38%.

“Our proposal says if we’re getting down to the lowest elevations, that’s the responsibility of the entire basin to protect the system,” John Entsminger, a Colorado River negotiator for Nevada, said at a press briefing on Wednesday. “The Upper Basin’s proposal is very simple. It says all of that responsibility ... falls exclusively on the Lower Basin states.”

Haas and other Upper Basin negotiators disagree, arguing that their states shouldn’t have to reduce use beyond the losses they sustain due to Mother Nature — evaporation and drought.

The Lower Basin’s plan, Haas said, would limit future Colorado River development in Utah and beyond.

“I’m especially concerned about our recognized, settled, but undeveloped tribal rights in the Upper Basin,” she said. “There has to be room for the tribes to be able to develop their entitlement once and if hydrology improves.”

Now that both basins have submitted their post-2026 proposals to the Bureau of Reclamation, the feds can start modeling the plans. They hope to complete a draft environmental impact statement for the different options by the end of this year.

While the seven Colorado River Basin states could not come up with a plan they all agreed on, Haas said there still is hope.

“We’ve worked through some pretty sticky issues on this river over the last 102 years,” she said. “I’m still optimistic. I think we can come together.”