As states argue over who should cut their Colorado River use, a new plan puts the environment first

Last week, a coalition of environmental groups submitted a proposal for operating the river after current agreements expire.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Great Blue Heron flies in Willow Gulch at Lake Powell near Ticaboo, Utah on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023.

Last month, the seven U.S. states that use Colorado River water released two divergent plans for how that water should be managed after 2026 when the current agreement expires. Their proposals centered on operations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the country’s two largest reservoirs, the levels of which are instrumental in determining how much water each state gets.

But a coalition of environmental organizations felt that those plans — and the discourse surrounding which states should have to cut their water use — drowned out a crucial consideration: the environment.

So, last week, they submitted a plan of their own.

“Our plan explicitly integrates environmental values and resources into the planning, while also trying to meet the needs of people,” Taylor Hawes, the Colorado River Program director for The Nature Conservancy, said.

“We want to make sure that the environment is truly factored in, and not just in the narrowest scope possible,” she added.

The Nature Conservancy, along with six other environmental groups, submitted their proposal to the Bureau of Reclamation, a federal agency that oversees water projects across the country. Their plan includes ideas for moderating water temperatures for endangered fish and wildlife, preventing invasive species from taking hold and helping imperiled habitats recover.

Environmental organizations have influenced Colorado River management in the past. In 2007, they suggested that states take on voluntary water cuts for conservation purposes. That plan was implemented as the Intentionally Created Surplus program.

But water managers for the states have questions about the feasibility of the environmental groups’ proposal.

“We’ve got to be realistic about what we’re trying to accomplish,” said Amy Haas, executive director for the Colorado River Authority of Utah, which collaborates with other Colorado River Basin states to make management decisions.

“There are a lot of intriguing elements,” Haas said about the groups’ plan, “but they remain undefined.”

The Cooperation Conservation Alternative

Called the “Cooperation Conservation Alternative,” the environmental groups’ proposal presents different ways to manage the Colorado River for decreasing flows, increasing temperatures and drier conditions.

The groups propose considering climate factors when deciding how much water to release from Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

By looking at trends in soil moisture and temperature, which influence how much water from snowpack ends up in reservoirs, Hawes said, water managers can better understand how much water will be available.

“Our hope is that the more ideas that are on the table, the more robust the conversation can be, and maybe we can find a path forward that works for the whole region,” Hawes said.

The groups also introduce the idea of a “Conservation Reserve” in their proposal, a pool of water created from water conserved by the states.

This concept tweaks the existing Intentionally Created Surplus program, which incentivizes Arizona, California and Nevada to conserve water that is then stored in Lake Mead.

The Conservation Reserve would not factor into reservoir operations. Instead, water managers could move the water around the Colorado River system as needed to sustain hydropower or support sensitive ecosystems, like those in the Grand Canyon.

“The innovative Cooperative Conservation Alternative broadens the conversation about future management of the Colorado River in the era of climate change, to be more inclusive of various interests, Tribes, and the environment,” Sinjin Eberle, Southwest communications director with American Rivers, said in a statement. “Expanding the scope of how water is managed to encompass a more realistic view of all pressures on the River puts forth a new vision to sustain the Colorado River and build resilience for the communities and ecosystems that rely on it for generations to come.”

‘A very ambitious alternative’

Haas, with the Colorado River Authority of Utah, called the environmental groups’ proposal “a very ambitious alternative.”

“I think what they’re doing is throwing a lot of stuff against the wall and seeing what sticks,” she said.

One part of their plan Haas agrees with is that relying on forecasts to determine releases from Lake Powell and Lake Mead is the wrong approach. Water managers should instead make decisions based on what water is available in the system.

But factoring in climate conditions the way that the environmental groups suggest is, to Haas, too subjective.

“That seems to inject another level of uncertainty and discretion in operations, which we are trying to avoid,” she said.

“Is it realistic,” she asked, “to try to control water temperature or address invasive species with this plan?”

The environmentalists’ alternative also left Haas with questions about where Conservation Reserve water would be stored and Reclamation’s broad discretion with that water.

Reclamation will consider the environmentalists’ plan alongside the plans submitted in March by the Upper Colorado River Basin states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) and the Lower Basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada).

The water is shared through the Colorado River Compact of 1922, a foundational document for the river’s management, which divided the seven states that use Colorado River water into two basins. The Upper Basin gets its share of water from the river itself, while the Lower Basin pulls its share from Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

“We’re at the beginning, not the end, of the alternative development phase and will continue to work with all parties throughout the spring and summer to achieve as much consensus as possible,” Acting Deputy Secretary of the Interior Laura Daniel-Davis said during a March news conference.

Reclamation reports that it aims to finish the draft environmental impact statement for the Colorado River’s post-2026 operations by the end of this year.