Where Colorado River negotiations stand right now

The states are currently negotiating how the river and its reservoirs should be operated after current agreements expire in 2026.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Colorado River flows next to Kane Creek Boulevard in Moab on Thursday, July 27, 2023.

This article is published through the Colorado River Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative supported by the Janet Quinney Lawson Institute for Land, Water, and Air at Utah State University.

Lees Ferry, 15 miles downstream of the Glen Canyon Dam on Lake Powell, divides the Upper Colorado River Basin from the Lower Basin. But they are divided by more than just geography.

In March, the Upper Basin states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) and the Lower Basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada) submitted competing proposals to the federal Bureau of Reclamation for managing the Colorado River after current guidelines expire in 2026. The states had to consider the overwhelming demand for the river’s water, contend with future effects of climate change and confront decades of overuse.

The Upper Basin claims that only the Lower Basin states should have to reduce their Colorado River water use. Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming draw their share of water straight from the river itself, meaning they bear the brunt of evaporative losses and reduced flows due to climate change.

In contrast, Arizona, California and Nevada draw their allocation from water stored in Lake Mead, so they are all but guaranteed their fair share of water each year. The Lower Basin argues that the entire Colorado River Basin should share the sacrifice of cuts.

“When the initial proposals were submitted, the desire to work together probably waned a bit,” said Gene Shawcroft, Utah’s Colorado River commissioner.

But the states have found common ground, and Shawcroft said that they are “committed” to developing a unified seven-state proposal. “In the last few meetings, we’ve made much progress in recognizing that we have to come up with a solution,” he continued.

Arizona, California and Nevada have demonstrated their willingness to conserve water. Their post-2026 operations proposal would have the Lower Basin states cut their water use by 1.5 million acre-feet each year. For reference, an acre-foot of water is enough to sustain two households for a year.

Last week, Reclamation finalized an agreement between Arizona, California and New Mexico to cut their water use by 3 million acre-feet through the end of 2026, when current operating guidelines expire and the new rules take effect. The Lower Basin states will receive federal funding in exchange for making these cuts.

“It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” said Amy Haas, executive director of the Colorado River Authority of Utah, about the finalized agreement. “It shows commitment on [the] part of the Lower Division states to reduce use. Our concern in the Upper Basin has always been whether we will actually see those reductions taken in terms of wet water.”

Another point of agreement between the basins: states should use actual hydrologic conditions to determine how to operate the country’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, instead of unreliable forecasts.

The Bureau of Reclamation, an agency housed within the U.S. Department of the Interior that owns and operates water infrastructure nationwide, is reviewing the states’ proposals. A coalition of environmental groups, as well as academics and Native American tribes that depend on the river, also put forth proposals for consideration.

Shawcroft reported that representatives from the seven Colorado River states have met since submitting their initial proposals in March and have future meetings planned.

“There’s no doubt that there is less water and we all recognize we will have to use less water to balance the system,” he said.

After evaluating all the alternatives, Reclamation aims to complete a draft environmental impact statement for the Colorado River’s post-2026 operations by the end of this year.