Colorado River approaches tipping point 100 years after compact

The growing crisis facing the Colorado River is essentially a mathematical problem.

The 40 million people who depend on the river to fill a glass of water at the dinner table, wash their clothes, or grow food on millions of acres consume far more each year than actually flows through the banks of the Colorado.

In fact, first laid out 100 years ago in a document known as the Colorado River Agreement, the calculation of who gets how much of that water may never have been balanced.

“The creators of the treaty — and water leaders since then — have always either known or had access to information that the appropriations they make are in excess of what the river can provide,” said Ann Castle, senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center at Legal faculty at the University of Colorado.

However, over the past two decades, the situation on the Colorado River has become much more unbalanced, more difficult.

The drought, according to scientists, is now the driest 22-year period in the last 1,200 years, engulfing the US southwest, cutting off flows in the river. Moreover, people continue to move to this part of the country. According to the US Census, Arizona, Utah and Nevada are among the ten fastest growing states.

While Wyoming and New Mexico are not growing as fast, residents are watching two key reservoirs – popular recreational destinations – flow down to support Lake Powell. Meanwhile, the Imperial Irrigation District in southern California uses more water than Arizona and Nevada combined, but highlights their important role in providing the nation with livestock feed and winter produce.

Until recently, water managers and politicians whose voters rely on the river avoided the most difficult questions of how to rebalance a system in which demand far exceeds supply. Instead, water managers have drained the country’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, faster than Mother Nature is filling them up.

In 2000, both reservoirs were about 95 percent full. Today, Mead and Powell are about 27 percent full each — once-healthy savings accounts are now dangerously low.

Reservoirs are now so low that Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources this summer that 2 to 4 million acre feet would need to be cleared next year to keep the system from reaching “critical levels.” low water levels,” threatening reservoir infrastructure and hydropower generation.

The Commissioner set a deadline in August for basin states to come up with options for possible shutdowns. The Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Wyoming have submitted a plan. The Lower Basin states of California, Arizona, and Nevada have not submitted a combined plan.

The Bureau threatened unilateral action instead of a basin-wide plan. However, when the 60-day deadline arrived, no new water outages were reported. Instead, the bureau announced that predetermined water supply restrictions went into effect in Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico, giving states more time to reach an agreement across the basin.


A week before the deadline set by Touton, representatives of 14 Indian tribes with water rights on the river sent a letter to the Bureau of Reclamation expressing concern that they were left out of the negotiation process.

“What is being discussed behind closed doors between the United States and the Basin States is likely to have a direct impact on the rights of the Basin Tribes to water and other resources, and we expect and demand that you protect our interests,” tribal representatives wrote.

Lack of participation in Colorado River negotiations is not a new problem for tribes in the Colorado River basin.

The original treaty was negotiated and signed on Nov. 24, 1922, by seven white landowners who brokered the deal to benefit people like them, said Jennifer Pitt of the National Audubon Society, who works to restore rivers around the world. swimming pool.

“They divided the water between themselves and their constituents without realizing the water needs of Mexico, the water needs of the Indian tribes that lived among them, and not realizing the needs of the environment,” Pitt said.

Mexico, through which the tail of the Colorado meanders before emptying into the Pacific Ocean, secured its supplies under the 1944 treaty. The treaty provided 1.5 million acre feet on top of the original 15 million acre feet that had already been subdivided. 7.5 million each for the Upper and Lower Basins.

However, the tribes still do not have full access to the Colorado River. Although the treaty briefly noted that tribal rights precede all others, it lacked specifics, forcing individual tribes to negotiate settlements or file suits to quantify these rights, many of which are still unsettled. “At that time, it’s important to be aware of the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous people,” said Daryl Vigil, water manager for the Jicarilla Apache Nation in New Mexico.

“In 1922, my tribe was in the business of subsistence,” Vigil said. “The only way to survive is government rations on a piece of land that was not our traditional homeland. That’s where we were when the fundamental law of the river was created.”


Agriculture uses most of the water in the river, about 70 or 80 percent, depending on which organization makes the assessment. When it comes to the thorny issue of how to cut down on water consumption, farmers and ranchers are often the first person to turn to.

Some pilot programs have focused on paying farmers to use less water, but questions remain unanswered about how to transfer savings to Lake Powell for storage or how to design the program so that it does not negatively impact a farmer’s water rights. .

Outdated state laws mean that the amount of water that qualifies for water access can be reduced if it is not fully utilized.

That’s why the Camblin family ranch in Craig in northwest Colorado plans to flood every ten years, despite recently upgrading to a costly, water-efficient pivot irrigation system. Nine years out of ten, they will be paid by a conservation group in exchange for leaving excess water in the river. But in Colorado, the state will revoke water rights after 10 years if they are not used.

According to Mike Camblin, losing this right would not only mean they would not be able to access a back-up water source in the event of a failure in their pivot system, but the value of their property would plummet. He raises cattle with his wife and daughter and says an acre of land without water sells for $1,000, about five times less than it would sell for with water rights.

There are other ways to improve efficiency, but money is still often a barrier.

Wastewater recycling is growing throughout the region, albeit slowly, as infrastructure needs to be overhauled. San Diego has built a massive desalination plant that turns seawater into drinking water, yet some agricultural users are trying to cancel the contract because the water is so expensive. Some cities are integrating natural sewage filtration into their landscapes before the water returns to the river. All this is feasible, but expensive, and these costs are often passed directly on to water users.

According to Lindsey Rogers, water policy analyst at Western Resource Advocates, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting water and land in the West, one of the biggest opportunities for water conservation is to change the way our landscapes look.

Converting much of the outdoor landscape to more drought-tolerant plants will require a combination of policies and incentives, Rogers said. “They will be critical to closing our gap between supply and demand.”

After years of stimulus programs for residents, Las Vegas recently outlawed all non-functional weed by 2026, setting a plan for other Western communities. For years, the city has also paid residents to uproot their lawns.

In Denver, Denver Water supplies about 25 percent of the state’s population and uses about 2 percent of the water. For many years, the city had enforced restrictions limiting home watering to three days a week.

This summer in southern California, the Metropolitan Water District introduced an unprecedented one day per week water limit.

However, regardless of the type of water use, more concessions need to be made.

“The law of the river does not match what the river has become and what we think it is increasingly becoming,” Audubon’s Pitt said. “It was built for a larger water supply than ours.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a collaborative series on the Colorado River leading up to the 100th anniversary of the historic Colorado River Agreement. The Associated Press, The Colorado Sun, The Albuquerque Journal, The Salt Lake Tribune, The Arizona Daily Star and The Nevada Independent are working together to study pressure on the river in 2022.

Copyright 2022 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or distributed.

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