Flow state

Colorado River Basin experts on problems and solutions to Western water woes


There isn’t a roadmap for the Colorado River crisis. 

Lake Mead and Powell reservoirs, vaults of Western water, are historically low. There’s more demand and less to go around, leaving the West at a crossroads. 

The dry reality of the Colorado River contrasts the wet spring in Boulder County, which has created a lush landscape and high creek flow. 

While the winter’s healthy snowpack is flooding streets around the county, it’s also predicted to help raise Powell 70 feet by the fall. But a warming climate will make the river’s annual flow increasingly inconsistent. 

At the end of May, all seven Colorado River Basin states agreed on a deal proposed by the three lower basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada) to conserve at least 3 million acre-feet (maf) of water by the end of 2026 (News, “Now you know,” May 25, 2023). While some people are pleased any kind of deal was reached, many, like Fort Mojave Tribe member Nora McDowell, call for more work to be done.

“You guys pretty much screwed up,” McDowell said to a group of Colorado River Basin representatives when asking herself what the river would say if it could speak. 

McDowell was one of dozens of Colorado River Basin stakeholders — from water policy experts and tribal nations to farmers and agents from the state and federal government — who gathered at CU Boulder’s 43rd annual Colorado Law Conference on Natural Resources. 

Set against the backdrop of law and policy, the two-day conference focused on the Basin’s biggest issues and what’s to come, including how to make more permanent cuts and what steps the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency tasked with divvying up the river’s water for more than 40 million people, will take to make those cuts happen.

Here are three takeaways from the conference.

More instability to come

Brad Udall, a water and climate researcher at Colorado State University, set the tone by opening the conference with a clear message: Enjoy this spring’s excessive runoff — it’s going to be less common in the future. 

Lakes Powell and Meade were 25% full in April and have been declining since 1999. 

These numbers are a consequence of less supply, more demand and the impacts of climate change, which are all projected to increasingly affect the river moving forward. 

When the Colorado River Compact, one of the fundamental agreements used to manage the river, was signed in 1922, it assumed annual river flow would average 16.4 maf per year — allocating 7.5 maf to both the Upper and Lower Basins, and 1.5 maf to Mexico (under a 1944 treaty). But average flows from 1906 to 2022 were actually 14.6 maf per year, and have gone down to 12.1 maf since 2000. 

The Bureau of Reclamation predicts demand on consumptive use of the Colorado River to range between 18.1 maf and 20.4 maf by 2060. 

The change in flow is also attributed to the influence climate change has on a landscape sensitive to warming. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the river’s average flow drops nearly 10% with each additional degree Celsius of warming. 

Cities in Boulder County aren’t immune — many rely on the Colorado River for at least 20% of their water, largely based on junior water rights. 

Scientists project these conditions to continue. 

Tribes need decision-making power 

There are 30 federally recognized tribes that maintain water rights to the river. Many are either still fighting to see those rights recognized, lack infrastructure to use their full allotments, or both.

Dwayne Secakuku is a member of the Hopi Tribe in northeastern Arizona. He says they have limited water rights but are trying to utilize treaties and the tribe’s history on the land as a way to establish more entitlement. 

“The United States’ failure to recognize those documents and treat us as being indigenous to those areas — that’s something we are trying to figure out,” he says.

Tribal representatives were front and center at the conference, starting with an opening session featuring McDowell’s critique of our current and historical relationship with the river. Later that day, a 13-person panel of tribal leaders focused on the evolving role tribes play in determining the river’s future.

Tribal members reiterated that their involvement can’t end by sitting at the negotiation table — many called for more decision-making power in river-management negotiations. Exactly what that looks like or how it happens remains unclear. 

A murky path forward

Experts used the relief from a fruitful spring runoff to focus on fundamental problems and long-term solutions in how we manage the dwindling river.

Mark Squillace, a law professor at CU Boulder, offered a few “controversial” ideas to lower agriculture’s water use (80% of water consumed within the Basin in a typical year), including voluntary programs that would incentivize crop switching, rotational fallowing and variations of deficit irrigation. 

“What people need to understand is that the shortages we’re seeing on the Colorado River are part of what is most likely a permanent problem, that is we are using Colorado River water unsustainably,” Squillace says. “And we have to figure out a way to cut back on consumption, not just for one year or a three-year period, but permanently.”

But that’s easier said than done. Crop switching isn’t easy for farmers, and water reductions result in less production — potentially putting less in the pockets of farmers and altering the nation’s food supply.

Pat O’Toole, president of the Family Farm Alliance, told conference participants “things have changed in a fundamental way” for farmers because of the volatility of climate change. 

Other proposed solutions include managing Mead and Powell as one system, apportioning water based on percentages and re-shaping society’s view of water use, from commodity to  social compact in the public interest.

The Bureau of Reclamation is reviewing the May 22 proposed agreement between all seven states in the Basin and will finalize a plan by the end of 2023. In the meantime, Camille Calimlim Touton, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, announced the start of a multi-year process to establish additional water-use cuts on the river post-2026.