Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam. The photo from May, 2021, shows the lake's white "bathtub ring." (Ted Wood/The Water Desk)

Seven Western states and their leaders — all depending on water from the Colorado River — remain divided.


Split into basins by an imaginary border at Lees Ferry, Arizona, each state can share blame for the rapid depletion of reservoirs that once held over four years’ flow of the Colorado River. But now, Lake Powell and Lake Mead edge closer to empty. With water savings gone, the Lower Basin has been trying to cope, though the Upper Basin carries on business as usual. Meanwhile, 40 millions Americans depend on flows from this over-diverted river.

So far, leaders in the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming appear to be hoping that their counterparts will agree to use less water. This is hardly a useful strategy and seems a lot like a dangerous game of chicken.

The brunt of low flows has been borne by the Lower Basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California. Thanks to a series of agreements between 2007 and 2021, by the end of this year the three states will curtail their river use by more than 1 million acre-feet — 325 billion gallons. But it’s likely these cuts won’t change much.

Federal data released last month predict that Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the nation and the Lower Basin’s water savings account, will continue to lose water for years to come. Lake Powell, the Upper Basin’s savings account, is also vulnerable. But that raises the obvious question: What are Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico doing to limit their water use and conserve? The answer is not much.

In the Upper Basin’s four states there are no self-imposed curtailments of Colorado River allocations — no blockbuster, big-city conservation initiatives, no real signs that leaders are convinced that climate change is not only happening but also a major threat to the region.

More discouraging is that in 2016, the interstate collective of Upper Basin officials, known as the Upper Colorado River Commission, officially decided to take more water out of the river. That decision stands today.

Some of the largest projects on the Upper Basin’s wish list include the Lake Powell Pipeline, Green River Block Exchange, Wolf Creek Reservoir and the Fontenelle Dam expansion. These proposed projects would drain billions of gallons from the system, reports the nonprofit Save the Colorado.

Does anyone think that extra water exists?

While the three Lower Basin states use more water than the drought-stricken Colorado can deliver annually, leaders in Arizona, Nevada and California share a spirit of sacrifice when it comes to limiting water use.

Kyle Roerink

The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the Colorado River’s infrastructure, released a report in mid-February that predicts Lake Mead will drop another 30 feet by the end of 2023 – leaving the reservoir 160 feet lower than in the year 2000. It also predicts more cuts for Nevada’s and Arizona’s shares of the river, as well as for California.

In the Upper Basin, where the Colorado River begins, no cuts are proposed. And according to a new report from the Utah River’s Council, a nonprofit fiscal and water watchdog, most of the Upper Basin states continue to use more than their share of the river, even though drought and aridity have reduced river flows.

While the three Lower Basin states use more water than the drought-stricken Colorado can deliver annually, leaders in Arizona, Nevada and California share a spirit of sacrifice when it comes to limiting water use. From my experience running a nonprofit river-protection group, I know that collaboration toward these efforts represents a resolve to act.

The Lower Basin states, for example, are working to fund a water-recycling facility near Los Angeles. The plant would reduce California’s reliance on the Colorado River and give Nevada and Arizona some of that river water in return for their joint funding. Collaborations like this need to start happening in the Upper Basin, but where are the examples?

Water managers in both basins tell folks they are doing their best to deal with the river’s decline, but only the Lower Basin’s actions can be quantified. It’s time for the Upper Basin to blink in this game of chicken and ensure equitable and prudent uses of the river. The lines dividing the states are invisible, but bathtub rings on Lake Powell and Lake Mead are all too visible.

This piece was originally published by Writers on the Range, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about Western issues, and reprinted here with permission.

Kyle Roerink is a contributor to Writers on the Range,, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is the executive director of the Great Basin Water...

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  1. As soon as the lower states get rid of their swimming pools, golf courses and water displays then we might consider cutting back here in Wyoming. They continue to use water for wants instead of needs and that is where their problem start.

  2. Wyoming is using slightly over half of its Colorado River allocation and we are supposed to sacrifice for almonds, alfalfa and pistachios in California?

    There’s lots of information available about Colorado River water rights. More than the reader will find in this editorial.

  3. Fresh potable water is getting rarer and rarer everywhere. It’s actually time for EVERYONE to cut back on usage of potable water. Showers need to be total flow restricted. Car washes need to be restricted. There are many ways to save water, but we as a nation are not accustomed to doing it. I know the article is about the Colorado river drainage, but it needs to be applied to usage of all water. We need it to survive. We must have it to irrigate crops. We need to solve this on a national level and not just region by region. I am not a “Greenie”, but a person concerned with survival.

    1. The to far left of federal government will not step up to regulate all the user states knowing the disaster will fuel there climate changing agenda to there bennifits being the biggest taxations worldwide period.

  4. Just checked – there are 70 golf courses in Las Vegas and several dozen resorts with golf affiliations. And I remember when the central Arizona canal went through and 100,000s of acres of true desert was converted over into irrigated cropland land such as almond orchards. And the uncontrolled growth in the Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, Scottsdale, etc. – grow, grow, grow!!! This is not a problem created by the upper basin states and we are not responsible for their water problems – especially in Wyoming. Our meager irrigation in the Green River drainage of Wyoming is nothing of consequence – especially since the federally owned land in SW Wyoming is NOT irrigated – only the privately owned land and there isn’t that much of it. I don’t feel the least bit responsible for their dilemma. Do you remember how Los Angeles almost drained Mono Lake dry – until a California Supreme Court ruling limited their diversion of water from the drainages which replenish the Mono Lake and its precious ecological system. LA was well on the way to destroying the whole ecosystem until it was stopped at the last minute. There is no end to the unquenchable thirst of Arizona and California for water – they need to impose limitations on THEMSELVES and not look to us to bail them out of their predicament. And the last thing they need is an influx of millions of new immigrants and/or growth in the Phoenix/Scottsdale areas. WYOMING IS NOT THE PROBLEM!!!

    1. Well said. I am a recovered Californian and the waste in these states is ridiculous. Golf Courses, Swimming pools, Amusement Parks, People watering sidewalks…
      We collected rainwater and emptied our hot tub, while our neighbors wasted every drop we saved. New construction and increased immigration have huge water costs, and these lower states thrive on both for real estate profits and cheap labor. Crowded cities use lots of water. Large artificial gardens and farms use lots of water. They chose the life they lead. They think if they pay the water bill there is no problem. The upper basin states see the writing on the wall. These habits will not go away. The adults have decided to cut the allowance because the kids are just too immature to stop wasting it. I can’t remember the last time I washed my car or watered my lawn. We cut our water and power use many years ago. Fly into LAX or John Wayne Airport and when you do, look down and try to count the artificial lakes and swimming pools. Just try. You can’t.

  5. 2 lawyer groups,playing, It cost us in Wyo, 9m, to let 2 law. offices, Att General fired, the one’s in Wyo after the fact,One of them is running for Office this yr,
    Old saying, The water that lands in WYO. is Wyo water when it leaves the state you can do what ever you want with.