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

The seven Colorado River states — Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming — face a daunting mid-August deadline. The federal government has asked them to come up with a plan to reduce their combined water usage from the Colorado River by up to 4 million acre-feet in 2023.

Opinion

That is a massive reduction for a river system that currently produces about 12.4 million acre-feet. The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the Colorado River, warned that it will “act unilaterally to protect the system” if the states cannot come up with an adequate plan on their own. 

The seven states have worked cooperatively over the past two decades to identify solutions to a shrinking river. But their response now, much like the global response to climate change, seems far from adequate to the enormous challenge.

In a recent letter to BuRec, the Upper Colorado River Commission, speaking for the four Upper Basin states, proposed a plan that adopts a business-as-usual, “drought-reduction” approach. They argue that their options are limited because “previous drought response actions are depleting upstream storage by 661,000 feet.” 

The Commission complains that water users “already suffer chronic shortages under current conditions resulting in uncompensated priority administration, which includes cuts to numerous present perfected rights in each of our states.”

This leads the Commission to conclude that any future reductions must come largely from Mexico and the Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada, because they use most of the water.  

The Upper Basin Commission’s anemic response to BuRec’s plea is not a serious plan. We can do better and we must.

But the Lower Basin states have already taken a significant hit to their “present perfected rights,” and if BuRec makes good on its promise to act unilaterally, they will face another big reduction. The cooperative relationship among the Basin states will not endure if the Upper Basin refuses to share the burden by reducing its consumption.  

A good place to start might lie with two Colorado projects to divert water from the Colorado River basin to the Front Range. Both began construction this summer. The Gross Reservoir Expansion Project will triple the size of one of Denver Water’s major storage units. Denver Water’s original justification for this project — to serve Denver’s growing urban population — seems odd given that water demand in their service area over the past two decades has shrunk, even as its population rose by nearly 300,000.  

Similar questions have been raised with the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District’s Windy Gap Firming Project, which plans to store Colorado River water to support population growth in Front Range cities. 

These two projects suggest that Colorado is prepared to exacerbate the current crisis when the opposite response is so desperately needed. 

Abandoning these two projects would signal that Colorado is serious about giving the Colorado River a fighting chance at survival. It might also jump-start good-faith negotiations over how Mexico, the states, and tribes might work to achieve a long-term solution to this crisis.

The homestead laws of the 19th century attracted a resilient group of farmers to the West who cleverly designed water laws to secure their water rights against all future water users. “First in time, first in right” became the governing mantra of water allocation, because, except for Tribal Nations, the farmers were first. 

That system worked well for many years. As communities grew, cities and water districts built reservoirs to store the spring runoff, ensuring that water was available throughout the irrigation season.  

Climate change and mega-droughts have upended that system. Nowhere have the consequences been as dire as in the Colorado River Basin.  America’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead — key components of the Colorado River’s water storage system — have not filled for more than two decades. They now sit well below 30% of their capacity.  

Hotter temperatures, less mountain snowpack and dry soils that soak up runoff like a sponge have brought us to this seven-state crisis. All seven states must now share the pain of addressing this crisis.  

The Upper Basin Commission’s anemic response to BuRec’s plea is not a serious plan. We can do better and we must.

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.

Mark Squillace and Quinn Harper

Mark Squillace and Quinn Harper are contributors to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. Mark Squillace is the...

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  1. We don’t have a water conservation problem in the US. There’s plenty of water including areas of over-abundance/flooding nationwide. We have a water distribution problem.

  2. When will the Lower Colorado River Compact states get serious about CONSERVATION?? The Upper Colorado River Compact states have been sending more their allotment of water to the Lower States for years. That should end and the Upper States should withhold their full share and finally force the Lower States to conserve water and quit overdevelopment!!

  3. look into the possibility of water recycling of used water filter and decontamination at least for none consumption use to save drinking water I would like to suggest

  4. The blame game doesn’t conserve water. Everyone seems to have a simple solution as though doing one thing or another, golf courses, swimming pools, population control etc will generate enough water to solve the water component of the global climate change process. Yes we all waste water. Its built into our system. As the climate changes so will our lives. The question is how little water can we live with and what needs to be done to meet reduced supply. Maybe if we asked the right questions it might not be so hard to find solutions.

  5. Time to face reality in the western US and globally. The world’s climate has become hotter and drier. The sources for major River systems have lost their seasonal snow and relic glaciers. Water levels in the Snake, and Columbia River basins are historically low. Unfortunately Wyoming has misused its underground aquifers by re injecting toxic fracking fluids and grossly limiting our states potential to keep us with reliable municipal water sources. Cloud seeding is mostly ineffective to provide a deeper mountain snow pack. Combined with rising freezing levels , warmer winters and hotter summers , deep snow pack is a distant memory. Doing more with less is the reasonable solution. Easy to point fingers at politicians or the 2 parties in the US. At this point it is up to each of to develop better habits.

  6. This issue, along with almost all other environmental issues boils down to the one issue that no one seems to want to even acknowledge: Human Population Growth! If we do not get this issue under control, we will never be able to solve any of the other environmental problems we face. Somehow, someway, the entire planet needs to implement a one-child policy until such time as the planet’s population decreases to a sustainable number, say three billion. As Edward Abbey so brilliantly stated: “Growth for the Sake of Growth is the Ideology of the Cancer Cell.” And we all know what the end game of cancer is…

    1. wyoming has the fewest number of people per square mile than any other state in the lower 48.

      the overbuilding in colorado & california was at the expense of wyoming the biggest supplier of water in the compact.

      wyoming should hold fast & let these states go verticle for underground aquifers.

  7. Stop watering your golf courses and most of your lawn by saying most of your lawn I say maybe only a small portion of your lawn just around the house not the entire lawns around the massive estates , you can get by without a big green lawn you can’t get by without food , or water for raising animals for meat you need water to drink or shower

  8. Why can’t they make it snow in the mountains where conditions might be more favorable more snow means more runoff , if every state tried to make it snow and it worked that might be the answer to the problem I don’t know

  9. We dump 750,000 cubic feet per second of good water into the gulf of Mexico – Come on folk’s we can build a pipeline to deliver a portion of this to Southern California, Arizona, Nevada –
    All the Climate criers should be better stewards of our given resources – just sayin –

    1. several oddities here. Not the least of which is Wyomings Hagman’s involvement in the 2 Colorado River pipelines currently under construction. Anyone hear when it went from consideration to construction?
      If Denver’s water demands have lessened as indicated, why the need for new storage? kinda sounds like a new high$ community concept in the making. The second pipeline for the front range. I haven’t heard anyone on the Yampa River (front Range) expressing moderate concerns. Maybe Mr. Million…
      How many million acre feet of water was released from Flaming Gorge for Meade with absolutely no effect?.
      Is there an problem, damn straight. Let’s just make sure there isn’t another Lake Vegas in the near or far future.
      Has anyone actually seen what makes it to the Mexican border? The trash won’t even float

  10. Pretty simple. Enough with the private pools at nearly every home in, and around Vegas. Pretty hard to take any of this serious when you look at the homes, say just on lake Las Vegas, and everyone has large pools in their yard. That particular county in Nevada claims they add a additional 1500 pools a year. Your right about similar to climate change, it’s a bunch of crap. Except the water issue is real. In case no one noticed, climate has been warming up since the end of the ice age. That’s to be about as blunt possible, (feel as though I need to since most the general population has far to great of a reprobate mind to figure that out).

    1. @ (Let’s Go) Brandon J. McQueen:
      “Your (sic) right about similar to climate change, it’s a bunch of crap. Except the water issue is real. In case no one noticed, climate has been warming up since the end of the ice age. That’s to be about as blunt possible, (feel as though I need to since most the general population has far to great of a reprobate mind to figure that out).”
      Wow! Where to start … climate is warming faster due to rapid increase in CO2 and methane levels … due to humans. Climates (dry tropical, Mediterranean, dry continental, sub-artic, etc.) are defined by precipitation (water!) and TEMPERATURE patterns – annual and seasonal rainfall or snowfall, dry/wet seasons. Every climate type on earth is seeing an increase in precipitation variability – 100 to 1,000 year flood or drought events happening within a year or two of another. It’s the speed (increasing) of the changing of all climates that are a result of our sudden increase of input of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere that is causing the speed in recurrences of floods and droughts.

  11. I feel that Las Vegas NV is taking the water from NYE county right now ; one of a very large under ground aquifer in North American done behind everyone’s back

  12. Over here about is the Colorado River basin I’m wondering why can’t we divert some of the water from the snake River some of the Columbia River ????

  13. I have been the last 5 years sending emails to USA governors,Canadian prime minister,with no answer. All you would have to do is use abandon drill platforms,install salt desaltation units on platform,lay a pipeline to Colorado River,lake mead,etc . A 36″ pipeline would fill these lakes and rivers with fresh water in about 5 months . Spend money on something for the industry and citizens instead of trying to get Trump,what a world wide farce run by senile old 85-90 year old seniors who should be sitting at home instead of running around one last time. Look at Pelosi,what a waste. The states and Canada are going down the drain with Russia,China,Korea,surging past very fast. Thank you from a cdn western senior who,s parents came from Washington state.

  14. One of the problems is the government managed forests are so overgrown with trees and undergrowth they interfere with rain even hitting the ground. The underground aquifers are drying up from over pumping. Right now we have zero subsoil moisture. Tremendous amount of water evaporates as well

    1. That’s not the problem, try again. Cutting down trees won’t solve this problem, that’s laughable at best.

  15. When lower basin inhabitants give up their lawns, swimming pools, anf hundreds of golf courses, that would go a long way to lessening the burden on farmers, and in turn food prices. Until then…screw them.

  16. Hi quick question can we pump water from ocean for just using for shower and using river for drinking ?

    1. Don’t know why not ask anyone that has served in the USN aboard a ship that’s what they drink, cook, shower & run the engine’s on. Plus if any one can remember the U.S. paid for Mexico to put in a desolation plant off of Baja

  17. The biggest problem is that farmers/ranchers use (waste) 80% of the colorado’s water on 1800’s watering systems. Other waste is lawns, inefficient plumbing systems and of course golf courses. Our politicians choose to do nothing until there is a crisis. You know, re-election first, solutions come later when they are out of office.

  18. the compact was written when water was a commodity not a necessity.

    wyoming is going to suffer
    because the other states overbuilt especially colorado & california.

    these states will have to go vertical for underground aquifers.