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As new Colorado River water talks begin, governments and tribes weigh in on the future

Hot on the heels of a short-term agreement to cut back on Colorado River water use, states are looking ahead to talks about more permanent cuts. The Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency which manages the West’s water, announced that those negotiations will formally begin next week with a notice in the Federal Register.

The announcement came at an environmental law conference in Boulder, Colorado on Thursday, where scientists, state and federal governments, and tribes met at the University of Colorado’s law school.

In late May, the seven states that use the Colorado River agreed on a plan for temporary cutbacks in California, Arizona and Nevada. The deal would send $1.2 billion in federal money to some water users in those states, which could pay farmers to pause growing for portions of the next three years.

States representatives said the deal was enabled largely by a wet winter, which helped add water to reservoirs and shift the conversation from emergency band-aid measures to bigger talks that could last a few years.

While the agreement has been celebrated for bringing together states that are often at odds about water sharing, policy experts recognize it as a temporary measure. It is designed to keep extra water in the nation’s largest reservoirs, protecting their ability to supply water and generate hydropower until 2026. In 2026, the current rules for sharing the Colorado River’s water are set to expire, and states are under pressure to agree on more permanent cutbacks.

“We need to realize what we’ve done is wonderful,” said Colby Pellegrino, deputy general manager at the Southern Nevada Water Authority, “But it’s not enough. We need to meaningfully change the way we use water in this basin.”

Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said the states agree that water sharing struggles should not be settled in the courts.

“We saw a litigation conflagration coming,” he said. “It’s part of what drove our proposal, and I think we are going to avoid that at all costs.”

It still remains unclear how exactly the states plan to arrive at permanent cutbacks that will likely be painful to some of the farms and cities that depend on the river’s water, which flows to tens of millions of people and a multibillion-dollar agriculture industry.

Pressed for details, state leaders shared little beyond high-level ideas about the need for water conservation across all seven states that use the Colorado River.

Pellegrino said future water cutbacks would need to be motivated by both “carrots and sticks,” explaining that permanent, uncompensated cutbacks should not comprise the entirety of post-2026 plans, and more government payouts will likely be needed.

Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, emphasized that post-2026 guidelines need to “acknowledge that climate change is real.”

New details from the feds

The recent three-state agreement was a response to a call from the Bureau of Reclamation to cut back on water use, and this new deal puts the ball back in the federal government’s court.

Camille Calimlim Touton, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, shared new details about the agency’s upcoming plans for water management. The agency has withdrawn its draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement while it reviews the proposal, and plans to arrive at a final plan — or “Record of Decision” — by the end of 2023.

“We’re doing a lot of things at once,” Touton said, “And we’re committed to a transparent process as we work towards short and long term solutions.”

Reclamation has so far been tight-lipped with details about negotiations related to the 2026 deadline, but Touton said the agency will “formally advance” the process for those multi-year talks starting the week of June 12. Starting the process next week, she said, will allow the agency to publish a new draft SEIS by the end of 2024.

“The next steps remain the hardest that we have to take,” Touton said. “We must continue to work together through these difficult decisions.”

Right before last year’s conference in Boulder, Touton caused a stir by calling for states to conserve an unprecedented amount of water, but the agency ultimately did not levy mandatory cutbacks after a conservation deadline passed with no agreement between the states.

"The next steps remain the hardest that we have to take." — Camille Calimlim Touton, Bureau of Reclamation

‘Never go forward without listening to us again’

A panel with representatives from 13 tribes spoke about the evolving role of tribes in water negotiations. Officials and attorneys spoke about their current struggles to maintain steady access to clean water, the historic aggression and exclusion that drove them away from water management and the need for tribes’ input as talks continue.

Although Indigenous people in the Southwest have been using Colorado River water longer than any other group in the region, they have largely been excluded from discussions about how the river is shared. The 30 federally-recognized tribes that use the river control about a quarter of its flow, but most lack the money and infrastructure to use their full allotments.

Tribal leaders said their millennia-long history in the region could offer lessons for the future of water management.

“This drought is just a recent drought in Hopi’s long history,” said Dale Sinquah, a Hopi tribal council member. “We’ve lived through drought, we’re still here, we’re still alive.”

Shanandoah Anderson, with the Shivwits Band of Paiutes in Utah, emphasized that her people had a healthy relationship with water before they were killed and driven away by settlers. Now, she said, modern governments say they consult tribes while working on land and water management plans, but don’t go nearly far enough.

“They say, ‘We phoned you and you didn’t answer,’ and they call that tribal consultation,” Anderson said.

Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona, said his tribe could help model the future of tribal involvement in government water dealings. His tribe has been a highly visible participant in recent federal water programs. In April, federal officials announced that the Gila River Indian Community would receive $233 million in exchange for water conservation as part of a program designed to incentivize voluntary cutbacks with federal payments.

Lewis said his tribe decided to get more involved in Colorado River talks in 2016 after they were not consulted by the U.S. government during the creation of the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, which resulted in cuts to their water supply.

“Our trustee couldn’t be bothered with consulting with us,” he said. “So as a result of this initial first misstep, we made it clear to the U.S. that they would never go forward without listening to us again.”

Lewis laid out his recommendation for tribal involvement going forward: A group of 38 representatives — one from the federal government, and one from each of the seven states and 30 tribes that use the Colorado River. That group should meet, Lewis said, every time the federal government feels it should meet with all seven state representatives.

Daryl Vigil, a member of the Jicarilla Apache Nation in New Mexico and an outspoken advocate for tribal inclusion in water talks, emphasized the need to work with each tribe individually.

“To think that there’s an ‘Indian solution’ really dishonors the uniqueness of the tribes,” Vigil said.

A warmer future

Brad Udall, a climate scientist whose grim projections are a staple of Colorado River conferences like the one in Boulder, briefed the conference with a presentation that, in his own words, did not “enliven the room.”

Despite an epic snow year that blanketed the Rocky Mountains and is currently delivering a much-needed surge of snowmelt into the Colorado River, the outlook for the future of its water supply remains fairly bleak.

This year’s runoff is projected to finish at 170% of average, but the likelihood of equally strong runoff in 2024 is low. Since the year 2000, there have never been two back-to-back years of years where the reservoir has filled more than it has been drained.

Udall also painted a picture of a much hotter future for the Colorado River basin and explained that each degree Celsius of temperature increase reduces streamflows by about 5% to 10%. The emissions which cause those temperature increases, he said, are slowing but still on the rise.

Udall, who comes from one of the West’s most prominent political families, floated his own policy recommendations in line with his understanding of the Colorado River’s climate future. Among them, he suggested that Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the nation’s two largest reservoirs, should be managed as one. Currently, they are treated as separate entities, although Lake Mead is mostly filled with water released from Lake Powell.

This story is part of ongoing coverage of water in the West, produced by KUNC in Colorado and supported by the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial coverage.

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