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How 7 Colorado River states will come to agreement on water sharing

Arizona is reliant on water from the Colorado River. But, it’s shrinking due to climate change. And we’re not the only ones who will need it in the future. In fact, there are seven states at play here, and they all have to come to an agreement as to how to manage the future of the river by 2026.

But now, our next guest reports there are two competing proposals from states about how to deal with shortages on the river. And they fall along century-old lines.

Alex Hager covers the Colorado River basin for KUNC in Colorado and joined The Show for more.

Full interview

LAUREN GILGER: Good morning, Alex.

ALEX HAGER: Good morning. Good to be here.

GILGER: Thanks for coming on. OK, so tell us first about these two competing proposals. Who are they from? What do they say?

HAGER: Well, they are divided along very familiar lines. We have the Upper Basin which is Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico and then a separate plan from the Lower Basin. The first one from the Upper Basin accounts for climate change vary directly. Those states say that because of climate change, there is less snow falling in the mountains where the Colorado River starts. And because of that, the states nearest to those mountains are getting less water. And because of that, they should be allowed to let less water flow downstream to their lower basin neighbors.

Now, the Lower Basin neighbors, that's California, Arizona and Nevada, they say, look that plan kind of falls into murky legal territory. It requires an interpretation of water law that is not yet tested in court. And they say instead of hinging our plans on something that still could be proven kind of legally infeasible, why don't we come up with a plan that can work now? So they came up with a new system for measuring how much water is in the reservoirs in the Western U.S. It counts more than just Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the two biggest ones in the country and then it distributes cutbacks accordingly. But even their plan, environmental groups say it doesn't involve any guaranteed permanent cutbacks. It only kind of requires cutbacks when water falls below a certain trigger. And you know, some critics are saying that those plans need to go further to properly account for climate change.

GILGER: So the two sides not very close together at this point, tell us more about this deadline. They have to come to an agreement by 2026.

HAGER: That's right. So the current rules for managing the river expire in 2026 and they need to be replaced before that. So there is technically a lot of time before we get to that year, but these plans are very slow to develop. They need to go through all kinds of environmental review and permitting. So there's a long lead time, and the Biden administration, which you know, would be the one to implement these plans, they're saying just in case we lose the White House after the November election, we better get a move on and making sure that these plans come together. So basically, they started in November and worked backwards and set mid-March as the deadline for the states saying if we really want to get the ball rolling in time to make sure there's a plan while the Biden administration is still in office, you guys need to reach consensus soon and there's still a little bit of time to do it, but they weren't able to at the first deadline. 

GILGER: Right. So this first deadline, not, not a consensus at all really? Who decides, I guess going forward? Is this is the federal government staying out of it at this point or, and, and kind of waiting for these two sides to say, OK, we'll figure something else out because clearly we're not on the same page right now.

HAGER: There is a long historical precedent of leaving these decisions up to the states. The federal government has really not done a lot to influence negotiations about how the river is shared. There is talk that maybe they will come in and try to tip the scales. But so far, I think it seems that that precedent of leaving it to the states is what's going to happen here right now. They're basically saying, look, these plans are a little bit further apart but take some more time, go back to your camps, figure out a way to agree and, and the states have said that, I mean, they do have some sort of long standing rivalries, but they have all said we look forward to working more with our colleagues in the other basin, we hope to reach consensus. So there is at least some effort to try and find some agreement before these plans need to be finalized.

GILGER: And it sounds like, like people seem optimistic that they'll be able to make this happen even though they are pretty far apart right now. 

HAGER: Yeah, I talked to one policy analyst who said that this actually could be sort of an important first step, you know, basically say, look, here's what I want. I'm putting it out on the table. My plans are no longer secret and now we can negotiate there knowing kind of which cards each side holds.

GILGER: Sure, sure. So is there a bottom line for us here in Arizona in the lower basin states, Alex, in terms of what's coming kind of regardless of who wins out here, like we're going to be facing some major cuts either way probably, right?

HAGER: The fact of the matter is the Colorado Rivers supply has been significantly impacted by climate change. And the people in charge are really struggling to figure out how to tweak demand to get it in line with that diminished supply. And even in the Lower Basin's plan, which is one that sort of looks favorably upon impacts to Arizona, California and Nevada, Arizona would be the state that takes the most and biggest water cutbacks. Because of that, I know that a lot of water agencies in Arizona are looking at saving water that they already have. They're looking at new ways to augment their supply. They're trying to figure out ways to recycle water and to cut back, make sure that they can hang on to every drop knowing that they might have fewer drops to go with in the future. 

GILGER: Who will that affect the most? Like we hear these conversations and I wonder always, like, will this impact me as I am, you know, using water at my home or things like that? Like, does this affect people in a real way? Will it down the line?

HAGER: Realistically, I don't expect there to be some sort of government mandate where your city or state or county says you cannot use water in this particular circumstance. I will expect there to be a lot of pressure for people to save water on a voluntary basis. It's the reason why you see cities and, and sometimes counties coming in and offering incentive programs to replace your lawn with native plants or things that are kind of less thirsty. It's why there are programs to, you know, convince people to take shorter showers and that kind of thing. Ultimately, I think a decent amount of the water savings we'll see across the board are gonna have to come from agriculture. 80% of the water from the Colorado River is used for farms and ranches. And at the end of the day, I expect that some of that 80% will have to give up some of its supply to make sure that the larger system can stay sustainable.

GILGER: All right, lots to watch for there, Alex Hager with KUNC in Colorado. Alex, thanks as always, appreciate it.

HAGER: Hey, thanks so much, Lauren. Have a good day.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The story has been updated to correct the number of Colorado River states. 

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.