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Colorado River negotiators face a looming deadline: The 2024 election

View of the Colorado River from the Historic Navajo Bridge
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View of the Colorado River from the Historic Navajo Bridge near Marble Canyon, Arizona.

The Colorado River is shrinking, water users are taking too much water from it and, as the climate changes, it’s not being replenished fast enough. What we don’t know yet is how all of the stakeholders involved plan to deal with it.

Alex Hager, who covers the Colorado River for KUNC, got a glimpse into how that might happen last week when all of the people who make these decisions met at a conference in Boulder, Colorado. Hager joined The Show to talk more about it.

Full conversation

LAUREN GILGER: So you say that the future of the Colorado River here depends on seven people, right? Basically, this is this life source for 40 million of us around the Southwest and north of us. And they all met last week in Boulder. This is a rare occasion. Tell us about it and who these folks are.

ALEX HAGER: Well, the seven people are the negotiators for the seven states that use the Colorado River. So we’re talking a river that supplies farms and cities from Wyoming to Mexico. And the people who negotiate it represent those seven states. Now, they will give their advice on the best way to manage it to the federal government.

The federal government will also take into account perspectives from tribes that use the river’s water. There are 30 federally recognized tribes throughout the Colorado River basin. They will also take into account perspectives from the non-Pro outfit groups that represent the plants and animals that depend on the Colorado River.

But ultimately, the federal government has a track record of pretty much doing what the states tell them. So the seven negotiators that are meeting mostly behind closed doors, hashing out who will sacrifice their water, they are the ones we are watching the most closely to get a sense of how we’re going to move forward in a future with less to go around.

GILGER: So what was their main message? Did we get any clear answers?

HAGER: Yeah. The real message is these things take time. We are not going to arrive at a decision anytime soon. So the current timeline is that the rules for managing the river — for sharing its water — right now expire in 2026, and they’re trying to come up with a replacement set before then.

The Biden administration wants them to come up with that set before the November election, just in case things do not go the way of the Biden administration and there is a different president in the white House. That would save a lot of complication. The sense we got here is that the November election is not really a deadline that we’re going to see new plans before.

We also got the sense that they might wait until the 11th hour. There is a track record of these state negotiators coming up with plans kind of right before a deadline, and that seems like it might be what happens this time.

GILGER: And this is coming at a tense moment in all of this, right? Because they have been pretty divided into two camps. You have the upper basin states, the lower basin states sort of pitted against each other. They put forth these kind of competing plans a couple of months ago. Have they made any moves toward compromise?

HAGER: It does not seem like it so far. They are saying that the meetings are kind of going well in the abstract. But there’s some really big ideological differences that divide these two groups.

So the upper basin — that’s Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — they’re saying, “Look, we are the ones that feel the sting of climate change first. Our supply depends on how much snow falls, and there’s less snow falling because the planet is warming.” And they’re saying, “We should be allowed to send less water to our downstream neighbors every year because of that.”

The downstream neighbors, however — that is here in Arizona and California and Nevada — they’re saying, “Hey, we depend on steady deliveries from you guys upstream so we have enough water to water the crops on our fields and send through the kitchen faucets in Phoenix and Vegas and Los Angeles.” And they’re saying, “We simply cannot accept the plan where you are kind of finding a loophole for sending less water.”

So it’s not that they’re just stuck on the particulars of this deal. The 30,000-foot view of how water should be not only managed but kind of thought of in this arid region of the United States is a major dividing line, and it’s dividing lines like that that have split the upper basin and lower basin going back literally a century.

GILGER: Not new problems. But will this end up in court if they don’t come to some kind of compromise?

HAGER: Well, that is kind of the big question. Court has always been this looming, very scary threat for all of these states. They agree that they know water better than justices in Washington, D.C., and they would much rather sort out their problems themselves than let these kind of far-off legal minds figure it out without the context that all these folks have from living in Phoenix and Colorado and everywhere in between.

So one state negotiator referred to it as the “federal anvil” hanging over them. And they said that that sort of federal pressure is present, but it is pressure that is going to help them reach a deal, knowing how bad it could get if they don’t.

GILGER: OK. So they really want to do this and avoid court. What about the federal government’s role here? They’re putting up even more money, it sounds like. What does that look like?

HAGER: Well, last week at this conference, the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation — which is the kind of main water agency arm of the federal government, they operate all the dams and reservoirs out here in the West — they announced $700 million in new funding out of the Inflation Reduction Act for Colorado River programs. We don’t know exactly what that will be used to, but the federal government has a track record in the last few years of paying farmers to temporarily pause growing on their lands, of using that money to improve infrastructure like fixing leaky canals and places where water might fall out of the system.

So there’s a lot of ways that that money could be spent. We can guess that a lot of it will be spent on somewhat temporary fixes that might help buy more time for these negotiators to come up with a deal without seeing our reservoirs — Lake Powell and Lake Mead — drop to these critically low levels.

GILGER: That’s a big one. Last minute here: Where do the tribes come into play here? They were, I’m sure, at this conference. What do they have to say?

HAGER: They have been asking for a bigger seat at the table for a long time, and they still are The tribes — there are 30 of them that use Colorado River water — have long said that, “Look, these decisions will impact us. And you are not letting us have enough of a say in how they’re made.”

They said that there have been some improvements: relationships between governments that have developed in a positive direction, tribal leaders that are being put on state water control boards and that sort of thing. But they’re saying there’s still a long way to go. They want to see a more formal role for indigenous people in shaping Western water.

There was also a pretty big accusation made. Stephen Roe Lewis — who’s the (governor) of the Gila River Indian Community, which is a big player in Colorado River water and Arizona water and Phoenix water — said there is a whisper campaign to divide and conquer the tribes and put them against each other. He said. It’s how white settlers helped conquer indigenous people when they first settled the West, and they’re saying it’s alive now. But he says all the basin tribes have a common, historic and sacred bond that will not allow them to be divided.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

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.
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