Although Southwest Colorado’s snowpack is well above the historic average, the seven Colorado River basin states are moving forward with an agreement to manage the river in the face of drought and a dangerously low Lake Mead.
Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., attended the first congressional hearing last week since the states’ agreement was signed. During the committee meeting, he applauded the basin states for coordinating a plan that voluntarily cuts their water usage to prevent federal government intervention.
“This is an incredibly important issue for those of us out in the plains of Colorado, those of us in Western Colorado and throughout the upper basin of Colorado and lower basin,” Gardner said during the hearing. “Colorado has the unique distinction of being a state that all water flows out of and no water flows into.”
During the hearing, Gardner acknowledged Colorado benefited from a wet winter this year but said it did not mitigate the need for a plan to prevent a future crisis, which would ultimately affect 40 million people in the West.
The basin states – Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – reached their agreement March 19, forestalling the federal government from imposing its own conservation limits on the dwindling water supply.
“It’s unclear exactly what steps the federal government would have taken,” said Josh Kuhn, water advocate with Conservation Colorado, a nonprofit focused on electing conservation-minded policymakers. “It’s preferable for the states to take those steps, opposed to the government stepping in.”
Kuhn also applauded the work the states did to create a framework for managing the Colorado River moving forward. But he acknowledged a concern remains for a growing population throughout the arid West, combined with the effects of climate change.
“The main problem is Lake Mead,” Kuhn said. “It’s getting dangerously low.”
Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States, serves water to Arizona, California and Nevada from the Colorado River. Increased water demand throughout the West, climate change and prolonged drought have shrunk the lake to about 40% of its capacity.
As of last week, the lake was at about 1,090 feet, Kuhn said. Under the current regulations, if it drops below 1,075 feet, Arizona and Nevada are cut out of the water supply as California has the most senior water rights, Kuhn said.
In light of this, the agreement to conserve water between the upper and lower basin states comes at a critical time. Yet, Brad Udall, a scientist at Colorado State University and a leading expert at Colorado River Research Group, believes the hard work is just beginning.
Udall agrees the plan is a success and a necessary step toward water conservation but says it will only get harder for the next negotiated period, set for 2026.
“By all accounts, those negotiations are going to be much harder, and I don’t mean to diminish what happened, but those are going to be tough,” Udall said.
Udall sees this year’s round of cuts as more akin to a loan than a final payment. He said there are a lot of ways for the states to minimize the effect supply cuts will have and later recoup the water through other sources.
But as it gets closer to 2026, there will be more entities, including Mexico and the U.S. federal government, involved in negotiations, Udall said. “We need to think about turning these loans into permanent reductions,” he said.
The increase in population and government entities fighting for a share of the supply is not the only concern Udall sees for 2026.
“It’s very clear that the warming we’re seeing will continue and it will increase in speed and intensity,” Udall said. In the Four Corners, 2018 was the hottest and driest year on record. And, Udall said, “We’re going to continue to set records like this. And we need to be prepared to expect records like that.”
While other states can offset their water losses from the Colorado River with other supplies, Colorado has fewer sources of groundwater to rely on, Udall said. Arizona, for example, can use its reservoirs to supplement its water. It will be harder for Colorado to plan for those future cuts, unlike the lower basin states with their increased groundwater, Udall said.
Kuhn also emphasized the crucial work necessary to complete the plan in the years to come. “All of the stakeholders are going to need to come together and find ways to manage consumption,” he said.
For Kuhn, it’s crucial the next steps of the demand management plan include an emphasis on protecting the environment, especially for the continued health of Colorado’s outdoor industry. “We have rafting, fly fishing, boating, and all of those are contingent on healthy rivers moving forward,” Kuhn said.
Back in Washington, D.C., as the drought contingency plan faced congressional review, Gardner emphasized how crucial the agreement was. “These are states where history is written in water, so this is incredibly important,” he said.
Liz Weber is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.