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Expect a messy compromise on the future of the Colorado River, negotiators say in Las Vegas

Representatives from each of the seven Colorado River Basin states said a long-term fix will likely be flawed and judged harshly by history
The Colorado River a few miles upstream from Palisade near Cameo on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021. (Hart Van Denburg/CPR News file)

LAS VEGAS – What’s one central message when it comes to how the water supply for 40 million people in the Western U.S. will be managed in coming years? It won’t be pretty.

The top negotiators for the seven states in the Colorado River Basin, including Colorado, met Thursday at this year’s Colorado River Water Users Association conference in Las Vegas. The officials are in the midst of negotiating a new set of rules for how farmers, cities, industries and others will share – and cut back on – water use after 2026.

Their discussion highlighted ongoing tensions in the negotiations, but several officials moderated expectations: The new rules would not be perfect or solve all of the basin’s problems, they said.

“The one thing I can tell you with absolute certainty is that the post-2026 guidelines will deliver a messy compromise that will be judged harshly by history. That’s the cold reality,” John Entsminger, Nevada’s top negotiator, told hundreds of water watchers, experts and officials during a panel discussion.

The annual conference offered a chance for more than 1,000 people to hear panels on key topics in the river basin and to have backroom conversations under the heavy chandeliers and French-inspired décor of The Paris Hotel. Hundreds flocked to the seven states’ panel in an enormous conference room to hear updates on the negotiations.

Each state is trying to balance competing needs among water users in the overstressed Colorado River Basin, the officials explained. In Colorado, Front Range cities compete with rural and agricultural water users for supply. Two tribes, the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute, have settled water rights but still cannot access all of their water.

Coloradans have said what they will and won’t accept from the interstate negotiations, said Commissioner Becky Mitchell, Colorado’s top official on Colorado River issues.

“They will not accept the status quo moving forward in the same direction that we’ve been going,” Mitchell said. “They’re not interested in striking a deal that allows for the continuation of depleting the storage and driving the system into crisis.”

Storage – the water stored in reservoirs around the 246,000-square-mile basin – is a key issue. By the early 2020s, states had drained water from two immense reservoirs, lakes Mead and Powell, to historic lows.

The river’s water supply varies from year to year. If there’s not enough water stored for drier years, it would spell a crisis for ecosystems, wildlife and millions of people across seven states, 30 federally recognized tribes and two Mexican states.

Historic drought, poor planning, competing political agendas and climate change denial all contributed to the near crisis.

Officials from the Upper Basin – Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – have pointed to overuse in the Lower Basin – Arizona, California and Nevada – as another cause.

In the past, Lower Basin officials balked at this, saying they’ve done plenty to cut back on water use. But on Thursday, several Lower Basin officials emphasized that their overuse has outpaced the river’s supply and that the problem needs to be addressed.

“There is a supply-demand imbalance in the Lower Basin,” said JB Hamby, California’s top negotiator and vice president of the Imperial Irrigation District. “Where we’re at in the Lower Basin is a recognition that we have to solve (it). It’s going to be tough. It’s going to be challenging, but it’s absolutely necessary.”

The deficit isn’t the only problem, Hamby said. Climate change has thrown the basin’s future into question, and everyone will need to pitch in to find solutions. But the Upper and Lower basin states continue to be divided over who exactly is responsible for cutting water use and how those cuts should happen.

Lower Basin officials say that everyone needs to compromise and the burden should be shared. Without compromise, the states will end up in the U.S. Supreme Court, Hamby said.

“Everyone has to contribute. Doesn’t matter your state, doesn’t matter your sector, doesn’t matter your geography: This river, we share it,” Hamby said. “If we’re going to be protecting all of our users for the future that we’re anticipating with climate change … everyone has to be part of the solution.”

The negotiators said they have three options to decide how the Colorado River’s water will be shared for future decades: litigation, legislation and negotiation.

But a gridlocked Congress hasn’t been producing a lot of results lately, Entsminger said, and if states cannot reach an agreement and the case goes to the U.S. Supreme Court, states lose control of their own future.

“All you’re doing is changing out water professionals – who know and have worked on and love this river – for guys and gals in black robes that know very, very little about our river,” Entsminger said. “What the outcome of that litigation would be, no one could tell you.”

The commissioners agreed that the most viable path forward is through negotiations.

“I still think, maybe I’m naive or I’ve just been so down on the other two options, to believe that that sort of compromise on this river system is still possible,” Entsminger said.

A representative of the 30 federally recognized tribes – who have rights to about 25% of the river basin’s water supply – was not at the table, noted Chairman Manuel Heart of the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Tribe.

“One thing we’re lacking with tribes: Who’s the tribal representative that should be sitting up there with them?” he said.

Colorado has taken steps to include tribes. But Hart said he wanted to see full support from all seven states for consistently taking tribes into account.

“We’re just barely starting to be recognized, but as I said, the opportunity and the partnerships are there,” he said. “They just have to reach out to some of the tribes.”

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