'Clearer heads' and calls for tribal inclusion as Colorado River bigwigs prep for Las Vegas meeting
The fate of the Colorado River hangs in the balance. But for the first time in a few years, the people who decide its future say there’s less urgency to find a solution, and that’s a good thing. A wet winter and a recent conservation deal have helped stave off record-low levels at the nation's largest reservoirs, and leaders say they can turn their attention to long-term river management.
The biggest water policymakers in the arid West will soon convene at the Colorado River’s marquee annual event – the Colorado River Water Users Association meeting in Las Vegas. Ahead of this year’s conference, leaders say they have more bandwidth to find a solution to the growing supply-demand imbalance that is straining the river.
The event brings together hundreds of scientists, politicians, tribal members, farmers, and others with a stake in the future of the water supply for roughly 40 million people across the Southwest. While they’re still facing the daunting challenge of agreeing on cutbacks to water use by farms, ranches, and cities from Wyoming to Mexico, many say last year’s wet winter helped clear the way for more productive talks.
“I think where we are heading into this one is, fortunately, not much to really get too excited about, which is a nice thing,” said JB Hamby, the top water negotiator from California.
Hamby, who hails from a farm district that uses more Colorado River water than any other single entity in the region, said water managers have arrived at a “Goldilocks” level of urgency. Many past conferences, including 2022’s meeting, were focused on creating short-term conservation measures to protect the Southwest’s big reservoirs from infrastructural damage.
This time around, Hamby said, negotiators can focus on the bigger picture: agreeing on a new, lasting set of river-sharing rules to replace the current set, which expires in 2026.
“Now we have an open runway to figure out post-2026 with a much lower temperature and clearer heads,” he said.
Hamby and other negotiators are tight-lipped about the progress of that negotiation process but tend to project optimism about finding a collective solution. Hamby, who said he was shut out of negotiations as recently as January, now says the dynamics of river management talks have “shifted dramatically” for the better.
Hearts and minds
Formal talks about the nitty-gritty of post-2026 river guidelines mostly happen behind closed doors. However, the seven states that use water from the Colorado River may see the conference in Las Vegas as a place to garner sympathy and support from water experts around the basin.
“It seems like my constant challenge is making sure that we're understood in the Upper Basin,” said Becky Mitchell, Colorado’s top water negotiator.
Colorado and its allies in the upper portion of the Colorado River basin — Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico — often say they feel the sting of dry years more sharply than other states. Because the majority of the river begins as snow in the Upper Basin, leaders in those states say farmers and ranchers near the headwaters have to use less water after low-snow winters. They contend that growers and cities in the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona, and Nevada do not have to make the same kinds of adjustments to their water use because they can count on a predictable delivery of water from Lake Powell every year.
“My next week is going to be spent figuring out how I tell these stories so that they resonate beyond Colorado,” Mitchell said, citing the story of one water user who has had to use less than their full allocation in 17 of the past 23 years.
While those dry-year impacts may be felt on a local scale, a 2022 study showed that the Upper Basin’s overall water use is not as responsive to the ebb and flow of winter as its leaders may make it out to be.
Lower Basin states have been making their own push to gin up good press, too. In October, a new federal report about the state of the Colorado River outlined the benefits of a wet winter and a three-state conservation deal in creating more space for talks about the long-term future of the water supply.
Meanwhile, some experts said their conservation work was not as significant as the boost from Mother Nature. A recent Politico investigation found that the conservation agreement may have some unintended negative consequences, too. The deal could pay out up to $1.2 billion in exchange for water cutbacks, which Politico’s Annie Snider said is “likely to make a broader, long-term deal to save the West’s most important river more expensive.”
More room for tribes
Since the earliest days of Colorado River management, Indigenous people have been on the fringes of talks about how to share its water. Some of the 30 federally recognized tribes that use water from the Colorado River say they’re still being kept out of the rooms where important decisions are made about water policy.
Calls for greater inclusion of tribes have been a staple of recent annual meetings in Las Vegas, but tribal water advocates say there’s still a need for more.
“We want our participation to be institutionalized,” said Lorelei Cloud, acting chairman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. “That is going to be key.”
Cloud, whose tribe sits in the southwest corner of the Colorado River, said she and other Indigenous water leaders are pushing for legally-protected seats at the table in post-2026 water management. Those seats, she said, should be designed to withstand changes in tribal, state, or federal administrations.
Tribal leaders say some progress has been made to give them a larger role in water talks. Cloud, who recently became the first Native American person to serve on the Colorado Water Conservation Board, praised the efforts of her state and the Upper Colorado River Commission. That body helps give Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico a unified voice in region-wide water talks.
“We've had to hash out a lot of historical traumas and things that have happened to us, preventing us from being a part of those conversations,” she said. “In the Upper Basin, I think we're blazing that trail right now. We're ahead of the game.”
The discussion of tribal inclusion in Colorado River management has often ignored the nuances and diverse needs of different tribes, according to Indigenous leaders across the region.
“To think that there’s an ‘Indian solution’ really dishonors the uniqueness of the tribes,” Daryl Vigil, a member of the Jicarilla Apache Nation in New Mexico, said at a water law conference earlier this year.
That uniqueness, Cloud said, needs to be acknowledged in the new set of water-sharing rules that get drawn up by 2026.
“We're all going to do what is best for our tribe because we're a sovereign nation,” she said. “That's where a lot of people don't have the understanding that each tribe is going to work differently.”
Despite holding rights to about a quarter of the river’s flow, many tribes lack the funding and infrastructure to use their full water allocations. Some also grapple with major water quality issues. On the Navajo Nation, for example, almost 40% of homes don’t have access to clean water. On the Southern Ute reservation, 15% of homes don’t have running water at all.
Cloud said she plans to share the stories of those people at the upcoming Las Vegas conference.
“I can take those with me and help other people to understand what our people go through to get water in their home, or to have water on a daily basis,” she said. “That's my duty as a tribal leader, to make those personal connections.”
‘We're still really close to the edge of the cliff’
In the spring, when Rocky Mountain snow started melting into the streams that feed the Colorado River, the word on water leaders’ lips was “squander.”
“The hydrology this year has been nothing short of amazing, and I think it’s up to us to ensure that we don’t squander it,” Estevan López, the Colorado River negotiator for New Mexico, told the Nevada Independent in April.
“As we listen to the agreements, you would think that our rate of consumption was significantly less than it had ever been after any other wet year, and that is not the case,” said Jack Schmidt, who directs the Center for Colorado River Studies at Utah State University. “We are sort of using water at a similar rate as in other years.”
Schmidt wrote about the current status of reservoir storage around the Colorado River basin in a blog post, showing that the boost from last winter has been relatively modest and is being depleted in a way that could quickly erase any temporary gains. He said the region is currently using water at a rate that is “unexceptional,” comparing the current situation to 2011, 2017, and 2019, when big winter gains were consumed or lost to evaporation within two years.
“2023 just got us to take one step back from the edge of the cliff, but we're still really close to the edge of the cliff,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt called for a change in how water data is reported to the public. He said the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that manages the West’s major reservoirs, should more “transparently” publish data about the total amount of water stored in those reservoirs rather than potential savings created by legal agreements.
“There are a lot of behind-the-scenes shell games that you can play with where you store water,” he said.
A long-term fix to the Colorado River crisis often seems far off. A new set of guidelines for the river will need to bridge a number of gaps that have simmered for generations — long-standing feuds between states, tensions between big-money farm districts and fast-growing cities, and steady calls for greater inclusion of tribes.
But water leaders from across the arid West have started to highlight one glimmer of hope. The majority of them agree on the nature and severity of the problem. Two decades of dry conditions, fueled by climate change, are shrinking the amount of water in the river and its reservoirs, and demand needs to be brought down substantially to create a sustainable long-term future for the river.
“The one optimism that I have is there is wide recognition amongst every single entity that takes Colorado River (water) in the basin, at least in the lower basin, we know that this is a new reality,” said Vineetha Kartha, Colorado River programs manager at the Central Arizona Project.
Kartha’s agency manages a 336-mile pipeline that brings Colorado River water across the Arizona desert and supplies the Phoenix area. It is among the first water agencies in the basin to see cuts to its water supply under a federal mandate.
Kartha said that a solution may require new, innovative ideas like changes to the way water is measured or mandatory cutbacks are triggered. Regardless of how that solution is carried out, Kartha said it must involve collaboration.
“I always tell my kids many hands make light work,” she said. “That's the same thing here.”
This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported by the Walton Family Foundation.
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