The Colorado River crisis may be solved with 'silver buckshot' as new rules are hard to come by
The future of the Colorado River is being hashed out behind closed doors, and negotiators appear far from a long-term solution to the wide gap between water supply and water demand. At the Colorado River Water Users Association annual meeting in Las Vegas, representatives from the seven states that use the river spent three days opining on the progress of ongoing talks to determine how water will be managed after 2026 when the current set of rules expires.
The water supply flows to 40 million people, kitchen faucets in major cities, farms that put leafy greens on tables across the nation, and hundreds of tribal communities across the Southwest. But ultimately, seven people will have a major say in how the river is divided. They're expected to tell the federal government how they'd like to see the river allocated after 2026 and say they're hoping to find agreement and avoid legal action between states.
In a massive ballroom at the Paris Hotel, John Entsminger, Nevada’s top water negotiator, forecasted that the next river-sharing agreement will be “a messy compromise that will be judged harshly by history.”
He and delegates from six other states that use water from the Colorado River are trying to agree on a new set of rules for sharing the dwindling supply. The current guidelines expire in 2026. Entsminger said a final agreement may join a patchwork of deals that have incrementally, but perhaps insufficiently, tweaked water use in response to two decades of dry conditions fueled by climate change.
“If you look at the last 25 years of the Colorado River, you know these imperfect, messy compromises step by step by step have gotten us much closer to equilibrium than we were at the turn of the century,” he said.
The messiness is a result of long-simmering tensions between the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico and their Lower Basin counterparts — California, Nevada, and Arizona.
Ultimately, the future of the Colorado River may be dictated by a mosaic of different agreements, policies, and funding efforts that go way beyond what’s written in an agreement between seven states.
One term tossed around at the water meetings in Vegas was “silver buckshot.”
“It’s kind of the opposite of a silver bullet,” said Elizabeth Koebele, who researches Colorado River policy at the University of Nevada, Reno. “You go at a problem with lots of small solutions.”
It’s a term, Koebele said, that gets used a lot in the world of climate change mitigation and one that makes a lot of sense for Colorado River management.
“It would be, I think, a huge missed opportunity if we didn't think more broadly than reservoir operating rules,” Koebele said. “But at the same time, maybe the idea is these guidelines are for operating our reservoirs, and we need some other pieces to add to the law of the river or to add more informal river administration that handles some of these other challenging problems at different scopes and scales.”
New means of measuring
Some experts rallied for updates to the way water is measured. The Lower Basin states have come under fire for failing to account for “system loss,” or the water lost to evaporation and leaky canals, and critics say the official tally of how much water is in the Colorado River needs to account for that.
Those losses total about 1.5 million acre-feet each year, mostly due to evaporation from the surface of Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to fill one acre of land to a height of one foot. One acre-foot generally provides enough water for one to two households for a year.
“I don't think the Lower Basin is going to agree to call it what it is, because there are a lot of political and legal issues around it,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District. “But if they would just permanently reduce their use, including that 1.5 million, I think we'd be a whole lot better off as a system.”
Mueller’s agency is based in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and works to ensure legal protection for Western Colorado’s water.
Other experts floated the idea of a new method for distributing mandatory cutbacks when supplies dip critically low. Currently, cutbacks are triggered when the amount of water in Lake Mead dips beneath a certain threshold. The proposed alternative would see those cuts tied to a multi-year average of data from streams and rivers further upstream.
“That gives us a much more timely indicator of what we can actually expect to be happening in the rest of the basin,” Koebele said.
Augmentation and abundance
When water is limited, why not just make more? Some of the region’s water leaders have embraced that mentality and are encouraging big spending on technology and infrastructure that can, in a way, add water to their systems. At the water conference in Las Vegas, some leaders said augmenting the water supply will be necessary in addition to demand cutbacks.
“We have two options,” said Adel Hagekhalil, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. “We can be victims of nature, hydrology, and climate change, or we can adapt to it. You adapt to it through creating abundance, augmentation of water supply.”
Hagekhalil’s agency, which delivers water to about 19 million people in cities and suburbs around Los Angeles, sees promise in stretching out the water supply they already have by using it over and over and storing extra water for later use.
While their plans don’t include the literal creation of water molecules, Metropolitan plans to invest billions in water recycling technology. The agency is building systems that turn sewage, which otherwise would have been pumped out to sea, back into safe drinking water. The technology is picking up investment from across state lines and is being adopted in other cities that use the Colorado River.
Hagekhalil also suggested storing extra water underground. The practice is already common in some parts of the Colorado River basin, particularly Arizona. He likened the new storage and reuse plans to putting money away in a savings account.
“We cannot let our water use be paycheck to paycheck, month to month,” Hagekhalil said. “It cannot be that way. It has to be such that we create the safety net, the reliability, the resilience.”
The reuse and storage plans won’t come cheap. So far, Metropolitan has benefited from state and local funding help, and Hagekhalil said he hopes congressional action will free up more money to help build water-saving infrastructure.
Tribes as allies
Tribes have spent years asking to be better included in Colorado River talks. Thirty federally recognized tribes use the river’s water but have been largely excluded from decision-making since the earliest days of its management. Now, they’re starting to have slightly more say in discussions about how water is shared, but they’re seeking codified protections for a role in deciding the river’s future.
Tribal leaders say they want more than just a seat at the table; they want their participation to be “institutionalized.” That could mean a permanent position, or positions, for tribes in Colorado River negotiations that can outlast changes in federal, state, and tribal administrations.
Tribes that use the Colorado River control about a quarter of its flow, but most lack the money and infrastructure to use their full allotments. Tribal leaders also say with some help, they can contribute to large-scale water conservation efforts.
“We have the potential to be tremendous allies,” said Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona.
Gila River has struck up relationships with the federal government and nearby states and built a high profile in the Colorado River policy world. The tribe has inked deals to receive hundreds of millions of federal dollars in exchange for water conservation. Lewis highlighted his tribe’s conservation work as a major part of a highly publicized conservation agreement between California, Arizona, and Nevada.
“We can bring answers, we can bring innovation,” Lewis said. "Some of these issues are still at loggerheads between the Upper Basin and the Lower Basin. Tribes can really bridge a lot of these yet-to-be-worked-out policy disagreements.”
Tribal contributions will likely be only a small part of broader, region-wide cuts to water demand, but state leaders have shown some growing willingness to bring tribes into the fold of water management, and conservation by tribal communities could be part of a larger patchwork of water conservation.
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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