Western US states clash over the fate of the Colorado River

Seven states are trying to reach a deal to share the Colorado River’s dwindling waters. However, different factions of the feuding states have their own views on how the plan could work – and no one wants to get the short end of the stick.

The Colorado River Basin covers approximately 673,396 square kilometers (260,000 square miles), about 8 percent of the continental U.S., and serves as a critical water source for 40 million people in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.

Disputes over the river’s water rights have been looming for more than a century. In an early attempt to solve their problem, the Colorado River Compact was signed in 1922 to regulate water distribution among seven states.

It did this by dividing them into two groups: the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming in the Upper Divisions; and those of the lower divisions, California, Arizona and Nevada. Additionally, there are also tribal water rights to consider.

However, cracks are beginning to appear in the age-old framework. On our warming planet, once stable water reserves are coming under increasing pressure. Two of Colorado’s largest reservoirs – Lake Powell and Lake Mead – have been particularly hard hit, with water levels reaching shockingly low levels in recent years.

Shrinking water supplies are also reflected in the flow of the Colorado River, which has already declined by about 20 percent over the past century.

A map of the western US with the Colorado River in blue and its watershed in light yellow.

A map of the western US with the Colorado River in blue and its watershed in light yellow.

In May 2023, water-affected states reached an agreement in which Arizona, California and Nevada agreed to reduce intake by 3.7 billion cubic meters (3 million acre-feet) through the end of 2026.

Now comes the challenge of creating a long-term plan that everyone can agree on. During the first week of March 2024, the Upper Basin States and the Lower Basin States both submitted their competing plans for the post-2026 scenario.

Both plans aim for the seven states to cut water supplies, but the devil is in the details and both proposals have conflicting points that are both subtle and complex. There is no clear agreement on which states should be most affected by the cuts, and there are also disagreements on how to measure available water resources. The Upper States want real-time live information to manage water flow “instead of unreliable forecasts”, but the Lower States believe this is a way to avoid solid obligations.

“That proposal effectively places the entire burden of protecting the river system on the Lower Basin. They will not accept reductions under any circumstances,” Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said at a news conference, according to the Hill.

“Our proposal would result in reductions that are certain. We need to see that from the Upper Basin – and not just from policies and programs that could lead to some reduction,” Buschatzke argued.

The path to agreement is currently unclear, but one thing is certain: something has to change.

“We can no longer accept the status quo of Colorado River operations,” Becky Mitchell, Colorado’s commissioner on the Upper Colorado River Commission, said in a statement.

“If we want to protect the system and ensure security for the 40 million people who depend on this water source, we must address the existing imbalance between supply and demand.

“That means we must use the best available science to work within the reality and actual conditions of Lake Powell and Lake Mead. We need to plan for the river we have, not the river we dream about,” Mitchell explains.

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