Can the West’s lifeline be saved?
Experts offer eight possible solutions, from desalination to cloud seeding and growth management
By Conrad Swanson
Conditions on the drying Colorado River are worsening faster than expected. States can’t agree on how to divide water cuts. Native American officials say they’re still largely shut out from the bargaining table, and murmurs of a dystopian “water war” scenario now punctuate the conversations.
The crisis is over a century in the making and water experts have been ringing alarm bells for decades. Now government officials have weeks or months, not years, to find ways to save massive amounts of water.
At risk are the country’s two largest reservoirs — lakes Powell and Mead — which are losing water. Levels could drop so low this year that Glen Canyon and Hoover dams would no longer be able to generate electricity for millions of people. By the end of next year, Powell’s water level could fall so low that its dam will be able to send only smaller quantities of water downstream to Arizona, California and Nevada.
Federal officials need the seven states in the Colorado River Basin to save at least 2 million acre-feet, but water managers now acknowledge that number might need to be three times higher, enough to bury the entire state of Rhode Island under more than 7 feet of water.And that’s just so the basin can survive long enough to plan for the years ahead. Nobody wants to be the one responsible for turning down — or off — taps to farmers, ranchers, companies or even major cities.
Local, state and federal officials often mention using more efficient irrigation methods on cropland and they discuss accounting for water lost to evaporation or as it’s transported across thousands of miles of desert terrain. But neither of those two — necessary — steps will be enough.
The Denver Post spoke to experts across the region about ideas, substantive and farfetched, that could save enough water to keep the Colorado River Basin afloat. Nobody could say precisely how much water a given strategy might provide but each of them acknowledged that officials throughout the American West must think creatively and be prepared to use any and all available resources.
Here are several of those ideas:
“It works, but it’s expensive.”
The gist: The Pacific Ocean has more than enough water to supplement whatever the Colorado River has lost. But, as it is, ocean water is not safe to drink, nor can it be used on crops. Running ocean water through a desalination plant can filter out its dangerously high salt content, bacteria and other impurities to make it safe for use.
Could it work? The technology is in use, but no plants in existence can replace the amount of water the Colorado River is losing. Plus, desalination is expensive and time-consuming, and the waste it produces would create new problems.
Context: Desalination plants are in use all over the world. A dozen are in use in California, alongside more in Arizona, Mexico and other areas dotting North America.
One in Australia, the Victorian Desalination Plant, can provide up to a third of Melbourne’s water supply, according to the city’s water provider. And Israel is being hailed as a leader in the field, with five desalination plants along its coasts providing tap water for nearly 9.2 million people.
But there are quite a few catches to the strategy.
First, Israel’s success with desalination wouldn’t translate the same way for the Colorado River Basin, according to Jay Famiglietti, director of the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan. More than four times as many people depend on the Colorado River, and, even then, human water consumption pales in comparison with the amount of water needed for agriculture in the basin, which feeds people across the world.
Agriculture accounts for a small fraction of Israel’s economy.
Desalination can’t match the vast quantities of water the Colorado River provides, especially in a few short years, Dan Beard, a retired U.S. Bureau of Reclamation commissioner, told The Denver Post. And building a massive desalination plant could take up to a decade.
“This would be a long-term challenge,” Beard said. “You couldn’t just flip a switch and start a desalting plant.”
Desalinating water also requires huge amounts of energy, Beard said. Not only are the plants costly to run, but that, in turn, makes the water they produce expensive as well.
One multibillion-dollar proposal from Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey would build a desalination plant that could take water out of the Gulf of California and transform it into 200,000 acre-feet of usable water a year, but at an estimated price of $2,000 per acre-foot, a rate about 10 times higher than current costs in the area.
Running the plant would cost tens of millions of dollars each year as well, KUNC reported.
“It works, but it’s expensive,” Beard said.
After all that, the desalination process has to do something with the byproduct of the filtration process, called brine, Famiglietti said. Wherever that brine is dumped will inevitably be damaged by its high salt content, potentially ruining entire ecosystems.
That environmental hazard alone could wreak havoc up and down the West Coast, Famiglietti said. But then if the brine begins slipping down toward Mexican waters, it could even create an international incident.
Desalination, like many of the other ideas, has a part to play in replacing some of the water lost by the Colorado River, Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said. But it’s not a “silver bullet” solution.
“We have to consider all of the creative solutions and temper our expectations,” Mitchell said.
Reuse and recycling
“People still flush their toilets.”
The gist: Collect water that already has been used, and use it again.
Could it work? Many cities and states are using these strategies, although the amount of water that can be recycled and reused is limited by population size and legal constraints.
Context: We all use the bathroom, clean our clothes, wash our dishes, take showers or baths. Why not collect that water and reuse it? It’s happening around the world, and it’s a technology that’s proven to work.
Water providers can collect what’s called gray water from sinks, bathtubs, showers and laundry machines or even sewage, called blackwater, and treat it for reuse. Fort Collins, began allowing gray water systems to be installed in new buildings this summer, and that water can be used to flush toilets or for below-ground irrigation.
Mayor Jeni Arndt said using that water twice, whenever possible, is a responsible thing to do. She acknowledged that the approach might save only a few gallons per home each day, but everything counts. Plus the approach is a good way to encourage residents to think more sustainably about their water use.
In some cases, the water can be treated and transformed back into drinking water. But it’s even easier to use the water again for nonpotable purposes, such as irrigating crops, watering lawns, recharging groundwater sources and industrial uses, depending on how thoroughly it’s treated.
“It’s a reliable source of water,” Beard said. “It’s always there. It isn’t subject to drought or other changes. People still flush their toilets.”
Unlike desalination plants, Beard said water treatment plants could be built for much less money and within the span of a year or two. So they’re relatively quick and effective and a wise way to care for the water that’s in use.
Gary Wockner, leader of the nonprofit Save the Colorado, added that Southern California pioneered many ways to reuse water decades ago and called for the upstream states to catch up.
“It’s going to be the future,” Wockner said.
There are limitations, he acknowledged. First among them are complications surrounding water rights and dictating which source of water can be used for which application. Water transported into one river basin from another typically can be used to “extinction,” or captured and reused until it’s gone.
But in other cases, water that has been used once legally must be allowed to drain back into the river’s tributaries to be used by the next person or community downstream.
Plus, Famiglietti said there’s only ever going to be so much water available for reuse.
“It’s driven by your supply of human waste,” he said. “That’s as much as you’re going to get.”
“Robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
The gist: If the Colorado River is losing water so fast, why not take water from the places that have it and transport it into the basin that needs it, likely with a system of pipes?
Could it work? Water is transported all across the country using pipelines and canals. But this is an expensive, time-consuming undertaking that would come with substantial political challenges. In addition, many other regions across the country are suffering droughts as well.
The context: Engineers and water experts knew for decades that growth in the Colorado River Basin eventually would hit a tipping point. That is, unless the states depending on the river found a new source of water.
One way to do that, civil engineer Royce J. Tipton wrote in 1965, would be to pipe water in from somewhere else, also referred to as “importing” water. One scheme considered in the ’50s and ’60s (but never developed), the North American Water and Power Alliance, proposed to pipe water from rivers in Alaska and Canada south into the Colorado River’s headwaters, among other places.
Water transfers like this are in use across the world and have been for millennia (think of the Roman aqueducts). An example in the Colorado River Basin would be the Central Arizona Project, a canal system transporting river water across hundreds of miles of desert and into the heart of Arizona for cities such as Phoenix and Tucson.
The Southern Delivery System in the nearby Arkansas River Basin pipes water from Pueblo County more than 60 miles north to Colorado Springs, Fountain and Security.
These canals and pipelines are expensive to build, though, and take years. The Southern Delivery System, for example, cost an estimated $985 million and took about four years to build (the planning phase took much longer than that). And during construction, the process became mired in local and federal permitting processes.
A decade ago, states in the Colorado River Basin wrapped up a three-year study, which considered piping water to Denver — and beyond — from the Missouri River. Then-U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar dismissed the idea as politically and technically infeasible.
“At one time they talked about hauling icebergs down from Alaska,” Jennifer Gimbel, senior water policy scholar at Colorado State University’s Water Center, said.
Piping water from the Midwest and up a vertical mile would present an engineering challenge to say the least, Beard said. But aside from that, working with private, local, state and federal landowners would spark decades of litigation and permitting processes.
“It shouldn’t even be under consideration,” Beard said.
Wockner was less concerned about the technical possibilities and more concerned about one dry region taking water from another place.
“You’re robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Wockner said.
Not to mention in the Midwest, the Missouri and Mississippi rivers are experiencing droughts of their own, as have the Columbia, Klamath and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest.
Or there are legal protections in place that would prevent states in the Colorado River Basin from looking elsewhere. Like with the Great Lakes, which hold an estimated 90% of North America’s fresh surface water, a 2008 compact prohibits communities from even applying to divert water unless they’re at least partially within the basin.
“It’d be a political war wherever you took the water from, for sure,” Wockner said.
“There’s not enough moisture in the air.”
The gist: By spraying a chemical compound — typically silver iodide — into certain types of clouds, seeders can agitate super-chilled water particles inside, causing them to freeze and fall to the ground as snow.
Could it work? The technology is in use across the West, although the process likely doesn’t create snow or moisture. Instead it uses moisture that’s in the air and causes snow to fall in one location rather than another.
Context: Water experts across the American West often note that alongside the massive lakes and reservoirs humans have built, the region’s greatest way of storing water is its snowpack.
So why not make it snow when
and where we can?
That’s the idea behind the decades-old technology of cloud seeding.
Cloud seeders are working across the American West, and there’s no need for them to stop their work, experts say. But the method isn’t a substantive solution to the water shortage in the Colorado River basin.
“It’s so darned hard to quantify the impact,” Estevan López, the Upper Colorado River Compact Commissioner for New Mexico, said.
In short, when the right type of clouds are near, seeders can agitate the super-chilled water inside them with a chemical compound, usually silver iodide. They spread that compound using planes or even machines strategically placed on the ground. The silver iodide then causes the water to freeze and fall to the ground as snow.
Voila! More snow means more water for the Colorado River Basin, right?
Cloud seeding doesn’t create storms out of nowhere, it can only enhance existing storms.
More realistically, the extra snow that might fall as a result of cloud seeding is snow that might have fallen farther downwind of the storm, Famiglietti said. So seeding isn’t creating snow so much as changing where and when it falls.
The process can work only with the moisture already in the area, Famiglietti said. And “there’s not enough moisture in the air” to make a big enough difference in the basin’s ongoing drought.
Plus, there’s what’s called the “downwinding effect” to consider, Gimbel said. If more snow is falling in the West because of cloud seeding, then people farther east that might have otherwise received that snow could argue that moisture effectively was taken from them. That perception could create a sort of legal liability, she said.
“We can’t just assume the water’s gonna be there.”
The gist: The more people, industries and businesses that call the American West their home, the more water those communities will need. Cities and states can encourage current residents to use less water, especially with aspects such as water-dependent lawns. And they can require new homes and businesses to ensure they have a water supply before building.
Could it work? Cities across the West are taking steps to grow responsibly and sustainably. But new laws depend on the political atmosphere of a given city or state and can take time to enact. Plus, cities and businesses only account for a fraction of overall water use.
Context: Water experts from across the country gathered in Las Vegas in December to discuss the water shortage in the Colorado River Basin, and during one panel discussion John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, brought up growth.
The basin’s water supply is dwindling, but last he checked, Entsminger said, Las Vegas is still issuing building permits. So are cities such as Denver, Phoenix and Los Angeles.
All of those new people and businesses are going to need water. And it’s not as though cities and states can simply turn people away.
But there are measures that state and local governments can enact to encourage current residents to save more water. And ways to grow more responsibly.
One place to start is with Kentucky bluegrass and other types of nonnative, water-dependent grasses decorating lawns across the American West. In Colorado, about half of the water used in cities goes toward watering those types of lawns. In 2022, state legislators launched a turf replacement program, which would pay homeowners and business owners to replace their ornamental lawns with plants better suited to the region’s dry climate.
Other cities in the state already have their own turf replacement efforts, including Greeley’s Life after Lawn program. So does Castle Rock, which is also limiting the amount of water-intensive grasses that can be planted in new homes. Aurora passed a similar measure and even included golf courses in the package.
The approach works, too.
Las Vegas started a turf replacement program in 1999, offering residents money (increasing amounts as the years went by) for every square foot of lawn they were willing to replace. To date, the city has replaced hundreds of millions of square feet of turf and saved hundreds of billions of gallons of water.
Los Angeles launched a similar program in 2015, which is estimated to save up to 26 billion gallons of water each year, the Los Angeles Times reported.
This should be the approach all across the West, Famiglietti, who also worked as a senior water scientist at NASA, said.
“When you’re in the dry part of the world, it should look like the dry part of the world, not lush and green,” he said.
But there’s also a broader approach to managing new growth: requiring developers to show a water source before issuing a building permit.
Arizona has done this for decades. In 1980 state lawmakers passed the Groundwater Management Act, creating areas in which developers and municipal water providers must obtain permits from the state to confirm any new homes would have a 100-year water supply.
Colorado has a similar 100-year rule for new development but some communities are taking it a step (or three) further and requiring new development to show that it has a 300-year water supply. El Paso County was the first in the state to enact that measure, in 1986; Adams and Elbert counties followed. Now Arapahoe County, which expects to host as many as 800,000 people by 2050, is considering it, too.
These measures and others like them can help the West continue to grow sustainably, López said.
Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix have seen success with their conservation efforts, and their populations have soared while decreasing their water use either outright or on a per-capita basis.
López said the same is true for Albuquerque and Santa Fe, although both sit in the Rio Grande Basin, and he said governments all across the West must more aggressively adopt a mindset centered around sustainability and enact the policies to match.
“We can’t just assume the water’s gonna be there,” López said.
But new legislation takes time. Arapahoe County’s 300-year-rule proposal is being considered as part of an 18-month study, which launched in December.
And a city or county ordinance often might not be enough, Gimbel, senior water policy scholar at Colorado State University’s Water Center, noted.
“Developers can just say ‘We’ll just go across the city line and build here,’ ” Gimbel said. “You almost need a statewide law.”
There’s also a limit to the amount of water that can be saved. Cities, counties and businesses only account for a fraction of the total water drawn throughout the basin.
For example, data from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources shows that municipal and commercial water use makes up only 6.6% of the state’s total. The biggest percentage, in every state, goes to agriculture.
“Somebody has to start it.”
The gist: State and federal officials could use huge chunks of now-available money to “buy and dry” farmland, farmers could periodically let their fields lay fallow or they can switch to less-water-consumptive crops. Likely the basin needs a combination of all of these plus efficiency improvements throughout the industry to save water from the irrigating process.
Could it work? Averaging the seven states together, agriculture consumes about 75% of the Colorado River’s water, so the biggest potential savings likely will stem from changes to the industry. Changes would be costly and depend on variables like the types of crops and the region in which they’re being grown. The agriculture industry is also a major employer across the West upon which many other industries depend. Agriculture also provides
food across the world, so changes could disrupt the supply and cost of food.
Context: There’s really no debate. The biggest chunk of water from the Colorado River goes to agriculture, by far. So that’s where the biggest savings are likely to be found.
If changes to the agriculture industry are likely to be the most fruitful way to save water, they’re also apt to be the most complicated and the most costly for governments and for families.
During the Colorado River Water Users Association convention in Las Vegas, “efficiency” constantly floated through conversations about agriculture. In some cases more efficient irrigation practices can produce higher crop yields, Arizona’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly said during the convention.
But not all crops can be irrigated the same way. And changing the process would be heavily dependent on the region, Gimbel said. Crops grown by a farmer on Colorado’s Western Slope, for example, might not absorb all the water used for irrigation. But in that case, the water simply returns to the river and its tributaries.
That sort of recapture isn’t as simple for places like the Imperial or Yuma irrigation districts in California and Arizona, respectively.
Improving irrigation techniques isn’t near enough either, the experts agree. The industry needs broader changes.
One approach is for state and federal officials to buy farmland and stop crop production, Save the Colorado’s Wockner said.
“The only way to save Lake Powell is to buy a million acres of farms and dry them permanently,” he said.
Not only could that cut into the country’s food supply and increase costs for burdened families, but it also would put people out of work. Farmers leaving the industry would mean fewer customers for support industries in rural communities such as mechanics, parts dealers, even barbers, Gimbel said.
That pain could be lessened if states tap into widely available federal money from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act to help those communities transition into new industries rather than allowing them to dry up, John Berggren, a water policy analyst for the nonprofit Western Resource Advocates.
Federal dollars are also available for farmers willing to fallow their fields to save water, Berggren said. But that’s only a short-term solution.
Another way to save water is to stop growing crops that need more water, swapping them out for another crop that uses less.
Alfalfa often bears the brunt of those conversations. The Salt Lake Tribune’s editorial board recently took aim at the forage crop, grown widely throughout the basin, calling it a greater liability to Utah than a benefit. The crop consumes 68% of Utah’s water allocation and provides only 0.2% of the state’s annual gross domestic process, the paper reported.
And much of the alfalfa grown in the basin is then shipped overseas, effectively exporting Colorado River water. Farmers shipped about $880 million of hay to China, Japan and Saudi Arabia, High Country News reported in September.
Stop growing the hay in the basin, and grow it somewhere where water is plentiful, Berggren said. He suggested the Midwest. Or because much of the crop is used to feed cattle, consuming less dairy as a country and eating less beef would help.
As for exporting the crop to other countries, that’s trickier, Berggren acknowledged.
“It’s a free country and a capitalist country. And if you want to sell your product to the highest bidder, then by God you have the right to do that,” he said. “It’s hard to single out individual farmers and say, ‘You’re selling to China. You’re cut off.’”
But at the minimum state and federal officials should consider the issue and consider whether there’s a way to keep the benefits of Colorado River water within the basin, or at least the country, Berggren said.
Farmers also can grow different crops that need less water, Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said. She suggested Kernza, among others.
The Family Farm Alliance defended alfalfa in a November report, however, saying it’s a frequent target of those who “rely on simplistic explanations to heap scorn upon growing a forage crop in the West, particularly in times of drought.”
The Alliance pointed out that not only is alfalfa beneficial to the livestock it feeds but its fields also attract insects, songbirds, gophers and ground squirrels, deer and elk, among others. The crop adds nitrogen to its soils rather than taking it out and its roots protect land from erosion.
Water demand for alfalfa is high, the Alliance noted, but that’s because of its high yield and lengthy growth pattern resulting in multiple harvests.
Mitchell noted that farmers in the Southwest can harvest the crop 11 times a year or more. Fewer “cuttings” could save water, she said, nodding to the upstream states, which consume far less water each year (and also have substantially lower populations and less farmland).
“We don’t have 11 cuttings of anything in the Upper Basin,” Mitchell said. “That might be why our numbers are the way they are.”
Regardless, Mitchell acknowledged that none of the changes needed for the agricultural industry are easy, and many of them would have widespread consequences. Still, she said, they’re necessary.
“Somebody has to start it,” she said.
Demand management “The way of the future.”
The gist: Pay people not to use water or to use less. Or hike the price of water to encourage less use.
Could it work? Finding ways to reduce demand for water across the Colorado River Basin encompasses many other strategies and has been described as the way of the future. Some aspects, though, qualify only as short-term solutions. They must be followed by a long-term strategy.
Context: There’s lowercase “demand management” and then there’s upper-case “Demand Management,” an official policy, Berggren,said.
The former is “the way of the future,” Berggren said. Most of the biggest ways to save Colorado River water, from fallowing fields, changing crops and replacing Kentucky bluegrass lawns, boil down to demand management in one way or another.
Finding ways of encouraging people, farms and cities to use less water should be the highest priority in the basin, Famiglietti said.
One approach, he said, would be to create a national water strategy, rather than depending on disparate approaches for different river basins and water sources.
Beard, former U.S. Bu
reau of Reclamation commissioner, suggested that U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland could raise the price of water to incentivize conservation.
Farmers in California’s Imperial Valley told the Voice of San Diego that for the past decade they’ve consistently paid about $20 per acre-foot of Colorado River water, a fraction of the cost for neighboring farmers. With water so affordable, there’s less reason to conserve the resource.
Higher rates would change that, Beard said.
“That’s the quickest, easiest and, as far as I’m concerned, one of the best solutions,” he said.
If officials do raise the prices of water, they should ensure those increased rates don’t fall on those who can least afford it, Famiglietti said.
“You have to make sure families have enough water to do all the things they need to do,” he said.
And there are many other ways to influence the demand for water, Famiglietti said, and government officials should do everything they can in that regard before depending on other projects like pipelines or desalination plants.
“We need to do everything we can on the demand side before we do any of these things,” Famiglietti said.
And then there’s upper-case Demand Management strategy, which is an official approach upper-basin states are considering but haven’t yet enacted, López, the Upper Colorado River Compact Commissioner for New Mexico, said.
Part of that strategy amounts to paying people not to use their water, which Berggren said is a short-term strategy merely to “prevent the system from crashing.”
The System Conservation Pilot Program, which Congress passed in December, fits into that category. It’s a revival of an effort that ran from 2015 to 2018 and doled out about $8.5 million to volunteers willing to forgo their water use.
The first run of that program saved a little less than 50,000 acre-feet. But now much more money — $125 million — is available thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act.
Colorado’s U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, one of the sponsors of a standalone bill to revive the program, said the water savings could be 10 times greater than before.
“It’s obviously a first step,” Hickenlooper told The Denver Post. “This does not solve the problem.”
Chuck Cullom, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, hedged in Las Vegas when discussing how he would define success for the program this time around.
“I, quite frankly, don’t have any sense of how many folks are willing and able to participate,” Cullom said. “Success is broad participation, broadly distributed across four states, among water users, municipal, industrial and agricultural.”
Native American tribes “How come we just get a drop in the bucket?”
The gist: By legally cementing the water rights for the tribes depending on the Colorado River, state and federal governments could begin to lease, buy or otherwise compensate the tribes for their water. In addition, this would give the tribes better access to their own water, which they need to drink, farm and develop their communities.
Could it work? State and federal officials must work with Native American tribes to solve the Colorado River’s water crisis. But governments have a poor track record of working with the tribes, sewing generations of mistrust. Many of the tribes remain without clean drinking water and the necessary infrastructure to access what’s rightfully theirs.
Context: Thirty Native American tribes depend on the Colorado River, and collectively they own the rights to as much as 30% of its waters.
But many of those rights amount to “paper water,” Manuel Heart, chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, said. That means they own the water on paper but don’t have access to it.
Either the rights haven’t been legally quantified and cemented or the water is designated for one use (agriculture, for example) and can’t be used for another (drinking water) or there’s no infrastructure in place to give tribes physical access to it, Heart said.
So much of that water flows downstream, padding the Colorado River’s dangerously low reservoirs and leaving tribes uncompensated for the precious resource.
The scenario is a continuation of the historic inequities forced upon Native Americans by state and federal governments, Heart said. Whatever water his tribe — which spans across Colorado, New Mexico and Utah — has the rights to, pales in comparison with the Ute’s native territories and access.
“Where’s our water right for the land that was taken away from us? How come we just get a drop in the bucket?” Heart said. “The federal government’s still got their thumb on us.”
Heart said he continues to be frustrated by state and federal governments negotiating changes along the Colorado River, and all too often the tribes are left out of the conversation. His sentiment was echoed by several other tribal officials during the Colorado
River Water Users Association convention in Las Vegas last month.
Government officials should be doing whatever they can to settle tribal water rights, Berggren, the water policy analyst for the nonprofit Western Resource Advocates, said. If they can work together, some of those tribal waters could then become a supply stream into the dwindling river.
Say a tribe has the rights to 500,000 acre-feet, Berggren said as an example. If state and federal officials can help cement those rights and help the tribe access its water then “maybe they only need 250,000 acre-feet,” he said.
Tribal officials could use that water to provide much-needed clean drinking water to their people, water their crops and grow their communities.
Meanwhile, whatever water the tribe didn’t need could be sold or leased to state or federal governments and used to prop up levels at lakes Powell and Mead.
“It’s a win-win,” Berggren said.
López, the Upper Colorado River Compact Commissioner for New Mexico, said his state has had success working with the Navajo Nation and the Jicarilla-Apache Tribe, but other negotiations remain in the early stages.
“A decade ago, I hadn’t even realized the Ute Mountain Utes had a claim in New Mexico,” he said.
López acknowledged that many tribes lose water downstream and aren’t compensated for it, although they should be.
Whatever water the sovereign nations have to spare once their rights are settled would be an asset to the Colorado River system, he said.
But some tribes, like Heart’s, might not have water to spare. Instead they need the few dozen acre-feet they have the rights to so they can shore up and grow their communities.
“I want my full allocation,” Heart said. “I want all the water I need for my tribe. Our population is growing; our needs are growing.”
Shaun Chapoose, chairman of the Ute Indian Tribe in northeast Utah, is in a different position. His tribe has the rights to 500,000 acre-feet, although the rights haven’t been settled legally.
That water has been flowing downstream for years and the tribe hasn’t been compensated for any of it, he said.
Should government officials finally settle the Ute Indian Tribe’s rights, Chapoose said he’d be open to leasing that water back into the system so it could help support the basin.
“I’m not against people using my water. I just don’t think they should be using it for free,” he said.