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The short-term crisis averted; here’s what’s at stake in negotiations for its long-term future
By Elise Schmelzer
An immediate crisis on the Colorado River has been averted, but negotiators now must turn their attention to the next problem at hand: How will they manage the drying river after the current guidelines expire at the end of 2026?
Federal officials announced last week that last winter’s heavy snowpack and cuts in use likely will be enough to keep the river basin’s two major reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, from draining to water levels too low to generate power or move water downstream for at least three years.
Federal officials, the seven Colorado River basin states and 30 tribes in the basin are negotiating the future of water management on the Colorado River and creating the next set of guidelines that will govern use of the critical water source in decades to come. The negotiations will be a “rollercoaster ride,” but history shows that the states are capable of coming to a consensus, said Jennifer Gimbel, a senior water policy scholar with Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Center.
“There’s hope,” she said. “But it’s not going to be easy.”
The river, which begins in Colorado and ends near the Gulf of California in Mexico, provides water for 40 million people, irrigates 5.5 million acres of agricultural lands that feed the country, generates electric power, fuels recreation-based economies across the West and provides important habitat for several endangered species.
Here is a look at what’s at stake.
What are the major challenges?
The river’s water supplies are plagued by two major problems.
First, the river is drying as the West becomes warmer and more arid. Warmer temperatures speed evaporation, further reducing a lack of water from less precipitation. One report by the U.S. Geological Survey found the Colorado River’s flows have dropped by 20% since 1900 primarily due to warming.
Second, the people who created the 1922 compact that governs how water is used overestimated how much water existed in the first place. The lines of supply and demand crossed in 2000.
That will be negotiators’ key problem to solve, said Taylor Hawes, Colorado River program director for The Nature Conservancy.
“The basic question is: How do we learn to live with what Mother Nature supplies?” she said.
“Without a plan, we risk moving from crisis to crisis to crisis,” she added. “And that usually sets up a dynamic where there are many losers.”
What will negotiators look at?
Several key agreements about the management of the Colorado River expire on Dec. 31, 2026, including the last set of operating guidelines agreed to in 2007. Those guidelines and a series of agreements that followed determined how cuts to water supplies would be made in the face of worsening drought.
In 2007, conversations about the possibility of long-term drought were beginning, but the situation wasn’t as dire as now. Just six years prior, the conversation about the river focused on how to share surplus water, said Elizabeth Koebele, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada at Reno.
Since 2007, water levels at Lake Mead and Lake Powell — the savings banks of the Colorado River basin — have dropped precipitously. Combined storage of the reservoirs sits at 36% now, down from nearly half full in 2007 and from 92% capacity in 1999.
“We’re at a time where we need an overhaul,” Koebele said. “They are a big opportunity to bring the Colorado River to sustainability and more sustainable management.”
What are the key issues?
One of the key problems negotiators must address is overuse by the Lower Basin states, experts said.
The three states in the Lower Basin — Arizona, California and Nevada — are allocated 7.5 million acre-feet a year as are the four states in the Upper Basin: Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. Mexico also gets 1.5 million acre-feet.
An acre-foot equals the amount of water it would take to cover a football field in one foot of water, which is generally considered enough water for two households’ annual use.
The Lower Basin repeatedly has used more than its annual allotment of 7.5 million acre-feet while the Upper Basin uses less than its allotment. Between 2019 and 2021, the Lower Basin used more than 9 million acre-feet every year while the Upper Basin used less than 5 million acre-feet. In both 2020 and 2021, millions of acre-feet more water flowed out of Lake Mead and Lake Powell than flowed in.
“We’re going to have to reduce our water use, no matter what,” Hawes said. “We’re going to have to move away from the current sense of entitlement that a lot of water users have, and that’s not going to be easy.”
Officials also need to re-evaluate expected flows of the river and create a more accurate annual average flow from which to base agreements, Gimbel said. When the 1922 Colorado River Compact was signed, people estimated annual flows of up to 20 million acre-feet. That calculation was an overestimate and climate change has worsened the deficit even further. In recent years flows have been closer to 10 million acre-feet, Gimbel said.
“Climate change has not only reduced those flows, but we have more extreme years more often,” she said.
Negotiators will also need to find a way to include the 30 tribes in the basin in negotiations, Gimbel said. The tribes have rights to about 3 million acre-feet of water — about a quarter of annual flows — but many of the tribes have been unable to use that water. All the tribes have been historically excluded from negotiations on the river.
Other issues negotiators could consider include whether to include reservoirs in the Upper Basin — like Blue Mesa Reservoir on Colorado’s Gunnison River — in the system or whether to prioritize filling Lake Mead over Lake Powell.
“At this point, we aren’t ruling out any alternatives,” said Russ Callejo of the Bureau of Reclamation during a Monday webinar about the post-2026 process.
Why does this matter to Coloradans?
The Colorado River starts as a trickle in Rocky Mountain National Park and flows to the state’s western border with Utah. About 40% of the water used in Colorado comes from the river, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
Along the way, the river supports livestock grazing, timber harvesting, oil and gas drilling, orchards and vineyards, wheat and alfalfa fields, fishing, rafting, ski-area snowmaking and endangered species.
About half of Denver Water’s supplies come from the Colorado River, which the utility pumps over the Continental Divide to provide to 1.5 million people in metro Denver — about a quarter of the state’s population.
In Colorado and across the river basin, the vast majority of water — about 80% — is used to grow crops and raise livestock that feed the region and the country.
Less water could lead to higher utility costs, more expensive food, fewer recreation opportunities, lost tourism money and more.
“We’re all connected in this basin and if the river fails or crashes, we don’t know where the impacts stop,” Hawes said.
What do Colorado entities want?
Colorado and other Upper Basin states are calling for permanent reductions to the amount of water Lower Basin states receive as well as a system that divvies up water based on precipitation and river flow, not on how much water is in the reservoirs. Using the latter method since 2007 has “proven to be disastrous,” the Colorado River District said in its letter to the Bureau of Reclamation.
The Upper Basin regularly experiences shortages because the amount of water available to the region in any given year depends on the amount of precipitation the region receives, the Upper Colorado River Commission wrote in a letter to the Bureau of Reclamation. Lower Basin states, however, draw their Colorado River water from the two reservoirs and are used to a much more predictable supply, often regardless of the amount of water flowing that year.
One of the problems with calculating releases from the dams based on reservoir levels is that reservoir levels are slow to change — a dry winter may not manifest itself in reservoir levels for a long time, Koebel said.
Also, not all the water in the reservoirs is available for use. Some water is stored there for specific purposes, like water Mexico has stored.
Colorado’s top negotiator for the river, Becky Mitchell, has focused on seven priorities in the talks, including acknowledging that climate change is real; preventing overuse in the Lower Basin; preventing cuts in the Upper Basin and defending Colorado’s rights; preserving tribes’ water rights; and releasing water from Mead and Powell based on hydrology, not reservoir levels.
“The Post-2026 Negotiations will determine operations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead — both of which are far downstream from Colorado — and must end the cycle of near-term crises caused by Lower Basin overuse,” Mitchell said in an emailed statement.
The two tribes with reservations in Colorado called for inclusion in the negotiations.
“As a sovereign in the Basin, the Tribe does not want to be updated on the negotiations between the States and the Federal team after decisions are made; the Tribe wants to be at the table during discussions and negotiations,” Melvin Baker, chairman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, wrote in a letter to the Bureau of Reclamation.
Manuel Heart, chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, called for large cities with the most per-capita use to reduce their consumption.
What is the timeline?
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation this summer solicited input from governments, tribes, nonprofits, utilities, water managers and others on how the river should be managed after 2026. Last week, the agency published a summary of those comments.
“As the range of alternatives is developed, Reclamation is committed to a collaborative, inclusive and transparent process with our partners, stakeholders and the public,” Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said in a news release.
Now, the bureau is tasked with writing an environmental impact statement that will analyze potential options for managing water in the basin under a wide range of potential environmental conditions.
The draft environmental impact statement will be published in December 2024, according to the agency. The public will have a chance to comment on the draft before the bureau publishes a final environmental impact statement in late 2025.
The bureau will make a decision in early 2026 on which guidelines it will use.