After 100 years of holding together, the Colorado River is approaching crisis point

Written by Chris Outcalt and Brittany Peterson

September 12, 2022 GMT

DENVER (Associated Press) – The deepening crisis facing the Colorado River is essentially an accounting problem.

The 40 million people who depend on the river to fill a glass of water at the dinner table, wash their clothes, or grow food across millions of acres each year use much more than what flows through the banks of the Colorado River.

In fact, it was first cut down 100 years ago in a document known as the Colorado River Compact, the account of who gets to get this water probably was not at all balanced.

“The charterers – and water leaders since – have always known or had access to information to report that the provisions they were making were more than the river could provide,” said Anne Castle, Senior Fellow at Getches. Wilkinson Center at the University of Colorado Law School.

Editor’s Note: This is part of a collaborative series on the Colorado River as the Centenary of the History of the Colorado River Compact approaches. The Associated Press, the Colorado Sun, the Albuquerque Journal, the Salt Lake Tribune, the Arizona Daily Star and the Nevada Independent are working together to explore pressures on the river in 2022.

But over the past two decades, the situation on the Colorado River has become noticeably unbalanced and more dangerous.

Drought scientists now believe that the driest 22-year-old in the past 1,200 years has swept through the southwestern United States, where flows have set off in the river. Moreover, people continue to move to this part of the country. Arizona, Utah, and Nevada rank among the 10 fastest growing states, according to US Census data.

While Wyoming and New Mexico aren’t growing that fast, residents are watching two major reservoirs–popular recreational destinations–are being pulled to support Lake Powell. Meanwhile, Southern California’s Imperial Irrigation District uses more water than Arizona and Nevada combined, but it underscores its essential role in providing livestock feed and winter products to the nation.

Until recently, water managers and politicians whose voters depend on the river sidestepped the toughest questions about how to rebalance a system in which demand far outweighs supply. Instead, water managers have drained the country’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, faster than Mother Nature to refill them.

In 2000, the tank was about 95% full. Today, both Mead and Powell are 27% full — previously healthy savings accounts are dangerously low now.

The reservoirs are now so low that this summer’s Office of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Tutton testified before the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that between 2 million and 4 million acres would have to be cut down next year to prevent the system from reaching “critically lower water levels,” This threatens the reservoir infrastructure and hydropower production.

The commissioner set an August deadline for basin countries to come up with options for a potential water outage. The upper basin states – Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming – presented a plan. Lower Basin states – California, Arizona, and Nevada – did not submit a joint plan.

The bureau threatened unilateral action rather than a comprehensive plan for the basin. However, when the 60-day deadline came, he did not announce any new water outages. Instead, the bureau announced that predetermined water cuts in Arizona, Nevada and Mexico had begun and gave states more time to come to a basin-wide agreement.

still lagging

A week before Towton’s deadline, representatives of 14 Native American tribes with water rights to the river sent a letter to the Bureau of Reclamation expressing concern about their exclusion from the negotiation process.

Tribal representatives wrote: “What is discussed behind closed doors between the United States and the Basin countries is likely to have a direct impact on the rights of the Basin Tribes and other resources, and we expect and demand that our interests be protected.”

Leaving talks on the Colorado River is not a new problem for tribes in the Colorado River Basin.

Jennifer Peet of the National Audubon Society, which works to restore rivers around the world, said the initial agreement was negotiated and signed on November 24, 1922, by seven white landowners, who brokered the deal for people like them. pelvis.

“They divided the water between themselves and their constituents without recognizing the water needs of Mexico, the water needs of the Native American tribes who lived in their midst and without realizing the needs of the environment,” Pete said.

Mexico, through which the Colorado tail sways before flowing into the Pacific Ocean, secured its supply by a treaty in 1944. The treaty granted 1.5 million acres on top of the original 15 million acres that had already been divided, 7.5 million each for the upper and lower basins.

However, the tribes still did not have full access to the Colorado River. Although the charter succinctly noted that tribal rights precede all other rights, it lacks specificity, forcing individual tribes to negotiate settlements or bring lawsuits to determine these rights, many of which remain unresolved. It’s important to learn about the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous people at the time, said Daryl Vigil, a water officer for the Jicarilla Apache Nation in New Mexico.

“In 1922, my tribe was living on subsistence,” Vigil said. “The only way we were able to survive was through government food rations on a plot of land that was not our traditional home. This is where we were when the Constitutive Act of the River was created.”

Competitive interests

Agriculture uses the majority of the river’s water, about 70% or 80% depending on the organization doing the estimation. When it comes to the difficult question of how to reduce water use, farmers and ranchers are often looked at first.

Some of the pilot programs have focused on paying farmers to use less water, but there are still unanswered questions about how to channel the savings into Lake Powell for storage or how to create a program in a way that doesn’t negatively impact aquaculture rights.

Old state laws meant that the amount of water a person’s right to water would have can be reduced if it is not fully used.

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(AP video / Brittany Peterson)

That’s why the Camblin family farm in Craig, northwest Colorado, plans to flood irrigation once a decade, despite recently upgrading to an expensive center pivot irrigation system that conserves water. Nine years out of 10, they will receive payments from a conservation group in exchange for letting excess water in the river. But in Colorado, the state revokes water rights after 10 years if it hasn’t been used.

Mike Camplin explained that losing this right not only means they can’t access a backup water source if their hub system fails, but the value of their property will go down. He runs a livestock operation with his wife and daughter, and says an acre of land without water is being sold for a thousand dollars, a fifth of what she would sell for the attached water right.

There are other ways to improve efficiency, but money is often still a hindrance.

waste water recycling It is growing throughout the region, albeit slowly, as it requires massive infrastructure repairs. San Diego built a powerful desalination plant A plant to turn sea water into drinking water, however some agricultural users are trying to break out of their contract because the water is too expensive. Some cities incorporate natural sewage purification into their landscapes before the water flows back into the river. All this is possible, but it is expensive, and these costs are often passed directly to the water users.

One of the biggest opportunities for water conservation is changing the way our landscapes look, said Lindsey Rogers, a water policy analyst for Western Resource Advocates, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting water and land in the West.

Rogers explained that converting much of the outdoor landscape to more drought-resistant plants will require a combination of policies and incentives. These are going to be really crucial to close our supply and demand gap.

After years of incentive programs for residents, Las Vegas recently banned all non-working weeds by 2026, setting a blueprint for other Western communities. For years, the city has also paid its residents to uproot their lawns.

Several water agencies, including those serving Las Vegas, have recently Wrote To the Bureau of Reclamation committed to more water reuse and lawn replacement. Denver Water has signed on to it, although it does not offer incentives to replace residential lawns. Its neighbor, Aurora Water, has been doing this for 15 years and recently tied up non-functional turf in new residences.

This summer, in Southern California, Metropolitan Water County imposed unprecedented water restrictions for one day a week.

However, regardless of the type of water use, more perks must be offered.

Pete Audubon said, “The law of the river is inappropriate for what the river has become and what we see increasingly transformed.” “It was built on the expectation of a larger water supply than we have.”


Outcalt is a reporter for the Colorado Sun and Peterson is a video journalist for the Associated Press. Both were reported from Denver.


The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation to cover water and environmental policy. AP is solely responsible for all content. For all AP’s environmental coverage, visit

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