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Water Managers Consider The Future Of The Colorado River

A rather quiet gathering of those who control the most precious resource in the West happened on the Strip last week.  


It was the annual Colorado River Water Users Association Conference.  


The states that rely on the river – Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming - were all represented.  


In a keynote address, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman touted the recent Drought Contingency plan reached among the states but cautioned that more needed to be done.  


KUNC reporter Luke Runyon was in the midst of it all.  

“The Drought Contingency Plan is sort of a temporary patch to some of the Colorado River basin’s long-term water scarcity problems,” Runyon explained.

The plan took five years to negotiate and was signed by both upper and lower basin states this year. But the plan looks different depending on which basin a state is in.

The lower basin part of the agreement is based on levels at Lake Mead.

“The plan really lays out a set of tiers of cuts for states when Lake Mead drops. States like Arizona, Nevada, even California would have to take water cut back deliveries to what they receive from the Colorado River,” he said.

For the upper basin states, it wasn't about cutbacks but about managing use.

“There weren’t any cutbacks spelled out for those states. Instead, they’re focusing on this idea of demand management and what that is kind of code for is basically looking at how, in a crisis, can you ask or force people to reduce how much water they’re using.” Runyon said.

Runyon explained that the real focus is on farmers and how exactly to cut back on irrigation when reservoirs start dropping quickly. States in the upper basin still have to hammer out the details of that part of the plan.

Overall, Runyon said water managers along the Colorado River are pleased with the DCP because it provides an orderly cut back of water use.

“Anytime you’re talking about water cutbacks, people are not going to be happy that they’re receiving less water but when you talk to the water managers what they were really saying is, ‘We’ve created through the DCP a plan where those cutbacks are more orderly, where there’s not as steep of a cliff for water deliveries to fall over,’” he said.

The first big test of the plan will come next year when Lake Mead is expected to hit a certain level.

“This year the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that’s in charge dams and reservoirs in the West, looked at the level of Lake Mead and said, ‘All right, we’re going to have the first set of cutbacks under the Drought Contingency Plan starting in the beginning of the calendar year next year,” he said.

Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will see their water allocations cut.

While water managers are generally pleased with the DCP, it is really just a temporary fix for a larger problem.

Next year, water managers across the West will begin the process of negotiating guidelines for the entire river. The last set of guidelines were signed in 2007 and a lot has changed since then.

“The next set of negotiations is going to be a lot more heated I think than the Drought Contingency Plan was for a few reasons,” Runyon said, "Water managers are really going to have to confront climate change and its realities at this point.”

Runyon pointed out that some climate models show the Colorado River flows dropping as much as 30 percent by the middle of the century. Water managers will have to face the fact that there is less water in the system.

But Runyon noted that the Trump administration and its Department of Interior, which oversees the Colorado River and its management, have not been willing to acknowledge climate change.

“It’s hard to say that the current administration is taking climate change really seriously if they can’t say the word,” he said.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has directed the Bureau of Reclamation to speed up the process to create the new river guidelines. He has directed the bureau to look at the old guidelines and come up with a new study for the new guidelines.

One of the main directives in the new effort is to be more inclusive of tribal leaders, environmental groups, non-governmental organizations and others interested in the management of the river.

“You have a lot more people coming to the table wanting to participate in these discussions and I think its going to be really difficult to exclude those groups from being part of the new negotiations,” Runyon said.

The negotiating of the Drought Contingency Plan took five years. Runyon believes the new guidelines will be even more strained and difficult. He said leaders will be working on the details of the guidelines until the very last minute.

Luke Runyon, reporter, KUNC

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Prior to taking on the role of Broadcast Operations Manager in January 2021, Rachel was the senior producer of KNPR's State of Nevada program for 6 years. She helped compile newscasts and provided coverage for and about the people of Southern Nevada, as well as major events such as the October 1 shooting on the Las Vegas strip, protests of racial injustice, elections and more. Rachel graduated with a bachelor's degree of journalism and mass communications from New Mexico State University.