Colorado attorney general talks upper, lower basin water rights during visit to Glenwood Springs
Renegotiating usage plans to sustainably conserve and store enough for all users of the Colorado River is easier said than done.
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, meeting with various community leaders throughout Garfield County on Monday, told Colorado River Water Conservation District officials upper basin states need to continue to find creative ways to store their water.
“Which means we have to ask the question, ‘How can we build more storage?’” Weiser said. “It also means how do we deal with the fact that we’re going to have shortages almost every year? And what is scary is this will probably get worse, given the changing climate we’re in.”
Next week, water leaders from upper and lower basin states of the Colorado River, which has faced unprecedented pressure from places like California, Nevada and Arizona, are slated to meet in Las Vegas for the Colorado River Water Users Association Conference.
Serving 40 million people and 5.5 million acres of farmland, the Colorado River Basin continues to face a tug of war between its lower and upper basin states.
Colorado’s snowpack is becoming a less reliable source to feed the Colorado River headwaters, while reservoirs throughout the state continue to recede.
Based on what many refer to as an outdated 1922 Colorado River Compact, 15 million acre-feet of river flow was originally shared among the upper and lower basin states of the Colorado River. The upper basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, however, are now using about 3 million acre-feet less than lower-basin counterparts Nevada, Arizona and California.
Despite the fact that climate change has caused the Colorado River flow to shrink to 12.4 million acre feet — meaning less fresh water is pumping toward the Gulf of California — lower basin states still continue to pull from lakes Mead and Powell without necessarily having to implement more stringent conservation efforts.
While projected shortages for Lake Mead and Powell could prove bleak, the Bureau of Reclamation over the past summer used emergency authority to release water from additional reservoirs, like Blue Mesa in Gunnison County.
“In the last two decades, when you look back at Colorado, we’ve been managing often with less (water) and more variability,” Weiser said. “For the lower-basin states, it’s been business as usual. Now, that’s a painful reality for us, which is, over the last 20 years, the lower basin states have used more than they would ordinarily have been authorized under the compact.”
In 2007, severe drought prompted Colorado River Basin representatives and the federal government to develop interim guidelines aimed at trying to stymie shortages for Lake Powell and Mead. Next week’s Colorado River Water Users Association Conference in Las Vegas should present an opportunity for representatives to potentially renegotiate these interim guidelines, which end in 2026.
“Having the ability to make this negotiation is a critical moment for us to think about what’s best for all of Colorado. A baseline that I am a big proponent of is how we build in better measurement,” Weiser said. “Because now that we’re not in a world where we can just say everyone gets whatever water they want, we really need to be thinking hard about how we measure what water users have.”
In addition, Weiser said the state needs to invest in water.
“Now that the infrastructure bill is passed, the incentives are more clear, because in order to be able to take advantage of some infrastructure funds, we have to have state matching funds,” he said. “We’ve got to be all in to create this set of water infrastructure investments today to position us for a difficult tomorrow.”
Taylor Hawes, a river district board member representing Summit County, asked how exactly Colorado River Basin states can explore sustainable solutions for the river system.
“My hope is we can avoid litigation, but that means we may need to do things differently than we have in the past,” she said. “I’m not talking about changing the water law. I’m talking about tweaks to make innovations work so we can have sustainable river systems going into the future.”
In response, Weiser used the term springing conservation easement, a legal agreement that permanently limits uses of land.
“Depending on the hydrology, you have to conserve water, or you can use it,” Weiser said. “And that is to your point about innovation and adaptive management.”
Scott McInnis, a river district board member who represents Mesa County, asked whether new potential conservancy regulations will affect water rights established prior to the 1922 compact.
“Most of the municipality water rights are compact — or post compact — rights. We have the pre-compact rights, which are particularly important to the current user,” he said. So I’m wondering if the post compact (rights) are going to reach into the pre-compact to help resolve the problem?”
Weiser said there is the potential to have a scenario to adjudicate whose rights get priority.
Colorado’s Interbasin Compact Committee Director Russ George said no one currently has the inclination or authority to diminish compact rights.
That, however, can change.
“It’s going to force all of us, at some point, to make a life decision,” he said. “Are we going to compromise with our friends and neighbors, or are we not? And the alternative to that is, ‘OK, I’ve got mine, and I’m not gonna give you any, because survival comes first.’
All of this is in our future, in ways we’ve never seen before.”
Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Leo Spielberger’s family lost everything in the Marshall Fire in late December.