By: Rica Fulton

Each year, federal officials, water buffalos, conservation specialists, Tribal leaders, state natural resource staff, and municipal water resource specialists from the seven Colorado River Basin states convene in Las Vegas, Nevada to discuss the future of the Colorado River. The Colorado River Water Users Association, or CRWUA (pronounced crew-uh), is considered an official venue for networking and discussing the Colorado River, and often it is where big federal decisions regarding the river are announced. 

It has long been known that there is not enough water in the Colorado River to go around—there is simply more water allocated than the river produces in most years. In 2021 and 2022 critically low reservoirs triggered a crisis that came faster than many thought it would, spurring a flurry of conversations between the seven states, the federal government, and numerous Tribal Nations. 

In 2022, CRUWA’s big announcement came from Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton, who offered a more heavy-handed-than-usual announcement that if the states couldn’t agree on how to use 2-4 million-acre-feet less water annually, then the federal government would force cuts on them. This was unusual for the feds, who usually defer to the states on Colorado River matters as much as possible, yet really set the tone for the level of crisis the Basin is in. 

Colorado River from Cataract Canyon

Colorado River from Cataract Canyon

2023 major takeaways

2023 offered the Colorado River system a short reprieve, with ample snow and a rise in reservoir levels that helped avoid a disaster. Likely because of Mother Nature’s good fortune, this year, the announcements were less dramatic, but telling nonetheless. The Lower Basin states—California, Arizona, and Nevada—have historically used the largest amounts of water. Most notably, the Imperial Irrigation District in California is the largest single user of Colorado River water, with only 20 families using the majority of the water. Because of this, attention is on California and Arizona to hear how much water they will commit to conserving. 

During CRUWA, California water districts and lower basin Tribes signed deals to leave more water in the river’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead, over the next two years with compensation from the federal government. California agencies committed to conserving 643,000 acre-feet, and the Quechan Tribe inked a deal saving 39,000 acre-feet through 2025. Arizona, with more junior water rights, conserved around 348,680 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead in 2023 and has committed to storing an additional 984,429 acre-feet through 2026. While these commitments are promising, they are temporarily subsidized heavily by large federal funding sources, meaning that they may only be agreed to temporarily, when in reality, permanent cuts are required. 

For their part—the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah who use roughly half of what the Lower Basin states use—have yet to commit to any shortages as they say that during dry years they already take large and uncompensated cuts. 

Tribal Nations, who own rights to about 25% of the river, have been included in discussions at CRWUA more frequently in recent years than in the past, and calls for this trend to improve further were made. Similarly, some Tribes were able to articulate their concerns. Notably, in Colorado the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes have settled water rights but no infrastructure to actually access their water; a product of colonization and tangled bureaucracy. 

The major theme at CRWUA and in Colorado River Basin discussions writ large can be boiled down to storage — as large reservoirs crash, economic interests, ecosystems, recreational opportunities all falter. Poor planning, an inability to curb climate change, and political failings have all contributed to this crisis, but it is more important to look forward and understand where changes can be made. 

But can we really keep up an unstable system that relies on aging infrastructure and dwindling water resources? 

Hite Crossing Bridge

Hite Crossing Bridge Upriver from Lake Powell

Using streamflow to guide shortages

Currently, shortages in the Lower Colorado River Basin are based on reservoir elevations of Powell and Mead, but that method doesn’t exactly take into account annual variability. Conversations have started this year discussing the feasibility of using annual snowpack and stream flows to guide shortages. The idea has been fleshed into a preliminary proposal of sorts by the Lower Basin states.

Climate change is set to reduce the river’s streamflow by over 20% during this next century, and more than that, snowpack and temperatures are proving to be incredibly unpredictable. In this way, flexibility must be a central tenant in any future operating criteria.

The Lower Basin states recognize their role in overuse of the river, particularly given the need to account for “system losses” or, in other words, evaporation and seepage that are not accounted for currently. California, Arizona, and Nevada have stated that eventually the Upper Basin would need to participate, but that they will need to lead the way for such a proposal to be effective. Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico’s participation would be most critical during extremely dry years. 

However, there can be roadblocks to this sort of creative distribution. The Law of the River—or compacts, court decisions, treaties, and rules governing the allocation of flows — have strict sideboards for what states and entities receive water and how much. For example, a more equitable solution may be cutting water deliveries down to the percent of average snowpack each year, yet, on paper those with more senior water rights would still be able to take their entire allotment, while others would take even deeper cuts. 

It’s hard to know where a proposal like this could go, but it is certainly a welcome departure to focusing on the levels of Reservoirs Powell and Mead and looking at the amount of water that is actually available. 

westwater lunch spot - Sam Starr

Colorado River from Westwater Canyon

New 2026 Operating Rules 

In 2026, the federal government will enact a new set of operating guidelines for the Colorado River that were last updated in 2007. They have given states, Tribes, and other users until March 2024 to submit comments for inclusion in a draft that will be released in 2025. These guidelines can help direct water users on when shortages would occur and by whom, as well as could tweak operational management, such as how much water is stored in Lakes Mead and Powell, which are in many ways operated as one big reservoir. 

However, experts at CRWUA suggested that these new guidelines probably wouldn’t solve the major issues facing the Colorado. John Esminger from Nevada offered an especially candid explanation: “The one thing I can tell you with absolute certainty is that the post-2026 guidelines will deliver a messy compromise that will be judged harshly by history. That’s the cold reality.”

The parties at CRUWA seem committed to negotiating a solution, rather than relying on litigation from the Supreme Court or waiting for indolent legislation from a gridlocked Congress—which, if possible, could be the most efficient and hopefully effective route to change. 

Looking forward

While there will never be a silver bullet solution, myriad small actions and operational changes may make a difference for now. This includes installing vast conservation infrastructure, changing agricultural subsidies to encourage more drought-tolerant crops, removing unnecessary turf, and taking a hard look at how and where water is used. 

Additionally, the feds are holding onto the need for both Reservoir Mead and Powell to exist, when in reality, there will likely never be enough water to ever fill both reservoirs again. It is time the federal government starts to actually consider the decommissioning of Glen Canyon Dam, as it is imprudent to base our entire existence in the West on outdated infrastructure. 

Next year will be telling—and though hopes for a revolutionary change should probably be contained given the conversations at CRWUA, it is up to us all to use our voices during these periods of decision-making and advocate for pragmatic and equitable conservation of the Colorado River.  

Rica Fulton Writer FacilitatorRica Fulton is from beautiful southwest Colorado and was raised in the canyon walls of the Colorado River Basin. She enjoys rowing boats, laughing, reading books, getting lost outside, and writing about rivers and public lands in the West. She is also the Upper Green River Keeper! Check back here for more musings from Rica.