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Public can inform future management of the Colorado River

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Lake Powell

Several key pieces of the rules that govern the Colorado River Basin are set to expire in 2026, including guidelines for dealing with drought and water shortage. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has asked for the public’s input on what should come next. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke about the opportunity to shape the Southwest’s future with University of New Mexico water policy expert John Fleck.

Who is at the table for these negotiations?

That’s actually such a great question, because it’s not entirely clear. The states—the appointed representatives that each governor appoints on behalf of each of the seven Colorado River Basin states—and then representations of the federal government …. But, there is a strong desire, on the part of a lot of people, and I count myself among those groups, to recognize the fact that tribal communities are sovereign nations with the basin that have been traditionally excluded from these processes…. and then as a practical matter, major water users within the states also participate either formally at the negotiating table, or if you can imagine a metaphorical meeting room, standing round the back whispering in the ears of the people sitting at the table.

What questions should we be asking about what comes next?

Someone, somewhere is going to be using less water than they are now, a lot less water… But the question is, how do we apportion those cutbacks? Do the states in the Lowe Basin which have been using by far the most water, and arguably overusing, like folks in Arizona, do they have to cutback more deeply? … Do the states in the Upper Basin agree, we need to share the pain and cut back as well?... So there’s really a lot of tension. And then the most interesting tension is broad and spans the entire basin, which is, to what extent are the cutbacks going to be felt in agricultural irrigation communities?...There’s no way around there’s going to be less irrigated agriculture going forward as a result of climate change and drought and the reality that we’ve pretty much drained the reservoirs as far as we can, but the question of how you apportion those cuts and who takes bigger cuts, and who gets compensated for giving up water, perhaps, those are the kinds of questions that are going to be on the table.

Tell me about some of the history here. How did we end up in the situation where our laws just aren’t really working anymore?

When the Colorado River Compact was negotiated in 1922, they allocated a bunch of water to a bunch of people based on numbers that we now know were misleading if not flat phony. They overestimated the available water supply… and the reckoning really didn’t come until late in the 20th century, when we finally built the last of the big canals to take water out of the river, and it was clear at that point the reservoirs were going to drop, it was just a question of how much and how fast. Even without climate change. But in the 21st century we’ve had two decades of unusually warm temperatures, because of rising greenhouse gases, that seems to be a problem that is here to stay. Combined with a garden variety drought. This would be a bad drought anyway. But it’s made worse by climate change…. We’re just improvising right now, trying to figure out how to cut back water use now in real time.

How can ordinary people engage with this process?

The federal government has issued what’s called a pre-scoping notice which is crazy bureaucratic language for them saying, help us think about what the issues are that we should be looking at in the renegotiation. Very open-ended question. They’re asking for you—I’m talking to your listeners now—they’re asking for you to provide your input; what do you think should be considered?

John Fleck, thank you so much for speaking with me.

Thanks for having me.

Comments can be submitted until September 1 by emailing CRB-info@usbr.gov. More information can be found in the Federal Register.

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Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.