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A new proposal for Colorado River sharing prioritizes the environment

A bird perches upon towering mud banks left behind by a shrinking Lake Powell on July 5, 2022. A new proposal for managing the Colorado River and its reservoirs encourages states to include environmental protections as they draw up water-sharing plans.
Alex Hager
A bird perches upon towering mud banks left behind by a shrinking Lake Powell on July 5, 2022. A new proposal for managing the Colorado River and its reservoirs encourages states to include environmental protections as they draw up water-sharing plans.

A coalition of environmental groups is proposing a new set of rules for managing the Colorado River after 2026 when the current guidelines expire. Their proposal, which aims to weave environmental protections into river management policy, comes amid heated negotiations about how the shrinking river should be shared in the future.

In March, the seven states that use the river found themselves divided into two camps, each faction publishing its own proposal for managing water. The two groups have promised to work towards consensus and are aiming to agree on a singular plan before 2026. The authors of the new environmentally-focused proposal — a group of seven conservation nonprofits — say they don’t expect their own plan will be adopted in full, but hope to encourage state and federal water managers to consider plants, animals and ecosystems while drawing up their own Colorado River policies.

“If you integrate these ideas into those annual operations, you can have your water security — which the states want — but then you also get these environmental benefits that make sure that you do have a healthy flowing river that is the foundation for the entire system,” said John Berggren, a water policy expert at Western Resource Advocates, one of the conservation groups that co-signed the proposal.

All seven of the organizations that crafted the river management proposal receive funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also supports KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.

Current negotiations about how to share the Colorado River are driven by one defining fact: The water supply for 40 million people across the Southwest is shrinking due to climate change. Talks about how to rein in demand accordingly have been contentious since states are reluctant to cut into the water supply for the cities, farms and ranches within their borders.

The “Cooperative Conservation Alternative,” as dubbed by the environmental proposal's authors, offers a series of ideas on how to make sure decisions about the water supply for people and businesses don’t leave the environment behind.

The first idea outlined in the proposal is the implementation of a new way of measuring how much water is stored in reservoirs along the Colorado River, with water releases adjusted accordingly. Among other tweaks to measuring reservoir storage, the proposal suggests adjusting reservoir releases according to recent trends in climate conditions. For example, the new method would take into account snowmelt lost to dry, thirsty soils when determining release levels following particularly dry years.

The environmental groups also want to see fish habitats considered as a factor when determining how much water is released from major reservoirs. The proposal cites the health of aquatic ecosystems in the Grand Canyon, where native fish are threatened by predatory invasive species that have been able to travel downstream due to dropping water levels in Lake Powell – the nation’s second largest reservoir.

The proposal also suggests the creation of a “Conservation Reserve,” a program that would allow water users to store some of their supply in major reservoirs. That stored water would be used to help avoid low reservoir levels that could damage infrastructure – including hydropower generators – but would not be counted when determining how much water is released from major reservoirs in a given year. The “Conservation Reserve” would replace the existing “Intentionally Created Surplus” program.

The conservation groups say the ideas in their proposal are designed to benefit the environment, but shouldn’t be seen as objectionable by the water users along the Colorado River or the states which ultimately have the most say in the river’s fate.

“That water supply is available to all of us because of the function of the river as an ecosystem itself,” said Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River program director at the National Audubon Society. “If we ignore that entirely, and the system that sustains that functioning waterway erodes and breaks down, we may lose some of its ability to deliver us water in the first place.”

Pitt also said more robust ecosystem protections can occasionally help water users stay in legal compliance with environmental rules. There are 27 species covered by the Endangered Species Act in the lower Colorado River basin, and water users can face penalties if they’re unable to leave enough water in the river to maintain healthy habitats for those protected species.

The environmental proposal joins prior suggestions from the Colorado River’s upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, and a competing proposal from the lower basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada.

A number of the 30 federally recognized Native American tribes that use the Colorado River may also be working on water management proposals. The Gila River Indian Community in Arizona, which has positioned itself as a major tribal player in water management talks, said it did not support the lower basin states' plan released in March and will soon release its own suggestions for managing the river.

A separate group of 16 tribes sent a letter to the Bureau of Reclamation – the federal agency that manages Western dams and reservoirs – outlining a series of “principles” the tribes want to see reflected in final Colorado River management plans.

While the current rules for sharing the river are set to expire in 2026, the Biden administration’s water officials want to arrive at a final set of replacement rules by the end of 2024 to avoid any complication that could come from a change in presidential administration after the November election.

This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced by KUNC in Colorado and supported by the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial coverage.