Sopris Sun correspondent Olivia Emmer interviewed KUNC’s Water and Environment Reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, Alex Hager, about the Bureau of Reclamation’s recent demand to users of Colorado River water. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Would you briefly summarize the recent edict from the federal government to users of the Colorado River?
The federal government said we need to conserve 2 to 4 million acre feet (maf), which is a ton of water. For context, the state of Colorado uses just north of 2 maf from the Colorado River every year. The seven states that make up the Colorado River Basin — Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming — have a 60-day timeline to put together a plan to conserve that much water.
Is there a precedent for this type of demand?
There is certainly precedent for this type of demand, but it is unprecedented in quantity.
Does the Bureau of Reclamation have the authority to decide how water is conserved if the states can’t come up with a plan by the end of the summer?
It’s disputed. Some of the states believe that their water rights are legally protected and the federal government will not be able to follow through on that threat. There are other people who think that it is viable and likely that the federal government will be able to come in and do that. This demand will test both the states’ ability to collaborate and the federal government’s authority.
Why are Lake Powell and Lake Mead so important?
Any reservoir anywhere, from Ruedi all the way down to Lake Powell, is a way for humans to account for the fact that water does not come in steady batches when it’s delivered by mother nature. Some years are really wet and some years are really dry. In the Colorado River Basin there is a sprawling network of manmade infrastructure that allows people to space out when they get water, and to deliver it to the places where it’s needed, regardless of the weather.
Lake Powell and Lake Mead are the two largest reservoirs in the country. They are the biggest and most important pieces of insurance against dry years. After more than two decades of drought, they’re really sapped and they’re approaching the point where they might dip below their ability to generate hydropower.
What we’re seeing here is a lot of demand for water in the face of a shrinking supply. There is less and less water in the system each year because human-driven climate change is making it hotter and drier.
Who represents Colorado in negotiations like this?
Colorado is represented by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, a state-run and state-funded agency.
The Colorado River Compact divided water from the Colorado River equally between the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming (7.5 maf/year) and Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada (7.5 maf/year). What more can you tell us?
When we make decisions about who gets to use water from the Colorado River and where, the ground rules are defined in the Colorado River Compact. However, because it was written 100 years ago, and the amount of water and the number of people in this region have both changed drastically, it makes it very difficult to operate and share the water as it’s needed today. The Colorado River Compact built a system called “prior appropriation.” Essentially, if you got the water rights first, you are the one who has the priority to use them. It is not based on whether your use is more important, it is based on whether your use was first.
Given that agriculture is the major user of water in the Basin, are experts saying what they think the role of agricultural water rights will be in this conservation plan?
It is very likely that a lot of the water that makes up that 2 to 4 maf of conserved water is going to come from agriculture. Between 70 and 80 percent of the water in the Colorado River Basin is going to agriculture. A lot of people are saying that simply because it makes up such a large volume of water and because there just isn’t that much water left to conserve from cities, it might be the first thing to go. Cities like to brag that they are using the same total volume of water as they used in the ‘70s, despite having grown by hundreds of thousands of people.
So if agricultural water use is curtailed, do experts have any idea what will happen to the cost and availability of food?
That is one of the big questions here. A lot of decisions about how to manage water in the West have been made so there are not these sprawling, rippling effects to the economy, to consumer goods and to the way that people have come to expect to live their lives. Now the attitude is starting to change, and people are starting to see very real possibilities that the price of consumer goods and that certain aspects of lifestyle are going to have to change because the water situation has gotten so drastic.
When you say “aspects of lifestyle” do you mean, for example, eating fresh lettuce in January?
I think that one is on the table, but perhaps a bit further out. I think much more immediately, places that still have lush green grassy lawns are probably going to go away. It is not hard to imagine that down the road, there will have to be substantial changes to the availability of fresh produce and our diets if the water situation keeps heading in the direction it is, which all science indicates it will.
The Bureau is trying to protect Lake Powell and Lake Mead, but long term, is there a scenario in which one of them is given up?
Yes. It is still a little bit of an outsider theory, but there are some not-crazy people who are saying we should start imagining a future without Lake Powell. One reason that Lake Powell exists is because the Colorado Compact says the Upper Basin has delivery obligations to the Lower Basin. So, every year, the Upper Basin has to make sure that a specified amount of water flows from Lake Powell to Lake Mead. Lake Powell is the Upper Basin’s way of assuring that they have enough to send down.
A common refrain is that the Upper Basin uses less water than its compact allowance, but the Lower Basin uses more, and therefore the burden for water conservation is on the Lower Basin states. Can you comment?
There’s a ton of finger pointing when it comes to water use. The Upper Basin likes to remind people that they have to take reductions every year to make sure that they send all of their required water down. They argue that they are using less and that is a mentality that has been core to their messaging up until now. It will be interesting to see if they can keep saying things like that as the water situation forces some really tough questions about who gets to use what, where.
In the context of this particular decision, it’s possible that Colorado and the whole Upper Basin will try and call the feds’ bluff and say look, you don’t have the authority to force conservation on us and all of the conservation has to come from the Lower Basin, but again, we’ll see when we have more details about this plan if they even decide to play ball.
Anything else you’d like to add?
This problem is not going to go away. For a long time people said, we will make these plans if the hydrology doesn’t turn around, if the water doesn’t come back. I’ve talked to a lot of climate scientists and there’s no good reason to believe that the water will come back. This is bad and getting worse. These conversations about who gets to use water are going to have to happen because the water is not going to come back.