Sopris Sun correspondent Olivia Emmer interviewed KUNC water and environmental reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, Alex Hager, about the Bureau of Reclamation’s recent request to water users in the Colorado River. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you remind us of what happened at the beginning of this summer?
The federal government came to the seven states that use water in the Colorado River Basin and said, you have 60 days to conserve 2 to 4 million acre-feet (maf) of water. You have two months to find out and if you don’t, we’ll do it for you. It really sent a shockwave through the entire basin because it was an unprecedented amount of water and because no one was even certain that the federal government had the legal authority to intervene in this way.
On the August 16 deadline, the Ministry of the Interior held a press conference. What did they say?
Two different things happened on Tuesday. States have failed to respond to the demand for serious water conservation, and the federal government has released previously agreed cuts. The cuts weren’t very drastic – they were spelled out in a 2019 agreement that all states signed and are triggered by certain water levels in Lake Mead. Forecasts had shown Lake Mead water levels heading in that direction, so it wasn’t much of a shock. The cuts will only affect Arizona, Nevada and Mexico. This therefore leaves the majority of the basin unchanged.
You mentioned that the states failed to agree on major cuts. Can you tell us more about this?
A lot of [discussion] was happening behind closed doors. The biggest thing we saw was that the upper basin states, especially Colorado, were quick to say, “It’s not ours to take the hit. We think the Lower Basin should be the most proactive here. The upper basin includes Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico. The lower basin includes Nevada, California and Arizona.
The Haut Bassin has a legal obligation to send a very precise quantity of water to its neighbors in the Bas Bassin each year. However, the Upper Basin draws its water from Mother Nature. Thus, the Upper Basin argues that they face shortages as Mother Nature provides them with less water each year – they are at the whim of snow. Meanwhile, they say, the lower basin has the luxury of depending on a constant amount of water and being able to plan around it.
What has been the reaction to the federal government’s relatively soft response to the states’ failure to present the plan on time?
There was a rather interesting letter from John Entsminger, CEO of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Entsminger wrote, “Through collective inaction, every user of Colorado River water is complicit in allowing the situation to reach this point.” There is still a chance that states will come up with a plan. Or, there is a chance that the feds will try to step in and toe a risky legal line. No action could mean loss of hydroelectricity for 5 million people and the possibility of not being able to provide enough water from Lake Powell to downstream users.
Many people in Colorado depend on water from the Colorado River. Could their water consumption be affected in the short term?
In Colorado, that shouldn’t happen anytime soon. It would have to be quite radical before we get there. The cuts that were made this week were primarily made at the Central Arizona Project, which carries water from the Colorado River to central Arizona farms and towns and tribes. Diversions in Colorado that maintain tap flow on the Front Range are not threatened in the near future.
We’re going to have to keep figuring out how to allocate an ever-diminishing resource. There is no amount of snow we could get in a year to reverse the situation. We would need epic snow years in a row to really change the supply problem. So it’s a matter of demand. Agriculture uses between 70 and 80 percent of the basin’s water. If we have to find a ton of water, some will come from the biggest user.
Realistically, that sounds like state and federal money going to pay farmers and ranchers to use less, grow less. If it’s done on a large enough scale, you might see agriculture leave some areas where it’s been around for a long time and we might see the price of food change.