Water conservationists urge a 'one river' mindset over Colorado River water deficit

A coalition of water and conservation activists from Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Mexico urged a unified mindset amid overuse of water occurring in the Colorado River Basin on Monday.

A coalition of water and conservation activists from Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Mexico urged a unified mindset amid overuse of water occurring in the Colorado River Basin on Monday. (U.S. Bureau of Land Management)

Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — As Upper Basin states like Utah continue to overuse their water rights to the Colorado River, the impacts continue downstream and could result in future cuts to its current water users, a coalition of water conservationists said Monday.

A coalition of water and conservation activists from Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico held a press conference outlining a recent report from the Utah Rivers Council regarding the overuse of the river and worsening impacts of the deficit. The conference was held ahead of the Colorado River Water Users Association conference next week in Las Vegas, where questions of allocation and overuse will likely be discussed.

The Utah Rivers Council report was initiated after comments made by Utah legislators "who have refused to acknowledge that climate change is reducing the flows of the Colorado River," the preface states. Indications that Utah's water rights to the river were in surplus and that proposed water diversions would have no effect on existing users demonstrate a "willful ignorance," it adds.

Monday's panel of activists emphasized the need for collaboration between leaders, states and nations to create water equity among all users.

What is causing the Colorado River shortage — and how big is that deficit?

The Colorado River is one of the most critical sources of water in the West, spanning parts of Arizona, California, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Mexico. Nearly 40 million people rely on the Colorado River and its tributaries for water to irrigate around 5.5 million acres of land, and it is the "lifeblood" for 22 federally recognized tribes, according to a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation report.

The people and the land that rely on the water are at risk as the flows of the river continue to decline. In the past two decades, the Colorado River had flows 19% below the 20th-century average. Future water flows could decline as much as 30-40%, according to the report.

Scientists and conservationists point to climate change as one of the greatest factors of the river's deficit. The temperature of the Colorado River Basin has increased 2 degrees since 1980 and could increase from 4.9-8.7 degrees by the end of the century depending on carbon emission volumes, the Utah Rivers Council said.

The increase in temperatures has led to a shrinking of the snowpacks of the Colorado River — where 70-80% of the headwaters originate from. As snowpacks continue to shrink, so will the amount of water in reservoirs and the river. Research from the third national climate assessment indicated how much snowpacks will decrease under "moderate greenhouse gas emission scenarios." The data projected Utah's decline in snow water equivalent at 36% by 2099.

Alongside the shrinking snowpack, the climate's continuing rise in temperature will result in a shift from snow to rain, shorter winters and increased dust-on-snow events that will not only impact an individual state's access to water but create further deficit of the river and all those who rely on it.

In response to the reduction of water flow, a series of agreements have been negotiated. Lower Basin users — Arizona, California and Nevada — have taken water cuts. As populations continue to grow, with much of the growth occurring in western states like Utah, so will the demand for water.

The coalition argued that despite Lower Basin users reducing use, Upper Basin states have no current plans to reduce their water use. As states enter drawn-out negotiations and litigation over the Colorado River, the amount of water must be considered, the panel asserted. Saying that Utah has a surplus of Colorado River rights is false and overlooks the state's overuse, said Zach Frankel, executive director of Utah Rivers Council.

"Any additional diversions from the Colorado River at this point will fundamentally harm not only the overall health of the people and the cultures and ecosystems, but all of the current water users that are using water today," added Jen Pelz, wild rivers program director at WildEarth Guardians.

The Law of the River

The seven states of the Colorado River Basin, Mexico, and Native American tribes in the region have created a series of agreements and court decrees dictating how the Colorado River system is shared. Over the past 100 years, a succession of court rulings and agreements have resulted in "The Law of the River."

The water apportionment each Upper Basin state receives was determined in the 1949 Upper Basin Colorado River Compact. The compact stated that the four states would receive a percentage of "leftover water" after allocations to the Lower Basin, Mexico, and any other party delivery requirements.

The Law of the River requires that Upper Division "will not cause the flow of the river at Lee Ferry to be depleted below an aggregate of 75,000,000 acre-feet for any period of ten consecutive years."

The declining flows have resulted in a decrease in the amount of water the Upper Basin is entitled to. Research in the report indicate that if water use levels remain the same the Upper Basin could face a deficit of 500,000 acre-feet under current 21st-century average water flow levels.

Colorado, New Mexico and Utah — three of the four Upper Basin states — are overusing the amount of water allocated, according to the report. Any state in the Upper Basin overusing its allocation will be forced to reduce its use, according to the Law of the River. The process of reduction isn't outlined and can lead to states prioritizing junior or senior water rights. Senior water rights include tribes or farming communities while junior water rights include municipalities.

The lack of a priority system will likely lead water reductions to "become political decisions, likely targeting those water users with the least amount of political sway," the report said. It noted that with agriculture accounting for 65% of Upper Basin use, farmers could be subjected to water reduction. The loss of farmlands could lead to negative economic and cultural impacts on the Basin, especially on rural communities, the report added.

One river, one mindset

To mitigate cuts to Utah's water users and forced reductions, the panel encouraged cooperation. The river connects ecosystems, states, and nations. The preservation of the river and its supply should be a collective effort.

"We need to create a plan to ensure people have the critical water they need to survive these threats," said Margarita Diaz, executive director of Proyecto Fronterizo de Educación Ambiental and the Tijuana waterkeeper. "We need to start working together, not as seven states in two countries, but as one river, taking care of the people living upstream, but also the people living downstream. We all depend on the same source."

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