The new Biden administration could take action on the Colorado River that would go well beyond the president-elect's term in office.
The week of Dec. 14, the seven states that are part of the Colorado River compact began the first step for renegotiating operational guidelines that will decide how much water the three lower basin states and Mexico will get from Lake Mead, on the Arizona-Nevada border, and from Mead’s source: the Colorado River.
The guidelines in place currently are interim, signed in April 2007, and are due to expire in 2026. Among the most significant, the guidelines provide long-term stable management of the river and also determine the circumstances under which the interior secretary could reduce the annual amount of water available for consumptive use from Lake Mead to the Colorado River lower basin states. They also are a way for the basin states to avoid litigation, part of what prompted the 2007 interim guidelines.
The seven states that make up the Colorado River Compact, and which will negotiate those guidelines, are divided into two groups: upper basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) and the lower basin states (Arizona, Nevada and California). Mexico is also part of the lower basin water allotment, as well. Some 40 million people across the seven states rely on the Colorado River for water.
Then there's the drought. Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico are all dealing with extreme drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
What that means for the river heading into in the future: According to John Fleck, a former journalist and author and now with the University of New Mexico's Water Resources Program, water levels in Lake Mead could drop to 1,060 feet by 2022. That's 15 feet below what triggers operations "into the next tier of mandatory Lower Basin water use cuts under the river’s 2007 interim guidelines and the supplemental drought contingency plan" signed last year.
“Colorado will continue leading the effort with the other Colorado River Basin States on negotiating the next set of operational guidelines to ensure western water is managed effectively and sustainably, and during the process will engage with all groups invested in the outcome including water users, the Tribal Nations, Mexico, and non-governmental organizations," Colorado’s commissioner to the upper basin states, Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said in a statement last week. "As we continue to face climate change impacts, including persistent drought, working together to find solutions to our water challenges is more important than ever.”
On Dec. 17, the seven states signed a joint letter to Trump administration Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman requesting technical support from the federal agency, as the states move forward with negotiations. The states are setting up a working group to look at modeling for the management and operations of Mead and Lake Powell, which is the water “bank” on the Colorado River for the upper basin states.
Mitchell told Colorado Politics this week that “everyone is anxious to get started and ready to go.” How long it will take to come up with guidelines will depend on what’s included, the issues that can be dealt with and the systems that will need to be set up to address them. Mitchell called the upcoming negotiations "an urgent issue." Despite all the other crises going on, this is critical as Colorado and the other basin states figure out how to manage the Colorado river going forward, she explained.
Bernhardt initiated an early review of the operational guidelines a year ago, a year earlier than required. He tasked the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation with developing a report that would analyze the effectiveness of current Colorado River operational rules to ensure continued reliable water and power resources across the Southwest.
The final report was released last Friday.
It concluded that the 2007 interim guidelines were “largely effective as measured against both their stated purpose and common themes.” However, increasing severity of drought has prompted additional action to reduce the risk of reaching critical low water levels in both lakes Powell and Mead, the report said. The last 12 years has also provided lessons for the compact states going forward, most significantly, a need for “more robust measures to protect reservoir levels.”
But something got left out.
A joint letter from water experts at the universities of Colorado, Utah and New Mexico (Fleck was a signatory) pointed out the common themes from the 2007 guidelines include more conservation, plans for shortages, more cooperation among the basin states, and flexibility to deal with climate change and drought. But there's one area, the experts said, that hasn’t been addressed: environmental resources. The analysis should include the “values for which Grand Canyon National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area were established,” namely natural and cultural resources and visitor use. Additionally, operational effects on riparian vegetation and wildlife should be considered, the letter said. The 2007 guidelines left out an analysis of several environmental issues, including the temperature of water released from Lake Powell, which then flows through the Grand Canyon and impacts the aquatic ecosystem of the canyon, the letter noted.
Mitchell said she thinks “everything is on the table as we look toward the future.” What’s in the final report — or not — “doesn’t mean we can’t deal with bigger issues outside of the guidelines.”
That’s also where the Biden administration, and his interior nominee, U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico, could make a difference. One of the signs from Biden toward the Colorado River is his appointment of Tanya Trujillo of New Mexico to the Department of the Interior's transition team. Trujillo is vice chair of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission and lower basin project director for the Colorado River Sustainability Campaign. A water lawyer, Trujillo has past experience working in Interior on water issues.
"We’re hoping [the new administration] will foster negotiations that are rooted in science and create a framework that recognizes how climate change is affecting and will continue to affect the basin," Kim Mitchell, a senior water policy adviser with Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates, told BloombergLaw.com in November.