The little-known federal Bureau of Reclamation just made history by ordering some state governments to cut back their usage of water on the Colorado River due to a historic drought affecting the river basin.
As a proud Coloradan, I was alarmed to see this unprecedented announcement since it signals the start of a new era of increased heavy-handedness in the federal government’s management of state matters.
Now that this line has been crossed, the federal government is unlikely to go back to its previous hands-off approach.
Fortunately, these mandates have not yet targeted Colorado. However, I fear the significant cuts being forced on Arizona (18%), Nevada (7%), and the country of Mexico (5%) are a sign that federally enforced water rationing is on its way to The Centennial State.
The Bureau made these mandates as part of their role in enforcing the apportionment of water in the Colorado River Compact of 1922, an agreement between Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, and the country of Mexico.
Under this agreement, states like Colorado that are upstream of the Colorado River agreed to send water downstream to California, Arizona, Nevada, and the country of Mexico. This agreement is especially impactful for Colorado because up to 90% of the Colorado River’s discharge comes from snowpack melting in the Rocky Mountains.
Because of the ambiguities in this agreement — and the continued overconsumption of water from the Colorado River — the state of Colorado could just as easily be ordered to cut its own water consumption to send water downstream as demand continues to increase.
To get an expert perspective on this matter, I spoke with former Colorado state legislator, Kevin Lundberg, who served multiple terms in the Colorado House and Senate. During his time at the state capitol, Lundberg was forced to wrestle with state water rights issues on a regular basis.
While Lundberg noted that there is a constitutional role for the federal government to play in the maintenance of interstate compacts, these water usage cuts could spell trouble down the road: “The federal government could come back just as easily and say ‘Colorado is obligated to provide more water to the downriver states,’” he said. “Most of Colorado could be severely hurt if we were told to send more water downstream and cut the usage of our water.”
He added that a water cut would impact his farm directly: “We are already on the edge of whether there is enough water to keep the crops going as it is. A cut would hit agriculture, industry, and cities.”
This declaration comes at a time when the rules for managing the Colorado River are already a hot topic of discussion since management guidelines for reservoirs like Lake Mead are set to expire in 2026. This has sparked controversy as various stakeholders have fought to ensure their interests are represented as negotiations continue.
It seems plausible that mandating cuts in water consumption could also provide the federal government with a means of manipulating these negotiations and exerting political pressure on stakeholders to conform with a federal agenda.
It would be nice to believe this kind of behind-the-scenes arm twisting did not happen, but realistically, we’d be fools not to recognize the potential for it.
Though the future remains uncertain, Colorado will need to prepare for increasing federal pressure on its water supply, even as droughts force our state to independently reduce its own consumption. The Bureau of Reclamation’s declaration is just the beginning of what is sure to be a long and messy battle that will affect every citizen of Colorado.
Laura Williamson is a political writer and a contributor for Young Voices. She has worked as a legislative assistant in Colorado’s State Capitol and has interned in Washington, D.C. for a think tank and a federal office.