Colorado’s drought-stricken Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison is pictured on May 30, 2021. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)
Representatives from six of the seven states that make up the Colorado River Basin on Monday announced their agreement on an “alternative framework” that they say should form the basis of federal planning for the drought-imperiled water source for 40 million people across the U.S. Southwest.
Colorado joined five other states in agreeing to the proposal after talks held in Denver this month, setting up a confrontation with California — the Colorado River Basin’s largest and most populous user, and the lone holdout on the agreement — over federal management of Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The two critical reservoirs have faced severe shortfalls amid a climate-change-driven megadrought that has impacted the region since 2000.
“I am encouraged today that six states came to an agreement on potential mechanisms to better manage the critical reservoirs on the Colorado River,” Gov. Jared Polis said in a statement Monday. “Increased drought, climate change and overuse has led to less water in our reservoirs. More must be done to protect the system, and although we did not cause this crisis, I am proud that Colorado is part of the solution.”
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Water levels at Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, dropped to record lows in 2021 and again in 2022, prompting a round of emergency cuts to water releases for states in the “lower basin” of the Colorado River system. Lake Mead is formed by the Hoover Dam and located along the Nevada-Arizona border.
As officials with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation finalize a plan to deal with continued shortages, the “Consensus-Based Modeling Alternative” endorsed by the six states Monday aims to ensure that federal projects better account for evaporation and “transit losses,” such as those from leaky infrastructure, in the lower basin. That would have the effect of substantially reducing the allotments that lower-basin states like California could expect from the system.
“The CBMA approach appropriately distributes the burden across the Basin and provides safeguards for the Tribes, water users, and environmental values in the Upper Basin,” Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said of the agreement.
From its headwaters just west of the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park, the Colorado River, along with its tributaries, serves as a vital lifeline for communities and ecosystems across the West. Though not located directly in the basin, many cities along Colorado’s populous Front Range draw water in “transbasin” diversions underneath the Continental Divide from the Western Slope, where 80% of the state’s annual precipitation falls.
Municipal and industrial users account for only about 7% of Colorado’s total annual water consumption. Almost all of the rest — nearly 90% — is used by agricultural producers to irrigate crops and to feed and water livestock. Colorado leaders have resisted calls to cut back sharply on water use in the Upper Basin, where less of the system’s water is used and where voluntary conservation efforts have been more successful.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, who has championed billions in new federal investment for drought-resiliency and water-storage projects in Western states, hailed the “common vision” of the six-state proposal.
“California’s decision not to join this consensus is deeply disappointing,” Bennet said in a statement. “We are facing the most serious drought in 1,200 years. California must step forward and be part of the solution. For too long, the other six states, and particularly the Upper Basin, have carried the burden of this historic drought. I urge Interior Secretary Haaland to recognize the leadership of these six states and enact their consensus proposal.”
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