Counseling patience on the current Colorado River kerfuffles

Despite the Sturm und Drang of last week’s competing proposals to the federal government for managing drought and climate change on the Colorado River, there’s a lot to be hopeful about.

On their faces, the Upper Basin and Lower Basin proposals have a lot of “Water’s for fighting over after all!” vibe. But if you take them “seriously but not literally”, to borrow a meme from recent political rhetoric, it’s clear there is much to be hopeful about.

Here’s the part I do take both seriously and literally. New Mexico’s representative in all of this, my representative, Estevan Lopez, said this:

We look forward to working with our sister Lower Basin States to resolve differences in approach and create a 7-state consensus alternative.

The key understanding the gap between the “Water is for fighting over!” rhetoric of last week and Estevan’s comment is to remember two interlocking things about the two basin submissions to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Tell us Your Plan Before You’ve Had a Chance to Develop It

The first piece to understand is that we are in the midst of intense, difficult, and importantly closed door negotiations among the Colorado River Basin states. The negotiations have a long way to go. Asking the states to freeze and make public a position now puts them in a difficult position!

The reason for the need to make preliminary proposals public now, a couple of years before we need to finalize action on this stuff, is legitimate. The whiz kids at Reclamation need time to do the “what if” modeling, a key step in the administrative process of development a National Environmental Policy Act review, the so-called “Environmental Impact Statement”, or EIS. This can’t wait for the states to work out a deal. That’s the reason for the March 2024 it’s-not-a-deadline “please send us your ideas” deadline from Reclamation.

Given the remaining uncertainty, the states faced a dilemma – submit something close to a “best and final offer,” the place you hope to end up? Or submit a “tough initial negotiating position” – essentially your starting point.

The Lower Basin, with a longer history of interstate wrestling with water use reductions going back to the 2001 Interim Surplus Guidelines, submitted something closer to the former, reflecting the Lower Basin’s willingness to support the first tranche of needed cuts, but suggesting the Upper Basin should share in the second tranche if drought and climate change require us to dig deeper.

The Upper Basin, using substantially less water and operating largely independently in terms of their use of Colorado River water, don’t have the same experience in intrabasin negotiation. The Upper Basin submitted something like the latter. Suggesting that the entire burden of cuts fall on the Lower Basin is obviously not where we’re doing to end up, but it preserves a tough negotiating position.

Let’s Model It!

The second important thing to remember, and that should give us pause about getting too worked up about the specifics right now, is that the whole point of this exercise is to sketch out some options that can be modeled to help inform decisions. It’s impossible to look at these proposals right now – even if we wanted to treat them as real and serious plans – and say what effect they would have.

That’s the point, at its best, of the NEPA process. Its purpose is to inform decisions.

For example, I’ve stared hard at one of the key differences between the two proposals – using total storage in Mead and Powell as the benchmark for making decisions about how to make cuts, versus using a larger suite of reservoirs. Without doing the modeling, I’m not sure I understand their practical implications. Perhaps the states, with internal modeling capabilities, have already done this, but it’s not public, so let’s model it and talk about it publicly. That’s what NEPA is for!

My Upper Basin Sympathies

I must declare my allegiances here. As a resident of the Upper Basin, it has been frustrating over the last decade to watch as the Lower Basin sucked the reservoirs down, only tapping the brakes fitfully, and never quite hard enough until the last few years.

But it is from that vantage point that I’ve worked hard with Upper Basin colleagues in recent years to make clear to my fellow residents of Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico the realities underlying some of our shared groupthink, because (to push a poker analogy to the breaking point), some of the things we treat as high cards – “the Lower Basin is overusing its compact allocation,” and “we routinely take shortages in dry years” – may not be.

Because, ultimately, the best way to act on my allegiance to the Upper Basin is to funnel it through the allegiance we all should have to the Colorado River Basin as a whole.


  1. Dumb layman’s question. Does the upper basin draw any water directly from Lake Powell? In a chart I just saw the upper basin is using about 3 million af less than 7.5 maf allocated. Is that right?
    So were Mead and Powell built to protect the lower basin?

  2. Follow the Laws ! The Law of the River !! Senior water Rights . This law is in the Colorado Water Law Book . This law supercedes the Compact . If the Lower Basin has to have water cuts , then the Upper Basin must also have to have water cuts as well . Both Basins are EQUAL . Since the Upper Basin does Not WANT to Negociate the the Bureau of Reclation, and the Department of Interior and the Federal Government must get involved to settle this dispute. Repost , no it is not the same

  3. The Lower Basin plan IS a real and serious plan. The LB spent months doing the hard work of negotiating actual, annual cuts to OURSELVES that will be extraordinarily difficult and expensive, putting together what we view as a grand bargain, even compromising on one of the Lower Basins’ bedrock beliefs: an 8.23 MAF delivery.

    And what we got back from the UB (both with their alternative and in every meeting with them) was the exact same hardline position. The MOST we’ve ever gotten from them in six months of negotiation is *maybe* they could consider programs that could occassionally generate 50-100 KAF.

    Negotiations between the Basins have totally stopped and we have no plans to restart them. The UB commissioners take every possible chance to say how committed they are to collaboration, and yet they have not demonstrated that in months of negotiating. At this point, a “tough negotiating position” is just a road map to litigation.

  4. I live in Utah but was born in NM and lived there for many years. I understand the concerns the Upper Basin states have but while I watch the massive growth in Utah and the use of water for alfalfa, lawns, golf courses, etc., I have to say that I lean toward the Lower Basin that actually produces food for this nation. There needs to be fairness but let’s not create a bad situation when it comes to food production. There’s still grass growing in Utah where drought tolerant landscaping should be required.

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