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Colorado River Drought Task Force deliberates future policy solutions

The confluence of the Roaring Fork and Colorado River at Two Rivers Park in Glenwood Springs.
Caroline Llanes
Aspen Public Radio
The confluence of the Roaring Fork and Colorado River at Two Rivers Park in Glenwood Springs.

The deadline is approaching for the Colorado River Drought Task Force to submit recommendations for state-level policy solutions to tackle the ongoing water crisis in the state.

The task force is a result of legislation that was passed at the Colorado legislature this year.

Sen. Dylan Roberts of Eagle County, who represents Colorado’s Eight Senate District, co-sponsored the bill.

Sen. Roberts: The Colorado River is so important to our livelihoods, to our economies, and to our way of life, and unfortunately, because of drought, because of climate change, because of overuse down river, the Colorado River as a whole is under threat right now.

And I think there are ways that we can craft public policy both here in Colorado and throughout the many states that the Colorado River touches to protect the long-term future of the river and all those who depend on it.

So that was the idea of the Colorado River Drought Task Force is we need to take this seriously, we need to be proactive about how we're making policy for the future of the Colorado River.

But also let's not rush into anything that could cause negative or unintended consequences for either residents or for agriculture, or for our communities.

And so we thought a task force was the best way to go about that. So it was a bipartisan effort.

And what it did is it established this task force that's made up of 17 people, some of the best and brightest minds in water that represent a variety of industries, you know, we have folks in agriculture, folks from outdoor recreation, environmentally minded folks, people who work in industrial power production that rely on water, and then water providers like people from Northern Water, that's certainly important to Grand County, who have been meeting over the course of this summer and into this fall, and they'll meet until December of this year to have those really hard conversations about what policies could we put in place regarding storage, conservation, incentives for farmers to use less water or incentives for municipal water providers to conserve more, and prepare a report that they have to prepare by the end of December.

And then that report will go back to us at the legislature and we'll get to use their well-crafted and well-debated work to inform how we might pursue policy in the years ahead.

Steve Peters: Without all the complications of the Colorado River Compact at this time, do you think you would have appointed such a task force?

Sen. Roberts: Well, the Colorado River Compact that you brought up is certainly the underlying force amongst all these conversations on the Colorado River.

Steve Peters: Explain to our listeners what the compact is and who's in the Upper Basin, who's in the Lower Basin, and where the tension is presenting itself.

Sen. Roberts: It's a great question and having a fundamental, you know, at least basic understanding of the compact helps inform all of these conversations.

So the Colorado River Compact was an agreement amongst several states that was finalized over 100 years ago in 1922, so 101 years ago now.

The seven states that the Colorado River flows through, as well as the United States government as a whole and the government of Mexico, because the Colorado River goes into Mexico before it flows into the ocean, came together and agreed on allocation of water from the Colorado River and it divided the seven states into two categories: Upper Basin states and Lower Basin states.

Colorado is of course in the Upper Basin where, because this is where the Colorado River begins and its tributaries begin in Wyoming and Colorado.

So the Upper Basin states are Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.

And then the Lower Basin states, it's divided at Lees Ferry along the Colorado River, the Lower Basin states are Nevada, Arizona, and California.

And so the compact back then, and still in effect today, said that the Upper Basin can use 7.5 million acre feet a year, and the Lower Basins states can use 7.5 million acre feet combined a year.

The funny thing is, or maybe the scary thing is, in 1922, when those numbers were agreed upon, in '21 and '22, they had been in a historically wet season, and so the amount of water in the Colorado River was way higher than it normally is.

So there isn't actually normally 15 million acre feet a year that flows through the Colorado River.

But 7.5 (million acre feet) on each side was what was decided.

The Upper Basin historically never gets close to its use of 7. 5 million acre feet for a variety of reasons.

The Lower Basin has, especially recently, pretty consistently overused their allocation.

And so that's where the scary part comes in, is there's an imbalance, there's an imbalance between overuse in the Lower Basin, underuse in the Upper Basin.

And then add in drought and climate change, which means less water to begin with, and that's where you, you get the fear that the compact, and I don't think this can happen anytime soon, like in the next year, but it could happen sooner than we would hope, where the federal government has to step in and say, 'Hey, this compact isn't working anymore. We've got to do re-measurements here. California and Arizona, they've got way more people than you do Colorado, they've got way more political power than you do. So let's redo these numbers.'

And that could put Colorado in a really bad place. And so that's what we're trying to prevent.

Steve Peters: Should we think about it as though everyone in the Upper Basin is a giver and everybody in the Lower Basin is a taker?

Sen. Roberts: You know, I think our friends or foes down in Arizona and California would not agree with that characterization, but you know, if you wanted to put it simply that that's probably a good way to put it.

I think in reality, Colorado has done a better job than Arizona and California in investing in conservation and smart storage and using our water to its maximum benefit.

But it's true. We don't use all of our fully-allocated water. And so we are giving more to the Lower Basin right now.

The Colorado River Drought Task Force will meet on November 9 in Glenwood Springs, virtually on November 16, and in Denver on December 7. Members of the public can attend and submit comments.

This story from KFFR was shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including KSJD.

Steve Peters