Ebbs and flows in the Colorado River negotiations: How are we doing?

June 25, 2024

Udall Center Environmental Policy Programs Research Scientist Gina Gilson offers insights from her experience attending the 2024 Getches-Wilkinson Center Conference on the Colorado River at on the University of Colorado Boulder campus on June 6-7, 2024.

3 panelists sit under a projection screen with an AI-generated image of an enormous river raft full of business professionals floating down the Colorado River.

The crowd chuckled at the AI-generated image displayed on the projector: a giant raft full of folks in business formal attire flying through canyon rapids along with the text “We are all in this together!”

“How many of you have been whitewater rafting before?” asked Kestrel Kunz, Southern Rockies Protection Director at American Whitewater.

Around 90% of the audience raised their hands.

I let the analogy play out in my mind as I thought back to my first time rafting on a family vacation in southern Colorado. I remember shooting a nervous glance at my parents as we met our raft companions, who seemed too glamorous to trust in this setting. 

I felt justified for my judgments when the boat launched and they pretended to row, seemingly ignoring the instructions of the guide. When we hit the first rapids, the glamorous woman and I both flew out of the raft. As I frantically swam back to the boat, the woman grabbed me and pushed me underwater as she tried to climb back on.

At times, the dynamic processes in the Colorado River Basin have seemed to resemble my first rafting trip. Some folks are trying their hardest to work together and avoid the crash. Some folks never fall off the boat. Still, others feel dragged down by those who are fighting for their own survival. 

But this year, at the Getches-Wilkinson Center 2024 Conference on the Colorado River in Boulder, CO, hallway conversations pointed to a more collaborative mood. The tension of previous years wasn’t as palpable– even with contentious questions populating the anonymous Q&A portal. Everyone is still in the boat. The folks on the raft seem to be navigating the rapids together. 

More than a math problem

The Colorado River basin as seen from a plane.

Gina Gilson snapped this aerial photo of the Colorado River Basin en route to the 2024 GWC Conference.

The conference opened with a range of viewpoints on the ongoing post-2026 process, a multi-year effort that will determine new operating guidelines for the Colorado River’s two main reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Attendees heard from sovereign entities, including perspectives from Tribes, states, Mexico, and the U.S. federal government. The program was packed with esteemed speakers and drew a crowd that required two overflow rooms.

Discussions of the post-2026 negotiations emphasized that the process is limited in scope to operating guidelines for the reservoirs. Parallel processes are needed to focus on reducing usage in light of climate change. As emphasized by Jonathan Overpeck, an interdisciplinary climate scientist at the University of Michigan: anything that doesn’t address climate change is only a band-aid. Conditions will continue to get hotter and drier, making less water available in the river.

Karen Kwon, of the Colorado River Sustainability Campaign, described what’s needed as a “hand-and-glove approach.” The rules are important, but we need to be building resilience. 

Darrel Vigil, of the Water & Tribes Initiative, emphasized that parallel processes are needed and should be identified. As we create a vision for equity and the environment, John Berggren of Western Resource Advocates argued that these processes also need to foster legitimacy, highlighting that, while the idea of “equity” has been included in documents since 1926, it has always lacked a clear definition. The time is ripe for this to become more concrete, especially as multiple players recognize the importance of building trust to foster collaboration. 

Panels drew attention to progress that is already being made. Ranchers are curbing consumptive use and learning how to better live with the land. Farmers are growing more resilient crops and using innovative irrigation methods – which, importantly, are often enabled by government grants. Cities are using less water, adding “reclaim and restore” to the mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle.”

Not just ”What?”, but “How?”

Gina Gilson speaks from a podium in a black polo shirt.

Gina Gilson presents at the February 2024 Udall Center Colorado River Governance Symposium in Tucson, AZ.

Speakers drew attention to the progress made in stabilizing the system. State commissioners emphasized their commitment to working together and to addressing the structural deficit– the term used to discuss approximately 1.5 million acre-feet of water that is lost to leaks in canals or evaporation each year and is not accounted for. 

Camille Calimlim Touton, Commissioner for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, highlighted the range of federal funding boosts that have been enabled by recent bipartisan support. Stephen Roe Lewis, Governor of the Gila River Indian Community, acknowledged historical levels of Tribal participation– albeit still inadequate. 

Throughout the conference, there was a sense of camaraderie– occasional jokes, and a sense of ease. During the states’ panel, participants alluded to the tensions of 2023 as an “unpleasant” time, but one which led to “the largest conservation deal” in the history of the West. 

In response to an anonymous comment about the post-2026 state negotiations, the State of Colorado’s Colorado River Commissioner Becky Mitchell reframed the perception of a ‘breakdown’ related to the competing proposals as a chance for folks to do their homework. The states all want to have their hands on the wheel, working towards agreement. Difficult discussions are part of the process, but litigation is a slow and undesirable path.

Despite these reassurances, questions about the transparency of the process were common in the Q&A. State panelists argued that it’s not as simple as having a seat at the table, as there isn’t just one table– rather, multiple concentric circles of collaboration. But Tribal participants said that this is difficult to hear after decades of exclusion

The topic of Tribal participation permeated the conference. Lorelai Cloud, Vice-Chairwoman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, reminded the audience that it has only been 100 years since the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, where a single paragraph gave citizenship to the original inhabitants of the land. Yes, Tribes are more involved than ever– but that’s a low bar. 

Because Tribal rights pre-date the agreements governing the Colorado River, they should not be impacted by ongoing negotiations. But, in reality, these unused rights are propping up the current system. Dwight Lomayesva, Vice Chairman of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, argued that the level of Tribal engagement is completely inadequate and illogical given the scale of the rights held by Tribes. 

Tribes are sovereign nations. But American federalism has long been practiced as a federal-state binary. This has meant that Tribal water rights are upheld by the federal government via the Trust Doctrine. With a legacy of broken promises, and with recent decisions like Arizona v. Navajo Nation, it is easy to question whether and how the federal government understands this responsibility. 

Panelists and participants acknowledged that progress has been made. For example, the Bureau of Reclamation has included pre-scoping reports, scoping reports, and a public-facing web tool in the Environmental Impact Statement process. And, under an agreement signed earlier this year, six tribes are formally participating in the Upper Colorado River Commision. 

But there is still more work to be done.

Basin-wide exchange?

A projection screen shows a graphic depicting the many environmental stakeholders in the Colorado River Basin. Text on the right side of the image asks what types of basin-wide exchange need to happen.

Gina Gilson

The momentum is building to find ways to trade water rights. For example, a historic agreement signed in April allows the Colorado River Indian Tribes to lease portions of their allocations outside of their Tribal lands. 

The stakeholder panel fielded questions about the role of water markets, and the panelists reminded us that the Bureau of Reclamation is a “hyper-socialist project.” We decided long ago that water would be treated as a public good in the West.

As market mechanisms gain prominence and interest, some argue that guard rails are needed. 

A totally free market might deprive communities of their water. Stopping water use in an area may negatively impact the soil stability. And it’s important to consider market drivers, such as the subsidies that keep meat prices artificially low, and grocery store conglomerates that are driving prices down for agricultural goods. 

Pilot programs are necessary, and incentives will play a growing role in water conservation. But in the meantime, we can’t demonize the people who provide the products that consumers demand. 

Looking downstream

A rainbow appears over the UC Boulder campus during the 2024 GWC Conference.

Gilson captured this rainbow over the University of Colorado Boulder campus during her visit.

Gina Gilson

Climate change and management decisions have changed what it’s like to navigate the many different stretches of the Colorado River and its tributaries. As the reservoirs shrink, old rapids are coming back to life. 

Similarly, decision-makers on the river are facing new challenges. The post-2026 decisions might represent the biggest rapid yet. 

The conference was helpful in reminding us that the reservoir operations are just one piece of the puzzle. The entire basin is facing difficult trade-offs as different stakeholders look towards a future with less water. 

At the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy, we are asking questions that help to fill in the gaps. Our research efforts in the Colorado River Basin explore how decision-making and governance matter in the basin, raising critical questions around equity, collaboration, and sustainability. Just a few months ago, we hosted a public symposium to talk about some of these challenges. 

Whatever decisions are made, we all have a role to play. At the Udall Center, we are looking forward to being a part of the conversation, and examining the outcomes of whatever decisions are made. In doing so, we hope to contribute to a shared vision of an equitable path forward with a living river.