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Throughout the history of the American West, water issues have shown their ability to both unite and divide communities. As an imbalance between water supplies and demands grows in the region, KUNC is committed to covering the stories that emerge.

Amid Drying Conditions, Colorado River Basin States Kick Off Negotiations On Future Policies

Warmer temperatures, diminished snowpack and demands for water have caused Lake Powell on the Colorado River to stay well below capacity in recent years.
Luke Runyon/KUNC
Warmer temperatures, diminished snowpack and demands for water have caused Lake Powell on the Colorado River to stay well below capacity in recent years.

States in the Colorado River Basin are poised to begin negotiating policies to govern the critical Western water source.

Officials from all seven states in the watershed sent a letter this week to Interior Department secretary David Bernhardt, letting the federal government know they’re ready to start hammering out details of operating guidelines for the biggest reservoirs in the country.

Dry conditions made worse from climate change have hit Lakes Mead and Powell hard during the last two decades, leaving them well below capacity.

But as those talks begin, long-standing tensions remain.

“The states noted in that correspondence the importance of engaging with water users, tribes, NGOs and Mexico as those discussions progress,” said John Entsminger, president of the Colorado River Water Users Association and general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

Tribes, environmentalists and recreation advocates have routinely been kept out of past negotiations, and say they’ll be pushing for more transparency in crafting the new rules.

The river supplies water to about 40 million people in seven U.S. states and Mexico.

“Greater inclusion earlier in the processes, will likely lead to more creative solutions, with more buy-in from the affected parties,” said Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Brenda Burman. The agency oversees water infrastructure in the West.

The incoming Biden administration will oversee the process of finalizing the new rules. The president-elect announced his selection of Rep. Deb Haaland to head the Interior Department this week. Previous secretaries have added significant pressure and dangled the threat of federal intervention in order to get the West’s water users to come to an agreement.

Current guidelines put in place in 2007 expire in 2026.

This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I edit and produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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