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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.

Colorado not ready for Colorado River conservation specifics ahead of federal deadline

Lake Powell stores water from the Colorado River and straddles the Arizona-Utah border. It is currently at 27% of its total capacity.
Luke Runyon
Lake Powell stores water from the Colorado River and straddles the Arizona-Utah border. It is currently at 27% of its total capacity.

Colorado’s top water policy official says the state is not prepared to give specifics when it comes to conserving water from the Colorado River. Colorado Water Conservation Board director Becky Mitchell said in an online event hosted by The Colorado Sun Thursday that cutbacks need to happen first in California, Arizona and Nevada.

“Success is dependent on what happens in the Lower Basin,” Mitchell said. “Anything we can do is meaningless unless there are actual cuts to what’s being used in the Lower Basin.”

Mitchell’s comments come ahead of a federal deadline on Tuesday. Earlier this summer, Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton called on the seven Colorado River basin states to reduce uses by 2 to 4 million acre-feet over the next year to lessen the risks to the river that supplies drinking and irrigation water for much of the Southwest. Touton threatened federal action if the states failed to act.

In July officials from Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah submitted a five-point plan that did not provide specific targets for conservation. In their letter to the Bureau of Reclamation, the states called for the revival of a conservation program from 2015 that paid farmers to temporarily restrict their uses. The letter also endorsed the possibility of releases from reservoirs upstream of Lake Powell to bolster its flagging levels.

Providing a specific volume to conserve would be unfair to water users in her state, Mitchell said, and any commitment would be premature given that the river’s Lower Basin states have yet to come to an agreement on their conservation plans.

“In previous agreements we’ve committed to work with stakeholders on the ground, and so to have a specific number that is predetermined would be inappropriate to say, ‘We’re committed to this specific release,’” Mitchell said.

Negotiations have stalled among the river’s Lower Basin states, according to sources familiar with the talks, making a seven-state agreement on where to find the 2 to 4 million acre-feet in savings unlikely ahead of the deadline. It’s unclear how the federal government will respond if the states fail to meet their demands.

This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported by the Walton Family Foundation.

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.