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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.

New Colorado River Senate caucus takes shape

hickenlooper haaland
Alex Hager
Colorado Senator John Hickenlooper speaks with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland ahead of a press conference in Boulder County. Hickenlooper has convened a group of senators from seven Western states that use water from the Colorado River to discuss the future of water supplies for 40 million people.

Senators from the seven Western states that use water from the Colorado River have been convening to discuss its future.

John Hickenlooper, a Democrat from Colorado, spearheaded the caucus and said the group has been meeting for “about a year,” though news of its existence only recently became public.

The caucus meets as a growing supply-demand imbalance threatens the water supply for 40 million people in the Southwest and a multibillion-dollar agricultural industry. Climate change has shrunk the amount of water in the Colorado River’s largest reservoirs, and states have struggled to agree on plans to reduce demand. The federal government has historically left water management decisions to the states, but has expanded its role in recent years.

“Our role is not to take the place of the state water councils or the state governors,” Hickenlooper said. “It is really to facilitate and try to create an environment where we can find the right compromise and be able to use collaboration and cooperation in such a way that we create as little hardship, as little sacrifice for the farmers and ranchers of the Colorado River basin as possible.”

Federal guidance on Colorado River management typically comes from the Bureau of Reclamation, the water management arm of the Interior Department. Recently, Congress’ role has mainly been limited to authorizing funding for water-related infrastructure projects. Reclamation received $4 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act, and laid out plans to spend the bulk of that money on projects in the Colorado River basin.

“I'm not looking for the federal government to create some magical law or solve all the problems through federal legal systems,” Hickenlooper said. “We're really more facilitators.”

glen canyon dam above
Alex Hager
The federal government has historically stayed out of Colorado River negotiations, but has expanded its role in recent years to protect its dams and reservoirs, such as Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell. Hickenlooper said the caucus is unlikely to draw up a federal law that would change water allocations, but could still produce some actionable steps, such as legislation to help states incentivize more efficient water use.

Hickenlooper said the caucus is designed to help bridge gaps between states that have been at odds over how to share the Colorado River’s water. Efforts to agree on cutbacks to water use are often hamstrung by the river’s varied users and esoteric legal structure.

“I think it could be very useful,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, former general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which relies on the river to supply the greater Los Angeles area. “I think it’s something we probably should have done earlier. The Colorado River is in crisis and it is a shared resource among the states. It just makes perfect sense that the states’ elected representatives be talking to each other and trying to find common ground.”

The river’s Upper Basin states – Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico – often say that Lower Basin counterparts – California, Arizona and Nevada – should be the first to take cuts. The agricultural sector, which uses about 80% of the river’s water, is under pressure to forfeit some of its water, as growing cities work to stretch finite water supplies across growing populations.

Hickenlooper said the caucus is unlikely to draw up a federal law that would change water allocations, but could still produce some actionable steps, such as legislation to help states incentivize more efficient water use.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced plans to spend money from the Inflation Reduction Act on water conservation measures in the Colorado River basin.

Kightlinger, the former water manager, said Congress can be an important player in talks about the future of the Colorado River, even if the body isn’t writing new laws.

“They can hold hearings,” Kightlinger said, “They can hold Interior's feet to the fire if they feel Interior's moving too slow, and they can help inform the leadership within the states – this is what the legislative branch is saying and what the states should be looking for.”

In recent months, the federal government has been considering cutbacks to the amount of water released from Lake Powell. Water levels are dropping to historic lows, threatening hydropower generation in Glen Canyon Dam. Reclamation asked the states for input, and six states responded with a proposal to reduce releases. California, the lone state which did not sign that agreement, released its own proposal.

Broader discussions about how to share water going forward are largely centered on 2026, when the current guidelines for the river expire and states are expected to draw up new rules.

“I think [congress] should be gearing up and I think that's potentially one of the roles this caucus can play, is making sure that the elected leadership is briefed and on board and knowing that the solutions for 2026 are going to have to be large scale and fairly bold and they will need federal support,” Kightlinger said.

This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced by KUNC in Colorado and supported by the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial coverage.

Alex is KUNC's reporter covering the Colorado River Basin. He spent two years at Aspen Public Radio, mainly reporting on the resort economy, the environment and the COVID-19 pandemic. Before that, he covered the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery for KDLG in Dillingham, Alaska.
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