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Colorado River Commissioner's Corner

Colorado River Commissioner's Corner

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Background

In addition to leading the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Rebecca Mitchell was appointed by Governor Polis to represent Colorado in the Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC). The UCRC includes one Commissioner from each of the Upper Colorado River Basin states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming) who work together on interstate collaboration for the Colorado River, which flows 1,450 miles across the Western U.S. and into Mexico.

The UCRC was established in 1948 with the goal of facilitating discussion, collaboration, and decision-making among the Upper Division States.

In her role as Commissioner, Mitchell works with a team of Colorado’s water experts to develop positions of the state of Colorado in negotiations with other states. Commissioner Mitchell works with all Coloradans - from the Front Range to the West Slope - and uses this input to inform Colorado’s positions and strategies. As compounded drought continues in Colorado and across the West, Commissioner Mitchell and the UCRC are exploring solutions to protect our state and its water users as we face drier conditions. 

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Current Issues and Updates

A priority of Commissioner Mitchell is to keep Coloradans up-to-date with the status of current major issues facing the Colorado River in the state. Here is the latest (updated September 2022):

Colorado River System Updates for 2022

June 14: Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton called on the seven Colorado River Basin states to conserve 2 - 4 million acre-feet of water in the coming year to protect the Colorado River System. By system, the Commissioner was referring to the infrastructure built and managed by the Bureau of Reclamation, including Glen Canyon Dam, Lake Powell, Hoover Dam, and Lake Mead. 

July 18: The Upper Division states responded to Commissioner Touton's call to action with a 5 Point Plan, outlined within a letter. The 5 Point Plan consists of actions that the Upper Division states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming can take to help protect the Colorado River system. While naturally limited by snowpack and snowmelt cycles, the 5 Point Plan is a proactive strategy. It includes: 

  1. Seeking reauthorization of the System Conservation Pilot Program
  2. Commencing the 2023 Drought Response Operations Plan process in August 2022 
  3. Considering the feasibility of a potential Demand Management Program 
  4. Implementing Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding to accelerate enhanced measurement, monitoring, and reporting infrastructure 
  5. Continuing strict water management and administration and considering intrastate conservation measures

The Lower Basin states have not yet submitted a unified plan for action to conserve water.

August 16: The Bureau of Reclamation released its August 2022 24-Month Study, which sets the operating conditions for the Colorado River System for 2023. Under the current operating rules, the Lower Division states of Arizona and Nevada, as well as the Republic of Mexico, will take deeper shortages under Tier 2a conditions totaling approximately 721,000 acre-feet, while Lake Powell will operate under Lower Elevation Balancing conditions for 2023 with a projected release of 7 million acre-feet. These shortages are being taken pursuant to the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan. 

Colorado continues to work closely with the Colorado River Basin states and federal government to find sustainable solutions

Earlier 2022: Over the past year, Colorado and the Upper Division states have taken significant action to address water shortages in the Colorado River Basin, including releasing 500,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to Lake Powell, and 161,000 acre-feet of additional emergency releases from Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa Reservoirs as directed by the Bureau of Reclamation. The Upper Division states are also focused on intrastate water conservation efforts such as direct potable reuse, more water-efficient technology for agriculture, water-wise landscaping, and other water and drought resilience efforts outlined in our Colorado Water Plan

For the last 20 years, the Upper Division states have used 3 - 4 million acre feet less that their apportionment under the Colorado River Compact. On top of that, water use in the Upper Basin is tightly regulated and administered based on water supply availability. In 2021, the Upper Basin used 3.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water, which represents a 25% reduction from 2020, when the Upper Basin used 4.5 million acre-feet of water. 

Colorado is committed to working collaboratively with partners across the Basin.

Demand Management Update

The feasibility and advisability of Demand Management remains under consideration by all Upper Basin States, including Colorado. CWCB is currently investigating options for increasing Colorado’s water resilience with options that can be implemented within the state, by the state. More information is expected from the Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC) by the end of 2022. 

Federal Infrastructure Bill Update

The bipartisan Federal Infrastructure Bill, which was signed into law in November 2021, provides $50 million for Upper Basin Drought Contingency Plan implementation. Colorado is working with the other Upper Division states to identify technical needs that these funds may be used for, including monitoring and verification, stream gaging, and weather modification. 

Operational Interim Guidelines Negotiations

Colorado and the Upper Colorado River Commission are preparing for negotiations regarding post-2026 operations of the system’s major reservoirs. The negotiated agreements will replace the current “Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead,” also known as the “2007 Guidelines.” The 2007 Guidelines expire at the end of 2025.

As Commissioner Mitchell works with the other basin state principals to negotiate the guidelines for the post-2026 operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the following principles will guide the State’s strategy:

  1. Ensuring additional security and certainty of water supply for Colorado water users and water users across the Colorado River Basin.
  2. Avoiding risk of curtailment in the Upper Basin.
  3. Improving operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
  4. Addressing overuse in the Lower Basin and providing for a complete accounting of depletions.
  5. Supporting coordination with Mexico (while noting this is a domestic agreement).
  6. Maintaining compliance with established federal environmental law.

Government-to-government engagement with Tribal Nations also remains a priority for Commissioner Mitchell. Colorado has protected and allocated water rights settlements with both Colorado Tribes - Southern Ute Indian Tribe and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. Engagement with these Tribal Nations will be imperative to the success of post-2026 reservoir operations negotiations. At the 2021 Colorado River Water Users Association Convention, Commissioner Mitchell announced her commitment to engaging with the Tribes during this process. 

As discussions among the Basin States develop, an updated timeline will be added to this webpage. For a history of laws and agreements, visit the Colorado River 101 page.