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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 for July 2022):

 Colorado Water Resilience Toolkit

In July 2022, CWCB released the draft update of the Colorado Water Plan, which provides a framework for helping Colorado meet its water challenges through collaborative action around water development and water conservation. The Water Plan update embraces forward-thinking solutions that are sustainable and resilient to changing conditions and result in strong, equitable communities that can adapt to and thrive in the face of adversity. The Water Plan includes tools to mitigate the impacts of drought, aridification, and climate change. These mechanisms are Colorado-focused, and do not rely on other states for implementation. The 2023 Water Plan draft is out for public review from June 30 - September 30, 2022.

Colorado River System Updates

On June 14, 2022, Commissioner Touton of the Bureau of Reclamation called on the 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—which created Lake Powell—and Hoover Dam—which created Lake Mead. 

On July 18, The Upper Colorado River Basin states responded to Commissioner Touton's call to action with a 5 Point Plan, outlined within a letter. The Lower Basin states have not yet submitted a plan for action to conserve water.

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

Over the past year, Colorado and the Upper Basin 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 Basin 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 Basin has used 3 - 4 million acre feet less that its 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.

Drought Operations & Lake Powell Updates

On April 8, the Department of the Interior sent a letter to the Colorado River Basin state representatives proposing a reduction in the annual release from Lake Powell from 7.48 million acre-feet to 7.0 million acre-feet for the Water Year 2022. The letter also sought feedback from the Basin states on this proposal. On April 22, the seven Colorado River Basin states collectively sent a letter providing input on this proposal, specifically requesting close coordination and ongoing monitoring of the situation into Water Year 2023.

This proposal is meant to work in concert with the Drought Response Operations Plan to protect critical elevations at Lake Powell. The Upper Colorado River Commission approved the 2022 Drought Response Operations Plan on April 21. This Plan calls for 500,000 acre-feet of water to be released from Flaming Gorge Reservoir between May 2022 and April 2023. This is in addition to the 161,000 acre-feet previously released pursuant to the imminent need provision of the Drought Response Operations Agreement. In total, the Upper Basin has provided 661,000 acre-feet of water to protect the Colorado River system. 

Demand Management Update

The feasibility and advisability of Demand Management remains under consideration by all Upper Basin States, including Colorado. The CWCB Board has directed staff to investigate options for increasing Colorado’s water resilience with options that can be implemented within the state, by the state.

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 Basin 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. The negotiations are expected to begin in late 2022 or early 2023. 

Commissioner Mitchell is focused on ensuring the technical tools are in place to support the upcoming negotiations. Her guiding principles - or goals - as she negotiates on behalf of Colorado include: 

  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. Work is currently underway to finalize a framework for government-to-government discussions, which Colorado considers a critical first step.

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.

Upcoming Speaking Events with Commissioner Mitchell

Updates coming soon.