Colorado River Commissioner's Corner
About Commissioner Mitchell
Becky 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.
Commissioner Mitchell is committed to negotiating sustainable operations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead with the Basin States, federal government, and the Tribal Nations. To help inform Commissioner Mitchell’s work, she invites all Coloradans to provide comments at Engage CWCB. Often called the Post-2026 Operations , the Commissioner is seeking solutions that recognize climate change, respect the equal apportionments to the River held by the Upper and Lower Division States, include a full accounting of all depletions, and provide for reservoir operations that are based on actual hydrology and that restore and protect storage. Her principles are rooted in irrefutable truths that we can all agree to:
- Acknowledging that climate change is real. We must anticipate a drier, but also a more variable, hydrologic future. Upper Basin water users live on the front lines of climate change and for the last twenty plus years regularly have experienced significant cuts to their water supplies.
- Recognizing that water users in the Lower Basin are not more important than water users in the Upper Basin. The Upper and Lower Basins have equal apportionments to the River in perpetuity, established by the 1922 Colorado River Compact. The 1922 Compact promises certainty and security of water supplies for both the Upper and Lower Basins.
- Preventing overuse in the Lower Basin. Water use in the Lower Basin cannot continue to exceed available supplies and operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead must better respond to actual hydrology. The Lower Basin must account for all depletions, including evaporation and transit losses. The Lower Basin's overuse poses risks to the entire Basin.
- Defending against attempts at Compact curtailment in the Upper Basin States. The Upper Division States are in full compliance with the 1922 Colorado River Compact; therefore, Upper Basin water uses must not be curtailed.
- Operating Lake Powell and Lake Mead to respond to actual hydrology and protect storage. Balancing releases from Lake Powell and the tier structure in the 2007 Guidelines depend on conditions at Lake Mead. This has led to depleted storage, and has driven both reservoirs and System into crisis. Lake Powell releases must be determined by actual hydrology and protecting storage rather than by Lake Mead conditions.
- Preserving federal reserved water rights for Tribal Nations. The Tribal Nations have water rights that they are entitled to use. Solutions for overuse in the Lower Basin cannot continue to depend on Tribes’ undeveloped federal reserved water rights.
- Complying with federal environmental law.
- Advancing coordination between the United States and Mexico.
Mitchell discussed these Post-2026 priorities during a speech at the 2023 Summer Colorado Water Congress conference. Read a copy of her speech here.
Updates from the Commissioner
On August 15, the State of Colorado provided official comments to the Department of Interior regarding future Lake Powell and Lake Mead operating guidelines, as part of the process to develop Post-2026 Guidelines for the operations of Lakes Powell and Mead.
The Post-2026 Operational Guidelines will replace the 2007 Guidelines and will determine how the two reservoirs are operated into the future. The 2007 Guidelines have proven insufficient to sustainably manage both reservoirs in the face of prolonged drought due to climate change and ongoing Lower Basin overuse.
Colorado’s Colorado River Commissioner Becky Mitchell was joined by the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) Acting Director Lauren Ris in developing and signing Colorado’s comment letter. Additionally, Commissioner Mitchell coauthored a comment letter with fellow Upper Division States through the Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC), as well as a comment letter with the seven Basin States.
Mitchell is committed to negotiating solutions with the Basin States, federal government, and the Tribal Nations – solutions that recognize climate change, that respect the equal rights to the River held by both the Upper and Lower Basins, that include a full accounting of all depletions, and that provide for sustainable reservoir operations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead that are based on hydrology and available supplies. The Upper Division States have always lived within the means of the Colorado River and support the Lower Basin States in adjusting, adapting, and permanently reducing their Colorado River water use.
The Department of Interior announced a formal process to develop future Lake Powell and Lake Mead operating guidelines, often called the Post-2026 Negotiations. The new guidelines will replace the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines (‘07 Guidelines), which govern the reservoir operations through 2026. The ‘07 Guidelines, which currently set operations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead, govern operations through 2026.
The formal process to initiate an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was announced through a Notice of Intent published in the Federal Register. The NOI will be available for public comment until August 15, 2023.
The seven Colorado River Basin States have agreed that a proposal developed by the Lower Division States–to conserve at least 3 million acre-feet of water by 2026–should be transmitted to the Secretary of Interior and the Bureau of Reclamation for further analysis as part of the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement process (SEIS). In a letter sent to the Bureau of Reclamation on May 22, 2023, the Basin States requested Reclamation further analyze the Lower Basin proposal, and urged Reclamation to immediately turn to planning for longer-term operations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
The Upper Colorado River Commission and the Upper Division States of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming remain committed to finding collaborative solutions within the means of the River. While the Upper Division States have not had an opportunity to review and analyze the Lower Basin proposal in detail, and therefore cannot endorse the proposal at this time, the UCRC Commissioners look forward to better understanding whether it can provide meaningful and enforceable reductions in use to address near-term challenges facing the Colorado River System. Commissioner Mitchell and her staff will continue to analyze the proposal in the coming weeks to understand impacts on the System and, specifically, Colorado’s significant interests in the Colorado River. Any viable proposal must show measurable and binding reductions in use.
Basin Deal FAQs
What is (and isn’t) the Basin State letter?
The seven Basin States’ letter requests that the Secretary of Interior and Bureau of Reclamation further analyze a proposal developed by the Lower Division States as part of the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) process. The letter is not an endorsement of the Lower Division States’ proposal. Modeling and technical analysis are needed to fully understand the effects of the proposal and how it would perform relative to the other alternatives identified in the Draft SEIS.
- What is the Lower Basin proposal?
The proposal indicates that the Lower Division States will conserve at least 3 million acre-feet of water by 2026, including at least 1.5 million acre-feet of water in 2024.
- Does the Lower Basin proposal call for any reductions in use or other actions from the Upper Basin States?
No. The SEIS process and accordingly the Lower Basin proposal are focused on operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, and reductions in use for Lower Basin water users.
- Why did the Upper Division States support further analysis, yet not endorse the proposal?
The Upper Division States remain committed to finding interstate solutions. Collaboration has been – and, we hope, will continue to be – the hallmark of the Colorado River Basin. However, the Upper Division States have not been provided with sufficient time or information to model and analyze the proposal. We cannot endorse a proposal that we do not fully understand. Therefore, we joined the Lower Basin in requesting that the Bureau of Reclamation model the proposal as part of the SEIS process.
- How does the Lower Basin proposal affect the SEIS process?
If the Bureau of Reclamation elects to suspend the current SEIS comment period and analyze the Lower Basin proposal as an additional alternative, then the proposal will affect the current SEIS process. As per the Basin States’ letter, we anticipate it would extend the overall SEIS timeframe and prompt an additional public comment period.
- Does the Lower Basin proposal affect the post-2026 negotiations?
The Lower Basin proposal does not affect the post-2026 negotiations. The proposal solely recommends a third alternative to be analyzed in the SEIS process, which amends the 2007 Operating Guidelines (‘07 Guidelines) for operations at Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam. Because the ‘07 Guidelines expire at the end of 2025, the proposal is fully separate from any post-2026 operations.
- What are the Upper Division States doing to support the Colorado River System?
In July 2022, the UCRC released a Five Point Plan in response to the Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton's call for the Colorado River states to reduce water use. The Five Point Plan is focused on solutions to reduce water usage. Updates on the Five Point Plan includes:
- Finding ways to voluntarily conserve water. As of May 2023, the Upper Colorado River Commission is completing contracts with participants in the reauthorized System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP). This is in addition to a historic number of conservation bills passed by Upper Basin legislatures and an interstate municipal MOU.
- Continuing the Demand Management Feasibility Investigation, which, if a Demand Management program is developed, would compensate water users for temporary and voluntary reductions in water use.
- Collaborating with the other Upper Basin states on potential reservoir releases through the Drought Response Operation Agreement (DROA), which helps protect Lake Powell. In addition to the 161,000 acre feet released from Blue Mesa Reservoir and Flaming Gorge in 2021, Flaming Gorge has released over 400,000 acre feet as part of the 2022 DROA Plan. The 2023 DROA Plan focuses exclusively on the recovery of storage in Upper Division Reservoirs.
- Getting better data to monitor and measure our water use, such as CSU’s COAgMet precipitation monitoring network, soil moisture, and radar technology.
- Continuing to live within the means of what the river provides on an annual basis, through the application of strict administration according to priority.
- Are you renegotiating the Compact?
We are not renegotiating the 1922 Colorado River Compact. The Compact is still in full force and the foundation upon which we are able to layer new agreements and adaptations. All subsequent agreements, laws, and regulations are subject to the Compact. The Compact provides for roughly equal shares of the River to the Upper and Lower Basins and is flexible enough to adapt to highly variable conditions now and into the future.
SCPP is a large-scale program involving temporary, voluntary, and compensated reductions in consumptive use across the Upper Division States. Conserved system water could help mitigate the impacts of drought in the Upper Basin. The Program is fully funded by the federal government.
SCPP proposals were accepted by the UCRC until March 1, 2023. On April 17, 2023, the UCRC voted to advance negotiations and contracting with select project proponents. Approximately 3,500 acre-feet of water will be conserved in Colorado.
At its March 15, 2023 board meeting, the CWCB voted unanimously to approve the SCPP as a state-approved conservation program, so that any water users who participate in this program will receive protection of their water rights relating to abandonment and change cases pursuant to C.R.S.⸹⸹ 37-92-103(2) and 37-92-305(3)(c).
More information about the SCPP proposals submitted by Colorado proponents—including a summary spreadsheet of individual projects—is available in the March 2023 CWCB Board memo. Proposals satisfying preliminary review are posted at the bottom of this page.
SCPP Proposals Meeting Preliminary Review (as of March 2023):
Final SCPP implementation agreements (as of July 2023):
The Upper Colorado River Commissioners voted to suspend releases previously scheduled from Flaming Gorge Reservoir beginning March 1 through April 30, 2023, as part of the Drought Response Operations Agreement 2022 Plan. This amendment was adopted due to improved hydrologic conditions in the Colorado River System; the adoption of the 2022 Plan was based on projections in Reclamation’s April 2022 24-Month Study. Reclamation approved the amendment.
Storing water higher in the Colorado River System provides the advantages of reduced evaporation and increased flexibility for water to be available if needed in another DROA Plan to help protect critical elevations at Lake Powell.
The Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC) announced significant progress in implementing its Five-Point Plan at its meeting on December 14, 2022, at the Colorado River Water Users Association Meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Colorado Commissioner Becky Mitchell emphasized that the most impactful thing that can be done to manage the Colorado River System is to reduce uses in dry years. Colorado achieves this through strict administration of water rights based on hydrology—in 2021, administration impacted water use on over 203,000 acres within the Colorado River Basin in Colorado. Collectively, preliminary data from the UCRC shows that the Upper Division States used 25% less water in 2021 than in 2020 due to constraints on the physical and legal availability of water. “We must continue to live within the means of what the river provides year to year and we ask others to do the same. This is the only way the system will continue as we know it into the future,” said Commissioner Mitchell.
The UCRC announced progress on the interstate Demand Management feasibility investigation and released a summary report of the study detailing key findings of the interstate investigation. This report will help inform next steps in Colorado’s Demand Management investigation, which will continue into 2023. More information on Demand Management is available at the CWCB website
- On June 14, 2022, 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.
- On July 18, 2022, 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:
- Seeking reauthorization of the System Conservation Pilot Program
- Commencing the 2023 Drought Response Operations Plan process in August 2022
- Considering the feasibility of a potential Demand Management Program
- Implementing Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding to accelerate enhanced measurement, monitoring, and reporting infrastructure
- Continuing strict water management and administration and considering intrastate conservation measures
- 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.
- On September 1, 2022, Colorado joined the other Basin States in requesting input on development of Post-2026 Colorado River reservoir operational strategies for Lake Powell and Lake Mead under historically low reservoir conditions.
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, according to preliminary estimates by the Upper Colorado River Commission, 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.
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.
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. Additionally, Colorado and the Upper Division States may receive additional funds through Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).
Events with the Commissioner and Staff
- South Platte Basin Roundtable, Sept. 12
- Yampa Basin Roundtable, Sept. 13
- Metro Basin Roundtable, Sept. 14
- Gunnison Basin Roundtable, Sept. 18
- Routt County Commissioners, Oct. 9
- San Juan Basin Roundtable, Oct. 26
The Commissioner and/or staff's attendance is subject to change. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.
- Colorado River Basin Water Use Infographics (September 2022)
- Commissioner Statement on Sustaining the Colorado River Basin System (August 2022)
- Upper Colorado River Commission response letter to Commissioner Touton to conserve 2-4 million acre-feet of water for Lake Powell protection (July 2022)
- Greeley Tribune joint op-ed by Commissioner Becky Mitchell and Attorney General Phil Weiser (July 2022)
- Colorado Water Talk Podcast Colorado River Update Episode (June 2022)
- Frequently Asked Questions about the Colorado River (Jan 2022)
- Commissioner Statement on Actions to Reduce Risk to Lake Powell (April 2022)
- Public Service Announcement Video: Commissioner Colorado River 2021 Wrap-up (Dec 2021)
- Commissioner Statement on Tribal Engagement on Colorado River Matters (Dec, 14 2021)
- CWCB Resolution Regarding Representation of State Interests During the Negotiation of the Post-2026 Interim Operating Guidelines for Lakes Powell and Mead (Nov 2021)
- Colorado Sun op-ed on Colorado River drought planning (Oct 19, 2021)
- Written Testimony for U.S. House Hearing on "Colorado River Drought Conditions and Response Matters" (Oct 15, 2021)
- Commissioner Statement on Colorado River System Projections (Sept 2021)
- Denver Post op-ed on drought & water speculation (Jan 2021)
- Learn more about the Colorado River
- Learn about the Demand Management Feasibility Investigation