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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 January 2023):

Colorado River System Updates for 2023

Colorado River States Submit a Consensus-Based Modeling Alternative to Bureau of Reclamation

January 30, 2023: The states of Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming jointly submitted the Consensus-Based Modeling Alternative (CBMA) to the Bureau of Reclamation. The CBMA outlines an alternative for Reclamation to evaluate and incorporate into its development of a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) to revise current Operating Guidelines (’07 Guidelines) for Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell and Hoover Dam at Lake Mead.

The CBMA includes the significant and necessary step of assessing evaporation and transit losses against Lower Basin uses. The Lower Basin actions operate in coordination with additional actions in the Upper Basin. We can only save the Colorado River system if we act together. The CBMA approach appropriately distributes the burden across the Basin and provides safeguards for the Tribes, water users, and environmental values in the Upper Basin,” said Becky Mitchell, Colorado Commissioner, Upper Colorado River Commission, and Director, CWCB.

While the Consensus-Based Modeling Alternative is not a formal agreement between the Colorado River Basin States, it serves as an alternative framework for Reclamation to analyze in its SEIS process. It provides an approach to help protect Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam infrastructure, water deliveries, and power production to mitigate the risk of either Lake Powell or Lake Mead reaching dead pool. A copy of the Consensus-Based Modeling Alternative is linked here.

January 19, 2023System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP) is accepting proposals for participation in the System Conservation Pilot Program, 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 application deadline is February 1, 2023.

December 14: 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.

At its meeting, the UCRC released a pre-solicitation for request for proposals for participation in the System Conservation Pilot Program, 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 UCRC also 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.

The Upper Division States will also consider additional releases from upstream reservoirs pursuant to the Drought Response Operations Agreement, in addition to the 661,000 acre-feet previously committed. The Commissioners emphasized the need to maintain the benefits of this water in Lake Powell.

Earlier in 2022:

  • 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: 
    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
  • 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.

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.