Sense of urgency palpable as Colorado River conference closes
Scientists and state, federal and tribal officials expressed the need for swift action in the face of a mounting water shortage as a major conference about the Colorado River wrapped up in Las Vegas Thursday.
The river, which supplies power and water to 40 million people living in towns, farms and reservations across the West, is at a tipping point. Its two largest reservoirs – Lake Powell and Lake Mead – are at their lowest levels on record, and the unseasonably warm and dry winter hints at the crisis only deepening.
If severe drought conditions persist, one the region’s largest sources of hydropower, the Glen Canyon Dam in Lake Powell, could stop producing power as early as next summer, according to recent federal projections. The dam provides electricity to millions of users in the West. If it fails authorities will need to find other sources to replace that power, which could raise costs for homes and businesses.
Some states did agree to a new deal that will keep more water in Lake Mead, but leaders, including Assistant Interior Secretary Tanya Trujillo, acknowledged the region needs more substantial changes.
“In addition to the short-term emergency decisions we will be making, we also need to be very real about the challenge of building long-term solutions in this basin,” he said.
Some scientists and tribal officials said incremental changes in managing the river’s water supply are woefully insufficient and called for immediate and wide-ranging conservation measures.
“We have to think swiftly,” said Crystal Tulley-Cordova, principal hydrologist for the Navajo Nation. “Otherwise, we will continue to be in the situation that we are in, or even in worse circumstances.”
Next year officials will begin negotiating new rules for managing the river. They’ll replace existing shortage sharing guidelines that expire in 2026. Tribes have been historically excluded from these negotiations, but the conference reflected the growing expectation that tribes in the Southwest will play an integral role going forward.
Dwight Lomayesva, vice chairman of the Colorado River Indian Tribes in Arizona, said his tribes do have a seat at the table this time around and will attend meetings next spring. But he’s also skeptical about how much of a voice Indigenous people will have.
“We’re always a victim of a lot of promises but no results,” he said. “That’s been our history, so it’s kind of a wait and see right now.”
The Colorado River Indian Tribes have some of the most senior water rights in the Colorado River Basin.They’ve been fallowing fields in an effort to conserve water, which is costing the tribes an estimated $25 million in crop losses. They are also supporting federal legislation that would allow them to lease some of their water to cities or towns off reservation that are suffering shortages.
“We just want to be able to control our water and be able to do what we want with our water,” said Robert Page, a councilman with the Colorado River Indian Tribes. “We’re a sovereign nation.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the 1922 Colorado River Compact expires in 2026. The current water shortage sharing guidelines for the river expire in 2026 but the original, historic agreement still stands.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.