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"Colorado River from Moab Rim" by U.S. Geological Survey is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0.


What’s The Best Way To Allocate Colorado River Water Rights?

The Colorado River runs 1,450 miles and serves 40 million people across 7 western US states. It reaches tribal lands and continues on into Mexico. Its waters make a multi-billion-dollar agricultural industry possible. For decades, drought in the West has been intensified by climate change, rising demand, and overuse; the result has been previously unseen low water levels at key reservoirs along the Colorado River. Power struggles are now fierce in the quest to allocate Colorado River water rights.

Agricultural water use accounts for about 75% of the beneficial uses of the Colorado River and about 60% of all consumptive uses and losses. Water from the Colorado River is used to irrigate approximately 5.5 million acres of agricultural lands: 3.2 million acres within the Basin and 2.2 million acres outside of the Basin. These irrigated lands account for 15% of all farmland acreage nationwide and produce 90% of winter vegetables in the US.

While a diversity of agricultural products are grown with Colorado River water, irrigated livestock feed crops — such as alfalfa, hay, silage, pasture — account for the majority of the water used for agriculture. Critically low reservoir levels have brought attention to this agricultural sector’s water usage. Voluntary reductions, shifting planted acreage to lower-water-use crops, installing more efficient irrigation technology, and reducing conveyance losses through better monitoring of diversions and lining ditches are being explored.

Rather idealistic voluntary methods to reduce water usage from the Colorado River just haven’t been adequate. Despite recent heavy rain and snow, the historic 23-year drought has led to record low water levels at Lake Powell and Lake Mead, so explorations are necessary to determine how the federal government can deal with these water shortages through 2026.

The question many Western businesses are pondering is: What’s next to reduce overall water use and maintain economic viability of the agricultural sector?

Last year, the US Bureau of Reclamation sent out the word to states that they needed to come up with a way to lessen their collective use of the River’s water by about 2 to 4 million acre feet — or roughly 15% to 30% of their annual use. No agreement happened as a result of that request. In January, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado put forth a plan as to how they would conserve lots more water, but California disagreed and released a separate proposal.

A new Biden administration environmental analysis points to 2 options for several Western states and tribes with water rights to reduce their reliance on the drought-affected Colorado River.

  • High priority rights: In this option, California and some tribes along the river would get preference to the river’s water.
  • Proportional division: This option leans toward Nevada and Arizona and more evenly delegates water usage reductions when water levels at key reservoirs along the river dip below a certain point.

The two plans would achieve at least 2 million acre-feet of cuts in 2024, on top of existing agreed-upon cuts. States, tribes, and other water users now have until May 30 to comment before federal officials announce their formal decision. The US Bureau of Reclamation has not indicated the ways in which Mexico might contribute to water reductions, but, as the country is entitled to 1.5 million acre feet of water each year under a treaty reached with the US in 1944, their contributions will be significant. In recent years, Mexico has participated in water savings plans with the US amid worsening drought in both countries.

The Fed’s Plans to Reconcile Colorado River Water Rights & Realities

The Interior Department defended its authority to make sure basic needs such as drinking water and hydropower generated from the river are met — even if it means setting aside the priority system. According to an April, 2023 White House statement, the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law together include $15.4 billion to enhance the West’s resilience to drought and will be devoted to Colorado River water usage reduction and resilience.

  • Up to $233 million in water conservation funding for the Gila River Indian Community, including $83 million for a water pipeline project that will reuse approximately 20,000 acre-feet of water per year and help shore up elevations at Lake Mead
  • A $12 million agreement with the Coachella Valley Water District will conserve 30,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead this year and will provide similar investment and water saving opportunities in 2024 and 2025
  • $20 million for 4 small surface water storage and groundwater storage projects in California and Utah, including one near the Salton Sea
  • Over $54 million for repairs to aging infrastructure to improve water delivery, including $8.3 million for the Imperial Dam
  • Expanded drought-focused outreach and technical assistance to communities in the Colorado River Basin

Ongoing investments from the Inflation Reduction Act’s $4.6 billion for drought resilience and other efforts to support short-term conservation.

  • Lower Colorado River Basin System Conservation and Efficiency Program funding to immediately reduce water use;
  • Up to 1 million acre-feet of water conservation in the Imperial Valley;
  • The Bureau of Reclamation is making available up to $125 million to support the relaunch of a System Conservation Pilot Program, a voluntary conservation program in the Upper Colorado River Basin.

Final Thoughts

As I wrote last year, the future of water is tenuous. Isn’t water a human right? After all, every human needs water to survive, as the human body weight is approximately 60% water. The human body requires water in all cells, organs, and tissues to regulate body temperature and maintain bodily functions. Then why is water under threat as a commodity to be bought and sold by corporations and investment firms?

The debate over Colorado River water rights seems to focus on the interests of the agricultural sector, primarily that of livestock feed crops, over the daily water usage needs of everyday people. Isn’t it time for the US government to foreground the needs of the people first and business second when it comes to water?

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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.


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