The politics of the Colorado River and what to do about the drought-stricken “work horse of the West” are inevitable as the seven basin states grapple with potential cuts and ways to save up to four million acre-feet of water in the system.

Utah Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee are among GOP senators representing those impacted states who are participating in informal discussions on how to remediate interstate disagreements and come up with workable solutions that keep the West vibrant. The states are Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California.

More than 40 million people in the West rely on the water from the Colorado River that irrigates 5.5 million acres of farmland and provides hydropower for two dams generating electricity for millions of users, mostly in rural areas.

“Sen. Romney and a bipartisan group of his colleagues are having discussions about how to best support the efforts of state officials who will continue to take the lead in working toward a solution,” said Romney’s spokeswoman Arielle Mueller on Friday.

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The meetings, according to the Colorado Sun, have been going on over the past year and are being promoted as a way to help cobble some consensus on Colorado River allocations, which are challenged by a 23-year-long drought and over-diversion.

“The idea here is that we’re looking at how to use more carrot and less stick,” Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, told the media outlet. “The key here is the federal government is not the best one to force a deal. The best solution is going to be a solution that all seven states sign off on.”

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation gave the states a deadline to come up with cuts that could run as high as four million acre-feet, or it would arbitrarily impose those cuts itself.

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Six of the basin states submitted a “consensus” alternative addressing operational management of the river to the federal agency, while California submitted its own plan due to disagreement over whether to count evaporative losses, which it does not want to do. The river’s biggest user of the Colorado River has said litigation is not out of the question if the bureau counts those losses.

Colorado has said it is not afraid to litigate if it has to, while Utah leaders are steadfast in their position of protecting what they say is their unused allocation of the river.

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Hickenlooper said he hopes continued discussions among U.S. senators in the West and the basin states can avoid that.

“We’re all really hearing what priorities and specific issues are with each state and with the water users in each state,” he said. “As long as we understand that and are working from the same set of facts, we’re probably going to come up with a much better solution than if things degenerate into lawsuits.”

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Romney and Lee echoed that sentiment and said there will be better outcomes if the states lead the effort and not the federal government.

“The states of the Colorado River Basin have been engaged in a difficult process trying to collaboratively decide how to address water consumption,” Lee said. “Empowering states is crucial to the task of managing the Colorado River. How to best handle water in the West is a perennial question best answered by those closest to the problem.”

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