There’s no easy way to put it: The Colorado River, which flows for 1,400 miles and is described as the workhorse of the West, is in trouble.

More water is coming out than what is going in the system.

Andrea K. Gerlak, director at the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy and a professor in the School of Geography, Development and Environment at the University of Arizona, said it is a harsh reality faced by the seven states, 30 tribes and northern Mexico — all dependent on the river.

“You can imagine what that means with your household finances. If you have more expenses than you have income — it’s really a simple analogy.”

Gerlak addressed attendees this week at the 10th annual Eccles Family Rural West Conference in Tempe, Arizona, speaking on the theme of the “Changing Rural Southwest.” The event was sponsored by The Bill Lane Center for the American West, Stanford University and Arizona State University.

The numbers game

The Colorado River region is divided into two basins: the Upper Basin made up of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming and the Lower Basin comprised of Nevada, California and Arizona.

In a historic first that is now plagued by controversy and a lot of armchair quarterbacking, the Colorado River Compact was crafted in 1922. It divvied up the water between the two basins, with each basin getting 7.5 million acre-feet of water.

To put that in perspective, one acre-foot of water is equal to about 326,000 gallons, or enough to cover one football field by a depth of one foot.

Negotiators of the compact, who met in secret at a remote tucked away cabin in New Mexico, did not have a crystal ball and could not know they were basing allocations of water on an unusually wet cycle being experienced by the Colorado.

“We know now that they made these calculations on some kind of faulty hydrology, that a few years prior to 1922 were pretty wet years and so the data they had kind of indicated that there was more water than there really was,” Gerlak said.

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Decades of drought — some describe it as a “mega drought” — coupled with diversions have shriveled up the river.

The nation’s two largest reservoirs — Powell and Mead — are starkly low, jeopardizing critical hydropower generation, downstream irrigation and water supply for a thriving, growing area.

According to World Population Review, Arizona was the second fastest growing state from 1990 to 2000, increasing its population by nearly 40%. Southern Nevada is growing in population and the U.S. Census Bureau in 2020 listed Utah as the fastest growing state in the nation.

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With less water, what has to give?

All these people and all this development demand water. So does the roughly 5 million acres of irrigated farmland in the basins.

A study released this week shows that water use in the Colorado River Basin is dominated by crops. Almost half of the water consumed in the region over the last two decades goes to cattle-feed crops such as alfalfa and grass hay.

The study puts a target on ranchers and dairy farmers and is another illustration of how the rural West is changing, along with threats to the long-held traditions and livelihoods that helped build the region.

Of note, it said cattle-feed crops consume 90% of all water used by irrigated agriculture within the Upper Basin above Lake Powell.

Dave Evans stacks bales of hay on a tractor on his property in Duchesne on Wednesday, July 27, 2022. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

For its part, the state of Utah has invested more than $200 million into what’s called agricultural optimization, helping farmers and ranchers become more water efficient.

It also passed legislation invoking voluntary split season leases, meaning a farmer who could grow four crops of hay per season would be paid to not grow as much.

While much of the new money for water has been triggered by an ailing Great Salt Lake, the funding also hearkens to the reality that in arid states, less is more when it comes to water use, and that includes the Colorado River.

Funding sought for research, turf buy back program, split season leases

No easy answers for the ‘Law of the River’

Everyone agrees something must be done to help the river, but this is where the water literally stokes a divide and becomes politically troublesome for myriad players, diverse interests, demands and complexities. The river has been governed since the compact via a number of laws and regulations commonly called the Law of the River.

“What we’ve done since 1922 has been very fragmented, and piecemeal,” Gerlak said. “And we’ve really been operating with kind of a fire drill mentality. And so we need to kind of be thinking beyond this fire drill and beyond Band-Aid solutions.”

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has stepped in repeatedly and has ordered the seven states to come up with a plan to save water.

In 2023, the Lower Basin states agreed to save 3 million acre-feet by 2026, which some critics said was a short-term solution to a long-term problem.

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That same year, a series of complex water management steps led to the release of 1.6 million acre-feet of water from the Upper Basin reservoirs of Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa to help struggling Lake Powell and to keep power generation operational.

But now it is back to the drawing board, with each of the basins submitting conservation plans to stretch the river’s viability past 2026. And it is an important stretch if you consider the river’s economic value is at $1.4 trillion.

These plans are under review by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which is expected to release a draft environmental impact statement by year’s end. That document will be up for review by the public, with an official decision due to be released in early 2026.

Dimitri Littig accompanies Eric Balken, executive director of Glen Canyon Institute, on a hike in Davis Gulch, a side canyon on the Escalante River arm of Lake Powell, on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022. This part of the canyon has emerged from the declining waters of the reservoir fairly recently, but long enough for grasses and other small plants to grow. The light deposits on the canyon walls are the “bathtub ring” that marks historic water levels of the reservoir. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Although the Upper Basin is taking its own measures to reduce consumptive use of the Colorado River, there is no sugarcoating the fact the four states want to safeguard their interests.

In Utah, the river supplies one-third of the state’s water, supports 26% of its agriculture and provides drinking water for 1.3 million people.

Gene Shawcroft, the Colorado River Commissioner for Utah, said the states may not agree on everything, but they do realize the current operational system is flawed.

“I think we all understand that basing the operation off forecasts has not been robust enough to really help us,” he said. “That’s part of the reason we have drained reservoirs is that the forecasts have been more optimistic. ... So if water usage is based on forecasts and the water does not show up and we still use the same amount of water — it’s clear forecasting is not the way to go.”

Historically, the Lower Basin has used just under 10 million acre-feet and the Upper Basin uses an average of about 4.5 million acre-feet per year, with the notable exception of 2021, when the use was about 3.5 million acre-feet, Amy Haas, executive director of the Colorado River Authority of Utah, has said.

Shawcroft said deliveries of Colorado River water from the Upper Basin to the Lower Basin have been substantially higher than what is required under the compact.

“The compact talks about about (a delivery) of 75 million acre-feet over 10 years and we are significantly above that. Over the last 10 years, even though we have been in drought, we have delivered more than the 75 million acre-feet.”

The Upper Basin has resisted calls by the Lower Basin to inflict its own cuts and the Utah Legislature has made plain that the state is entitled to its full allocation, establishing the Colorado River Authority of Utah in 2021 to have more bargaining power at the table.

While Shawcroft remains optimistic the states with the bureau’s guidance can come to some sort of resolution that reflects the reality of a drier climate and a growing region, he does concede the process will be tricky to navigate and is ripe for a lot of tugs and pulls.

“What we need to do is make sure we are basing our use on supply and actually what is in the river — what is actually available, as opposed to demand that is higher than supply,” he said. “So, in some respects it is pretty straight forward, but it is also extremely complicated because of the water that has been put to use. And now, to tell someone it is not their water to use, that’s a tough message to sell.”

Melcita Stanley hauls water for her livestock to her property in the Narrow Canyon area of the Navajo Nation in Arizona on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022. With no water access on her property, she must haul water to the site multiple times each week. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News