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Colorado River Users Convene In Las Vegas To Talk Drought Contingency Plan

Dec 16, 2019

The Colorado River gets its start in Rocky Mountain National Park and flows through northwestern Colorado. Its watershed provides drinking and irrigation water for about 40 million people in the Southwest.
Credit Nick Cote for KUNC/Lighthawk

Nearly 40 million people depend on the Colorado River for their water supply. Last week, a group of stakeholders gathered in Las Vegas for the Colorado River Water Users Association conference to discuss major issues when it comes to sharing and regulating usage.

This year, one topic was the recently-completed drought contingency plan, which has been the focus of negotiations for the last five years. The plan is designed to keep water levels in the Colorado River’s biggest reservoirs from dropping rapidly. 

The plan is not being sold as a long-term solution to the river’s over-allocation, but is being seen as a temporary solution to some of the Colorado River’s water scarcity issues. 

Luke Runyon reports on the Colorado river for KUNC and attended the conference last week.

What are some of the solutions in this drought contingency plan? 

It varies by basin. The Colorado River is split into two basins: an upper and a lower. In the lower basin [California, Arizona and Nevada], the drought contingency plan looks like a series of cutbacks to water users. As Lake Mead, which is just outside of Las Vegas, drops due to climate change or drought, those water users will be forced to take some cutbacks to how much water they’re getting. 

The upper basin looks a little bit different. One of the more controversial parts of the upper basin drought contingency plan was this concept of “demand management,” where basically the states in the upper basin are trying to figure out how to limit water use on a voluntary basis. That could look like paying farmers not to irrigate for a certain amount of time in order to save some of the reservoirs and boost their levels. 

What long-term approaches to water shortages were discussed at the conference? 

Attention is turning to these broader guidelines that are set to be renegotiated over the next several years. The current operating guidelines for the river were put into place during 2007 and they expire in 2026, so between now and [then], these Colorado river water managers have to come up with a broader set of guidelines. Determining what is included in those guidelines, how broad or how narrow they are, how conservative they are or how they might include big ideas, that has yet to be determined. 

Luke Runyon will be joined by National Geographic photographer and filmmaker Pete McBride in Aspen Wednesday for the Aspen Public Radio event, “The Colorado River: Lifeline of the West.” The discussion starts at Paepcke Auditorium at 6 p.m.