Get Big Pivots

 

Becky Mitchell, Colorado’s chief negotiator on the Colorado River, demands the lower-basin states take meaningful action on correcting the ‘structural deficit’

 

by Allen Best

Becky Mitchell speaks crisply and with a bass-drum firmness. Her speeches are like freight trains, orderly processions full of weight, one thought pounding after another.

Her full-time job since July 2023, as Colorado’s lead negotiator in Colorado River matters, gives her weighty material that matches her rhetorical style. Before that, she informally held the same role as the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

The Colorado River has been riven with rising drama in the last 20 years. The seven basin states – but particularly Arizona and California – have reluctantly, slowly conceded reforms necessary to the occasion. The federal government, the referee for the river and operator of the two giant dams, Hoover and Glen Canyon, was slow to force the hard decisions.

“It is time for a fundamental change in how we manage the Colorado River,” she told members of the Colorado Water Congress at the group’s annual conference on Jan. 30. “It’s time to adapt to the river that we have, not the river we dream of.”

“We have some difficult roads ahead of us as we work to find a sustainable solution for the basin,” she said in wrapping up her 15-minute speech. “What we must do would’ve been easier 10 years ago. It would’ve been easier 5 years ago. Tomorrow will be difficult, but we must have the courage to try.”

Following is a lightly abridged version of the speech:

Change is coming. I can’t emphasize enough how much the post-2026 negotiations matter whether you are in the upper basin, lower basin, Mexico, or a member of one of the 30 tribal nations. We all deserve a future with certainty and security in our water supply without that being jeopardized by constant crisis management. We also all deserve a future where we can live within the means of the river and without the risk of overuse or misuse driving us into crisis.

Yampa River, Steamboat Springs

The Yampa River carried a robust runoff flow from winter snows through Steamboat Springs in May 2023, helping pull back the two giant reservoirs of the Colorado River from the brink of disaster. Top, Becky Mitchell addresses the Colorado River Water Users Association in December 2021. Photos/Allen Best

For the past two decades, the upper basin has been caught between the impacts of climate change and lower-basin overuse. I acknowledge that the lower basin does not like the term overuse. My intent is not to offend, but rather to be clear and honest about uses that exceed what the compact and hydrology can allow whatever it is called. We cannot and will not agree to guidelines that perpetuate management of our water resources that do not acknowledge what Mother Nature is providing. The basin cannot continue to use water at a rate that is unsustainable. Those who are fearful of change or who benefit from status quo will find fault in the plain facts that I share with you here today. You will find fault in the tone with which I share them.

The good news is that change is coming. The upper division states have said for years, decades now, the lower basin needs to take responsibility for the role in emptying the reservoirs. But let me be clear why this change is needed. Dry hydrology and overuse have drained the reservoirs. Future guidelines must recognize the reality of the Colorado River Basin hydrology.

Our lower basin neighbors have recently recognized that they must address the overuse. The next step for them is to explain how will they make this commitment a reality. We look forward to seeing those details.

We will continue to do everything we can to get to a seven state solution that protects Colorado and the upper basin, but we also need to be prepared for other scenarios. The upper division states have presented a concept to the lower basin states that outlines mechanisms for living within the means of the river while rebuilding and maintaining Powell and Mead and operating within the law of the river.

(Our concept) is essentially a water budget that honors the law and Mother Nature. The Colorado River Compact is our foundation. Solutions need to respect the law of the river and recognize the reality of hydrology across the entire basin. Those solutions must also be real and verifiable. Aspirational goals do not provide the clarity that is required to provide predictability across the basin.

We cannot and will not agree to balancing like the ’07 guidelines, a concept that was used to justify sending water downstream. The water should be used to rebuild storage. We’re focused on fair, legal and sustainable outcomes for the entire basin. Out of respect for the sovereignty of those lower basin states and the role of the Secretary of the Interior as the water master in the lower basin states, we have not weighed in on how they should apportion the reductions amongst themselves. That is for the lower basin (states) to work out.

We have heard our downstream neighbors say, if we figure out the structural deficit, will you meet us in the middle on climate change? That’s one heck of a hypothetical. If the lower basin overuse is addressed, we’d be looking at a very different situation than what we see today. In fact, if the lower basin had accounted for evaporation and transit losses through the ’07 guidelines, the reservoirs would likely be healthy now.

We are the ones who’ve been doing the work on climate change. We absolutely have been doing our part. What I’ve heard from across Colorado is we are willing to help. We are willing to be a part of the solution, but we cannot solve a problem alone.

We (already) take involuntary and uncompensated reductions when Mother Nature doesn’t provide water. Users in the upper basin have taken an average of 1.3 million acre-feet in shortages annually over the last several years. We make do with less in our communities, our workforce, our economies, and our food production. The lower basin must recognize and acknowledge the annual shortages that occur in the upper division states and then acknowledge — thank you — that the operation of the reservoirs must absolutely respond to hydrology. In addition, we must also acknowledge that the upper basin has not developed into our 7.5 million acre-foot apportionment and that undeveloped tribal water rights are flowing downstream.

End of boat ramp, Lake Powell, May 2022

In May 2022, this boat ramp at Lake Powell was useful as a place to sit but had no value for launching boats. Photo/Allen Best

Overuse must end, and the compact must remain our foundation. It will not be easy. As we move into a future that is more responsive to hydrology, I acknowledge that we all must acknowledge there will be hardship and pain, while also acknowledging that this hardship and pain has existed in the upper basin for decades. Because we haven’t been shielded from climate change impacts, the upper basin states are uniquely positioned to assist our downstream neighbors in learning how to live with less.

We are collaborating in unprecedented ways in the upper basin, and this time we’re doing it at a bigger table. I’m very proud that we are working with the upper basin tribal nations in recognition of their historical ownership and their undeveloped federally reserved water rights. This collaboration has made very clear to me that is unacceptable for the upper division states to accept any limitations on future uses when upper basin tribes have limited access to clean water, agricultural production, and economic vitality.

I remember the speech I gave in the summer of 2022. The reservoirs were crashing. The federal government had laid out an ultimatum: Figure out how to conserve 2 to 4 million acre feet or we’ll figure it out for you. The lower basin was unwilling and unable to reach an agreement about cuts to their uses. I remember many long meetings and long hours that my team and I put into discussions with our fellow upper division states. We worked out the five-point plan. This was a turning point for Colorado. The decision was a difficult one for me. It was not fun.

By implementing this plan, we have positioned ourselves as leaders in the basin, the ones willing to come to the table to do our part. Colorado cannot and will not accept status quo. We cannot or will not be bullied into a future that drains the reservoirs for continued unsustainable use.

For example, we pushed the Bureau of Reclamation to modify how the upper basin is represented in Colorado River Basin modeling. Our advocacy means that today the updated models better reflect the reality in the upper basin, a reality that will be represented in the post 2026 tools. Reclamation models now show what shortages look like here.

This team has also worked to make Colorado more resilient. Over the past year, the CWCB has spearheaded a turf removal program to make our municipalities more resilient for future water shortages.

Division of water resources has continued to strictly administer water rights, including painful cuts to water use to respond to Mother Nature.

My fellow commissioners and the upper Colorado River Commissioners revamped the 2024 System Conservation Pilot Program, or SCPP, to allow water users to voluntarily forego their water uses in exchange for compensation, thereby helping to put water in the river to mitigate drought in the upper division states.

Palm trees, Colorado River water, Imperial Valley, California

California’s Imperial Valley has a year-round growing season and uses Colorado River water for palm trees and almost every crop imaginable . February 2017 photo/Allen Best

The drought task force critically examined the Colorado River issues and not only applauded the good work of the state, but recommended additional resources to augment our existing work.

The river team is also working to transition our guiding principles from paper to practice. You are all familiar with the irrefutable truths. It’s one thing to say these are our principles. It’s another thing to then apply them to the basin-states negotiations. That is a difficult task. I’ve seen some of these principles gain traction throughout the entire Colorado River basin. Federal government has acknowledged the need for managing the reservoirs sustainably. The lower basin has acknowledged the need to address their overuse. The environmental community recognizes that healthy storage at our nation’s two largest reservoirs must be the first step in protecting Colorado’s rive and the, Colorado River’s ecosystems. Gradually, I’m hearing interest from DC to the Imperial Valley, recognizing that the status quo does not work anymore.

It is time for a fundamental change in how we manage the Colorado River. We must all live within the means of the river if we hope to sustain it. I want Lake Powell and Lake Mead to serve the purposes they were designed to serve. To provide for sustainable development of our compact apportionments in the Colorado River Basin and to provide water security in dry years. A sustainable system means we have to rebuild storage in Lake Powell and Lake Mead and protect upstream storage for releases only in the most dire circumstances. This means that the worldview around water must change, particularly in the lower basin. We must manage demand to rebuild the storage that provides certainty of supply. In all years, we all must adapt to the available water supply.

We have an opportunity now to collaboratively determine how to adapt to the river that we have, not the river we dream of. The lower basin states have said many good things that signal that they are open to collaboration.

We believe them when they say they will own the structural deficit, when they say they will live within the means of the river, when they say they will support the tribes and that they support the environment. I take them at their word. We assume that they are serious about these commitments, and we expect open and transparent accounting of all lower basin uses of main stem tributaries so that we can trust but verify their actions. We hope that the lower basin will come around to support the framework for management of Lake Powell and Lake Mead that is sustainable for the 40 million people who rely on the Colorado River.

What we must do would’ve been easier 10 years ago. It would’ve been easier five years ago. Tomorrow will be difficult, but we must have the courage to try.

Allen Best
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