Is a water war brewing on the Colorado River?

Officials from Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico recently sent a letter to counterparts in Arizona, hoping to avert a crisis. The problem, if unresolved, could affect people in seven western states.

A potential water war may be breaking out over the Colorado River, a conflict that could pit Arizona against Colorado, and other states. On April 13th, water managers from states in the north of the river system, called the Upper Basin, sent a letter to Arizona officials asking for their continued cooperation in managing the river for the benefit of everyone.

It all started when the Central Arizona Project, managed by Central Arizona Water Conservation District, posted a graphic on its website showing that it could—and should—take more water than it needs from the river—instead of conserving as much as possible. Many people in Colorado, and even in Arizona, think this potential water grab goes too far.

The Colorado River supplies 40 million people with water under a complex set of rules, laws, and agreements among seven states. James Eklund was one of those who signed the letter to Arizona officials. He is the state of Colorado’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission. Eklund explained that the Colorado River system has two major reservoirs that are operated to the benefit of everybody in the basin. The reservoir in the Upper Basin is called Lake Powell, which was filled when Glen Canyon Dam was completed, and below it is Lake Mead, which is the product of Hoover Dam.

The Upper Basin states (comprising Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado) send water to Lake Powell to store in order to meet their requirement to deliver supplies to the Lower Basin states of Arizona, Nevada, and California. According to Eklund, the Upper Basin depends on a healthy amount of water in Lake Powell to act as an insurance policy against calls for more water from the Lower Basin.

Think of the reservoirs this way—they are like two bathtubs connected one above the other. When the lower bathtub needs water, the upper one has to let some out. The Central Arizona Project wants to force water to be released from the upper bathtub—even if not needed. This got people in the Upper Basin concerned. Up until this point, the perception was that everyone was acting in everyone else’s interest—all for one, and one for all—but Central Arizona Project’s recent move made it appear it’s acting for its own benefit to the detriment of others—especially those in the Upper Basin.

Eklund said that if [the basin states] start working in their own self interests at the expense of the others, it becomes more of a zero-sum game, and that’s a place that’s fraught with peril on this river. He added much work has gone into keeping the Upper and Lower basins cooperating with each other, but the messaging that the Central Arizona Project put out implies that it wants to game the system.

This maneuver would discourage farmers and cities in Colorado from conserving water to send to the upper bathtub—Lake Powell—to meet Lower Basin requirements. People in the Upper Basin have been working hard to promote those conservation efforts. Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water is concerned enough about this potential water grab that he sent a letter to the managers of the Central Arizona Project on April 16th. He threatens to stop funding some conservation efforts unless the Central Arizona Project shows it is not manipulating the system and is aggressively conserving water with other entities in Arizona.

The potential water war along the Colorado underscores how everybody on the river is tied together—especially in a dry year. James Eklund said that inflow into the system is shaping up to be low this year, and we might skirt by; but, if there are back-to-back dry years like this one, then we are really in a crisis.

A crisis where everyone up and down the Colorado River needs to cooperate.

This story was originally published by H20 Radio. Award-Winning Reporting about the World’s Most Vital Resource

Photo credit: brewbooks, Creative Commons, Flickr