Science & Technology



The Colorado River is shrinking. Will seven states agree on how to manage its water by March?

Elise Schmelzer, The Denver Post on

Published in Science & Technology News

DENVER -- The seven Colorado River states face a quickly approaching deadline to present a unified plan for how to manage the drying river that provides water for 40 million people across the West.

But major disagreements remain ahead of next month’s target — and the Upper Basin states, including Colorado, say they may submit their own proposal to the federal government instead.

The seven states are tasked with proposing a long-term plan to manage the crucial river and its two major reservoirs. The river system generates electric power, fuels recreation economies across the West and irrigates 5.5 million acres of agricultural lands that feed the country.

The amount of water in the Colorado River — overestimated from the beginning — is shrinking because of climate change. Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the major water storage units on the river, remain dangerously low.

All sides agree there is a crisis. But shared solutions remain elusive.

The guidelines established in 2007 that determine how to manage the river’s water in times of shortage are set to expire at the end of 2026. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the river’s two major reservoirs, has asked the states to present possible replacement guidelines in early to mid-March to avoid any disruptions from staff turnover that could result from the November election, the states’ negotiators said.


While all seven states continue to meet, it’s unclear whether the seven negotiators will reach a consensus by that time.

“Given the complexity of the challenges and the short amount of time for an initial submittal, it is possible that a consensus seven-state alternative may not be achieved within the next month,” the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah said Thursday in a joint statement to The Denver Post.

Negotiators from the Lower Basin — Arizona, California and Nevada — echoed that uncertainty, with Tom Buschatzke, who is negotiating on behalf of Arizona, confirming there was doubt that a seven-state joint plan would be ready in March.

The Upper Basin states are creating their own proposal to present to federal officials in case a seven-state consensus is not reached in time, according to the basin’s statement.


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