What happens when key stakeholders in Southwestern water management come together at the same table? Competing uses and the need for collaboration become more clear, and the path to solutions becomes murky.
Water managers in the Colorado River Basin, which supplies water to seven states, 10 tribes and Mexico, have become increasingly concerned about drought after two major reservoirs, essentially water savings accounts, ran low in 2018.
At a Rocky Mountain PBS “Water Week”event, representatives from the Southern Ute Tribe, Durango Utilities Department, Southwest Water Conservation District and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation mulled the future of water in the West. They are preparing for less water and pushing for collaboration in a drier future.
“We have 19th-century laws and 20th-century infrastructure that we’re trying to use to solve 21st-century problems. I see that every day,” said Susan Behery, a hydraulic engineer for the Bureau of Reclamation.
Rocky Mountain PBS organized “Water Week” events to bring Colorado-based organizations and communities together to share resources, education and diverse perspectives about Western water issues. Wednesday’s event, hosted by the Four Corners Water Center at Fort Lewis College, centered on an advanced screening of the Rocky Mountain PBS documentary “Western Water – and Power.”
The documentary covered the creation of the large infrastructure projects that control the Colorado River and its tributaries and the conflicts baked into the West, where the saying goes, “Whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting.”
About 30 million people depend on water from the Colorado River Basin. Lower Basin states – California, Nevada and Arizona – compete with Upper Basin states – Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming. Within Colorado, the Western Slope and the Front Range continue to battle over water.
One big player, however, was left out of the Rocky Mountain PBS film – and important negotiations over time: tribal nations.
“I was a little bit disheartened, but really not too surprised that tribes were actually left out of this whole conversation,” said Lorelei Cloud, treasurer for the Southern Ute Tribal Council and former chairman for the Ten Tribes Partnership, which represents tribal interests in the Colorado River Basin.
In 2012, when the Bureau of Reclamation put together a supply and demand study, tribes were left out of the conversation. The tribal governments demanded the bureau put together a tribal water study, Cloud said.
That study showed 10 tribes have rights to 2.8 million acre-feet of water. The Upper Basin states share 7.5 million acre-feet.
“For us to be left out of the conversations is actually devastating,” Cloud said.
The Southern Ute Tribe has senior, or first, water rights, dating to 1868.
The tribes aren’t using their full allocation of water, which means more downstream flow to users with junior claims.
“Once those 10 tribes put their water to use, it’s going to be devastating for those that are using the water right now. What are they going to do?” Cloud said. “It’s going to be a very impactful conversation when that situation happens. Having tribes at the table is very, very proactive for anybody, for any organization.”
Durango also has senior water rights, but it would be impacted if Southern Utes used their full water allotment.
“Even somebody with as senior water rights as the city of Durango might be playing a very different game,” said Jarrod Biggs, Durango assistant utilities director.
All the groups on the panel agreed collaboration will be fundamental to water management.
Biggs said he sees efficiency measures and collaboration in the city’s future.
“Being smarter with our water use will be crucial,” he said. “Also, we aren’t an island of ourselves. We have neighbors ... and cooperating with our neighbors will become even more crucial to a drier future.”
The Southern Ute government has its own drought contingency and water inventory plans. Tribes need to be at the table in 2026, when current operational guidelines expire and will be renegotiated.
“Collaboration is going to be key in the interim guidelines that’s coming up,” Cloud said. “It shouldn’t be a competition, it has to be a collaboration.”