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The Colorado River water rights deal is a stopgap. What’s next?

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A view of water intake towers at the Hoover Dam on August 19, 2022 in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Arizona.

The Colorado River may lose another 20% of its water in the coming decades because of climate change, said Kyle Roerink of the Great Basin Water Network. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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It’s coming up on a year since the federal government asked seven Western states to agree on a plan to save the Colorado River amid a historic drought. The river and its reservoirs are a major economic engine in the region. They support over $1 trillion of annual economic activity and 16 million jobs, according to a study from Arizona State University.

This week — after months of tense negotiations and a couple of blown deadlines — the states finally made a deal. California, Nevada and Arizona will massively cut their use of Colorado River water for agriculture and to sustain cities, provided the federal government offsets the pain of those reductions with over $1 billion in federal funds.

But that’s just a stopgap solution. So what’s next for management of the Colorado River?

This proposal could save the river system from imminent collapse, according to Kyle Roerink of the nonprofit Great Basin Water Network.

But in the long term, “what the best scientists on the river say is that we’re likely to lose another 20% of the river in the coming decades because of climate change,” he said.

And the legal framework that governs the Colorado right now doesn’t account for that. It’s also never really reflected how much water is actually in the river, per Sarah Porter with the Kyl Center for Water Policy. 

“If you add up all the water that people have rights to use, it exceeds the average flows from the river,” she said. “So it’s overallocated.”

But the basin has a chance to turn that around. That’s because in 2026, the current drought management guidelines will expire. “I think it’s a huge opportunity,” Porter said. 

Stakeholders in the basin — including cities, agricultural communities, tribes and utilities — will have a chance to rewrite the rules.

“To get out of this danger zone that we’ve been in, where we’re flirting with no hydropower production or deadpool,” Porter said. 

And those talks could look a lot different from the Colorado River Compact negotiations of 100 years ago, said Andrew Curley at the University of Arizona.

“What I think is important is that we create political arenas where tribes have equal voice with states,” he said.  

Tribal nations in the basin have been excluded from management decisions for decades, Curley said. Now, they’ll likely insist on a more meaningful role. 

“My only fear is — and I think this is the fear of many tribal leaders — is that there’s going to be less water to negotiate with,” he said.

Stakeholders should be racing toward solutions, argues Roerink with the Great Basin Water Network.

“The officials have fired the gun, but nobody is sprinting out of the gates — everybody is walking,” he said. “That’s kind of what it feels like.”

These talks should be treated like crisis negotiations, he added.

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