What to watch on the Colorado River in 2024

A wet year in 2023 brought short-term relief, but long-term uncertainty still hangs over the West's critical waterway.

2023’s above average snowpack gave a boost to Lake Powell’s dwindling water levels, and provided water managers more time to contemplate long-term policy changes. Photo: Alexander Heilner/The Water Desk with aerial support from LightHawk

After years of dry conditions throughout the West, 2023 gave the region’s water managers the greatest gift of all: a hefty snowpack. 

This year’s winter snow eventually melted and boosted the Colorado River’s beleaguered reservoirs. The Hail Mary winter storms came just in time. Without the savior snows, the river’s second-largest reservoir, Lake Powell, was on a glide path toward losing the ability to produce hydropower at Glen Canyon Dam, not to mention the harm to the long-term ecological health of the river and its main tributaries.

But the more nightmarish scenarios of quiet turbines, empty reservoirs, and dry river beds were put on hold this past year, as more snow also means more time. When wet weather returned to the basin, the river’s top negotiators quickly turned their attention away from the short-term emergency in front of them, and toward a more long-term set of solutions. Talk of not “squandering” the gift of time became a standard talking point of decision-makers along the river that supplies more than 40 million people across seven U.S. states, 30 tribal nations and communities in northern Mexico. 

One snowy year does not make for a lasting fix for the Colorado River’s fundamental gap between water supply and demand. A new year means new uncertainties over the river’s future. And as it looks now, 2024 promises to be more consequential than the last. 

Here at The Water Desk, these are the top things we’re paying attention to in 2024:

1. Reimagining how we manage the Colorado River

The snowy respite in 2023 gave both federal and state-level water managers the brain space to think long-term. A set of 2007 guidelines for the river’s management expire in 2026. In October, the federal Bureau of Reclamation released its preliminary report on what should be included in the talks to renegotiate them. They’ve given the various users — states, tribes, environmental and recreation groups — until March 2024 to submit their preferred plans for analysis and eventual inclusion in a draft set of guidelines later this year.   

The current guidelines have quite a few detractors across the river’s Upper and Lower Basins. And what should or shouldn’t be in the new rules has contributed to significant tension among river negotiators.   

The various state leaders recently got the chance to publicly posture at the Colorado River Water Users Association conference, held annually in December in Las Vegas. All seven state-level negotiators, including representatives from California, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming, sat beside each other on stage and made clear there was still distance between their positions on the big-picture problems plaguing the river and how to deal with them. The Arizona Republic’s Brandon Loomis has this excellent recap of what went down.

Leaders from California water agencies and districts signed funding agreements with federal officials at the 2023 Colorado River Water Users Association conference in Las Vegas. Photo: Luke Runyon/The Water Desk

The panel’s biggest news was a public commitment from the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada to address what’s known as the structural deficit. This is the well-documented supply and demand gap that would exist even without climate change sapping snowpack and runoff. The deficit is estimated to be between 1.2 and 1.5 million acre-feet annually, and it has contributed greatly to the dwindling water levels at Lakes Mead and Powell. Who has to take the necessary cuts to account for that amount of water has always been an open question. Now, we have an answer: the Lower Basin states. 

“That makes sense. That’s our responsibility,” said J.B. Hamby, California’s river negotiator, at the Vegas gathering. “This is a historic thing coming. It’s on our shoulders to be able to resolve it.”

But in a basin that in recent months has grown increasingly reliant on injections of federal cash to incentivize temporary conservation deals, how state leaders plan to find the funds and the political will to permanently deal with the structural deficit will be something to watch. Any commitments made by those state-level negotiators will need to be sold to a broad range of constituents, who at this point will expect to be handsomely compensated for a permanent cut to their supplies, as POLITICO’s Annie Snider explained in this November piece.

An additional layer of basinwide tension can be summed up in one word: equity. It’s thrown around a lot in discussions of the Colorado River and the economic and social sacrifices needed to bring it onto a more sustainable path. Who should bear the greatest burden of the eventual cutbacks is still unclear. Upper Basin leaders, from Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, often point the finger toward the Lower Basin. 

“We’re not interested in striking a deal that allows the continuation of depleting the storage and dragging the system into crisis,” said Becky Mitchell, Colorado’s top river negotiator. Mitchell made clear she felt users in her state were already feeling pain, while those downstream of the large reservoirs have mostly been made whole, even in the driest of years. But with Lower Basin users willing to take on big, intractable issues like the structural deficit, moving forward it will likely be more difficult for Upper Basin leaders to continue to cast all the blame downstream. 

One more idea from the Las Vegas conference that’s still largely conceptual, but is gaining some interest from those in power, is to use annual measures of basic hydrology — like snowpack levels and streamflows — to determine how much water ends up being delivered to the basin’s varied users. It sounds simple: only use what nature provides. 

But that idea flies in the face of the river’s foundational governing document, the Colorado River Compact, which put fixed volumes of water use on paper, regardless of whether it was a dry or wet year. For now, the idea seems to be more of a talking point than a specific policy proposal, and we will see if proponents can turn it into something Lower Basin users can get behind. 

2. Tribal inclusion in policymaking

In recent years, the Colorado River’s 30 federally recognized tribes have grown their influence in the basin’s political landscape. Calls for a more formal tribal role in basinwide negotiations are being amplified by the tribes themselves, and by both state and federal leaders, such as Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. 

2023 presented some significant tribal successes. The Gila River Indian Community became a key player in negotiations over the Lower Basin’s conservation plan to secure federal dollars last spring. Federal officials promised the tribe $150 million over three years to leave water they were legally entitled to in Lake Mead. 

The Gila River Indian Reservation established its historic right to Gila River water. Since most of the Gila River is dry, the tribe uses Central Arizona Project water and groundwater sent through elaborate canals to service the reservation. Photo: Ted Wood/The Water Desk

But in the long-term, deciding what that tribal role, or tribal seat at the negotiating table, could be and should be is unsettled. In June, at a Colorado River symposium at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Getches-Wilkinson Center, Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis called for leaders from all 30 sovereign tribes to be included in talks between federal and state officials. That idea received immediate pushback from state leaders on the feasibility of expanding the table by 30 seats. 

Creating a single representative seat for all of the tribes is another option. But that, too, presents challenges. Is it fair or feasible to reduce the varied economies, cultures, geographies and spiritual practices of 30 sovereign nations into a single seat? 

While basinwide tribal inclusion still happens in an ad hoc rather than institutional way, a draft agreement to formalize a governing relationship among six tribes and the four Upper Basin states has taken shape. The Upper Colorado River Commission has started inviting representatives from six Upper Basin tribes to participate in regular meetings. Commissioners could formalize the new agreement this February, as The Colorado Sun’s Shannon Mullane recently reported.

There appears to be broad agreement that more formally including tribes in the river’s complex, multi-layered decision-making processes is the most just path to take. Deciding what type of basinwide governance structure will make tribal inclusion more than a talking point could make some progress in 2024 as the basin’s leaders say they finally have the brain space to take on longer-term issues, as KUNC’s Alex Hager reported in his piece from the Las Vegas conference

3. Winter snowpack can make or break

Snowpack in the southern Rockies entered 2024 with a weak start. There is still a lot of winter left to go, but beginning a new year with a significant snowpack deficit always brings a certain amount of hand-wringing from skiers and water managers alike.  

Upper Basin snowpack stands at just 64% of the long-term median. The snowiest months are still to come, but it’s much harder to get to an above-average snowpack after a slow start. 

2023 was a stark example of what a wet winter can do. The sense of urgency among the river’s policymakers diminished as the snow piled high. Headlines turned from documenting record lows at the big Colorado River reservoirs, to cheering modest gains in water levels. 

A heavy snowpack across the Colorado River basin in 2023 came after years of meager runoff and resulted in modest gains to water levels at the river’s two largest reservoirs. Photo: Luke Runyon/The Water Desk

The past year’s heavy snows and subsequent rushing rivers came after three successive meager runoff seasons. The gains were significant, but not a total game-changer. As scientists often note, it takes multiple consecutive years of wet conditions to allow large reservoirs like Lakes Mead and Powell to fully recover. 

The return of El Niño tipped the scales toward a warmer and wetter winter in the Colorado River basin’s headwaters states. So far, we’ve just been getting the warm, not the wet. No matter how you look at it, we’re having a dry start to winter, as my Water Desk colleague Mitch Tobin lays out in his latest Snow News post

In 2023, Lower Colorado River leaders said their deal to conserve up to 3 million acre-feet between now and 2026 was enough to bring needed stability to the river’s reservoirs. But that same point was used to justify agreements like the Drought Contingency Plans in 2019 and the 500+ Plan in 2021, which did not provide the long-term stability and certainty that water managers crave. 

Scientists, such as Colorado State University’s Brad Udall, say we haven’t been imaginative enough in envisioning just how bad things could get along the river. Another series of dry winters, the likes of which we’ve seen in the past 25 years, is plausible. 

2023 brought a reprieve. How the winter of 2024 will play out is still unclear. Its outcome will undoubtedly have ripple effects, and either amplify or ease the existing tensions playing out across the basin. 

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Luke Runyon is a journalist covering water and climate change in the Western U.S. He serves as co-director of The Water Desk, a journalism initiative at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism that focuses on Western water issues and the Colorado River Basin. In 2017 he launched the Colorado River Reporting Project at KUNC, the NPR station for Northern Colorado, where he hosted and reported the podcast, “Thirst Gap: Learning To Live With Less On The Colorado River.” He currently serves as president of the Society of Environmental Journalists, and is a former Ted Scripps fellow at the University of Colorado.

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