By Rebecca Mitchell
Colorado is headwaters to a hardworking river that provides for 40 million people. The importance of the Colorado River to the state and the nation cannot be overstated, and its recent hydrology serves as a reminder that we must continue to find workable solutions that will sustain the river. History shows that we are up to the challenge.
As Colorado’s commissioner and lead negotiator on Colorado River issues, it is my job to protect Colorado’s interests in the river. There is a rich history of collaboration that has sustained the Colorado River Basin for nearly a century. And as the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, I advance its mission to protect and manage the state’s water for present and future generations.
Protecting our Colorado River water means protecting Palisade peaches, farm-fresh produce, generations-old cow-calf operations, a thriving front range, healthy ecosystems, outdoor recreation, drinking water for our communities, and numerous other resources that depend on the river.
Colorado and the other Basin states face big challenges. Drier hydrology, competing demands on the river, and those who seek to profit from such circumstances, impact the types of tools available to address these challenges. While significant, these issues are not new to those who dedicate their careers to this work. Experts throughout Colorado and the Colorado River Basin have been working on these types of issues for years.
No one person or entity determines how the Colorado River is managed — the river is too critical.
When faced with unprecedented challenges in the past, Colorado and the other Basin states have taken momentous action to avert crisis. The 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead and the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan called for reductions in use in the Lower Basin states while increasing flexibility and proactive planning opportunities in the Upper Basin. Each of these accomplishments avoided legal and operational conflicts during unprecedented drought.
We are not simply resting on past successes. We are aware of the conditions throughout the Basin and the need for solutions. What the last 20 years have taught us is that any action must be based on sound science and policy and include input from across the Basin. It requires accounting for the needs of the 40 million people and ecosystems that rely on this water.
One potential option being investigated in the Upper Basin is Demand Management, through which all Colorado River water users — east and west — could choose whether and how to temporarily reduce water consumption in return for compensation. The water created through such a program could only be used to proactively avoid or mitigate the impacts of Colorado River Compact administration.
It is important to remember that the obligation to comply with the Compact is shared by the Upper Division States, including Colorado — we will succeed or fail as one. There is no mechanism for, nor do we support individual accounts in Lake Powell associated with for-profit entities. Whether through Demand Management or another strategy, any program must protect the entire state — not only in terms of its legal interests, but also its values.
Speculation and private investment in water is a growing concern across the state. This is a complex issue, but a coalition of water experts, policymakers, and other Coloradans are addressing it, both within the Demand Management Feasibility Investigation and through an Anti-Speculation Law Workgroup formed by the Colorado General Assembly to consider and strengthen existing anti-speculation law.
As we look toward the future, our previous successes will inform our future strategies. We must avoid the temptation to react to alarmist rhetoric while facing unprecedented challenges with thoughtful and appropriate action. The future of our state depends on it. Rebecca Mitchell is Colorado’s current Colorado River commissioner as well as director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. She is in charge of negotiating operational guidelines for the Colorado River on behalf of the state and leading the state’s Demand Management Feasibility Investigation.