Clock ticking on stakeholders to decide water policy

Market to Market | Clip
Mar 1, 2024 | 7 min

Seven states are up against the clock to get a water deal reached over the Colorado River and who gets what allotment. As the 2026 deadline approaches, the food versus cities debate simmers over the precious resource. Kathryn Sorensen is the director of the Kyle Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University.


[Kathryn Sorensen] here in the desert, we've known for decades, how precious water is and what the risks are, of not having an adequate water supply. And so we've planned very carefully to make sure that we have one, you know, particularly here in the Phoenix area. And I think other cities across the nation are now finding themselves in really unexpected situations where they are also facing scarcity issues that they didn't think they would ever face, which is kind of interesting. 

[Yeager]  And pulling from the Colorado, there's a lot of people who put a straw into that river. How has that changed? Over? You know, give me a sense of, obviously, before the 80s, but maybe since the 80s, where maybe that intensity has grown?

[Sorensen] Yeah, that's a really good question. So, you know, farmers have made and Native American tribes have made use of the Colorado River for a very, very long time. In the case of Native Americans since time immemorial, farmers you know, at more than 100 years. So the use of the river dates back quite some time. But of course, as a farming acreage expanded,  particularly after, or during World War Two, to grow cotton for war material and, and other purposes. And then as the population grew as well, more and more people used more and more of the Colorado River water. And so it is an over-allocated system. 

[Yeager] So sources is one discussion we could get into, in that, but also the usage side of things, which has the greater possibility for a solution here?

[Sorensen] Yeah, that well - use. We have to live within what Mother Nature gives us, otherwise, we will drain our reservoirs. So that's pretty clear. But you know, something on the order of 70% of the water in the Colorado River, is used actually for agriculture. So although a lot of people like to think that the increasing population of the Southwest is a main driver of the over allocation of the river, that's that's that's really debatable. As you mentioned, a lot of people have straws in this river. And so I would say that it's over allocated both because of agricultural uses, but also because of the uses of the city.

[Yeager] So who's in the room for those discussions?

[Sorensen] Mainly, it's the principles of the seven states that share the Colorado River. So the principles of Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, California, and of course, the Republic of Mexico, it's a relatively small number of people. Of course, those people then go back to their stakeholders within their states, of which you can imagine there are many. And that's part of the challenge, right, is it's not just those people in the room that matter. It's all their stakeholders back home. 

So the Colorado River system, lakes Powell and Mead, which are the reservoirs that feed the system, the largest reservoirs in the United States, operate under guidelines that were set in 2007. And those guidelines are set to expire at the end of 2026. And so right now, the States and the Republic of Mexico are desperately negotiating new operating guidelines for those reservoirs. And to put that in context, those new operating guidelines will basically dictate when shortage occurs, how deep those shortages are, and potentially who has to bear those shortages. So everything is at stake right now. It's a really big deal. And the federal government has signaled that there isn't much time to figure this out. I mean, it's already 2024. And whatever solution is arrived at, let's hope there is one for which the federal government still has to go through its whole NEPA environmental process, and then publish the documents for comments. So you know, I think people are hoping that some skeleton of an agreement can emerge this spring.

[Yeager] I want to move just a moment to the east of you. I'm looking at Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, to an extent Wyoming, those that aren't necessarily directly in the Colorado basin, but are in their own water issues. Then you move to the Mississippi and the Ohio Valleys. There's all these water issues, what can or what should people in those states be looking at for guidance, where you're at and these two decisions that are being discussed about with the Colorado?

[Sorensen] You know, the first thing I would say is that I think they need to understand that they can get much, much worse than they even imagined today. Right? That the climate is changing. And that may have impacts that are much larger than what they have seen historically, that the past is not necessarily a guide for the future behavior of these river systems. 

One of the tenets of Western water law is use it or lose it. And if you're not using the water, then someone else has the right to use it, because it's a scarce resources. And of course, just everyone understands that possession is nine tenths of the law. And so that creates a perverse incentive for stakeholders and others to make more use of these resources to assert a stronger claim. 

[Yeager] There's an old phrase I believe it's a Mark Twain ``whiskey's for drinkin', ' water's for fighting for'.  Is that still an accurate statement? 

[Sorensen] Always will be. Always will be. Yeah, I mean, and I think you'll see more and more of that in parts of the country that haven't had to face that issue before. Water is scarce and it will only become scarcer. But I want to end on a positive note. And that is that solutions are known. Right? And for all that it can be, people have been moving water from where it is to where they want it to go for literally 1000s of years. 

[Yeager] The full MtoM is available now.