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The West’s Extreme Drought: Colorado River Plans Explained (1)

June 2, 2021, 10:01 AMUpdated: June 2, 2021, 1:16 PM

The West is locked in the grip of a 20-year megadrought, with the Colorado River approaching record-low flows.

The seven states in the Colorado River basin—Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming in the upper basin and Arizona, California and Nevada in the lower—established drought contingency plans in 2019 for managing and operating the river in the ongoing crisis. They’re the latest piece of the “Law of the River,” which allocates water to the seven states.

Here is some context for how those states address the situation.

1. How bad is the drought?

It could be the worst the basin has seen in 1,200 years, scientists say.

Its two major reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, are at their lowest levels since they initially began filling in the 1960s, and are projected to be at only 29% by 2023. The flow of water into Lake Powell from precipitation in the Upper Basin is less than at this point in 2002, the driest year on record, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

In April, the bureau signaled a high likelihood that Lake Mead will fall below an elevation of 1,075 feet—the lowest it’s been since the 1930s—triggering Lower Basin reductions in 2022 and 2023. If that happens, Arizona will get 512,000 acre feet less than its normal allocation of 2.8 million acre feet, hitting Central Arizona Project agricultural users. Nevada will get 12,000 acre feet less than its allotted 300,000 acre feet.

The bureau will announce a final decision in August with the release of its 24-month study of the river.

2. What’s at stake?

Drought in the Colorado River Basin affects agriculture, cities, recreation, tourism, wildlife, and endangered species. Almonds, alfalfa, and other crops could get more expensive nationwide.

The Colorado River provides water for about 40 million people and 5.5 million acres of irrigated agriculture in the U.S. and Mexico. All depend on the stressed waterway and its tributaries, stretching from the heights of the Rocky Mountains, through the Grand Canyon and the desert Southwest to the Sea of Cortez.

The situation is prompting policymakers throughout the seven states to prepare water users for restrictions, burning bans, and shortages.

The cuts will have a major impact on agricultural water users, and even those still getting their share might not get it when they want it, affect the timing of harvests. It also means the region faces the prospect of a year-round wildfire season, sending smoke and air pollution across state lines.

4. What’s the Law of the River?

The Law of the River refers to numerous compacts, federal laws, court decisions and decrees, contracts, and regulatory guidelines that determine how the 1,450-mile Colorado River is managed and operated.

Its cornerstone document is the 1922 Compact, negotiated by the seven states and the federal government. Under the compact, each basin has the right to develop and use 7.5 million acre feet of river water per year. An acre foot is roughly the amount two households use per year.

The drought now threatens the ability of the upper basin to send the lower basin its portion. That could trigger a “call on the river” by senior water rights holders in the lower basin.

5. What effect will drought contingency plans have?

The 2019 plans mean different things in the two basins.

The lower basin’s commitment includes new water conservation measures that will reduce withdrawals from Lake Mead. In May, the Bureau of Reclamation said the elevation of Lake Powell could fall to 3,525 feet in March 2022, threatening its ability to produce hydropower at Glen Canyon Dam and triggering obligations by the upper basin states under the drought contingency plans.

The upper basin states are now considering two measures: releasing water from the upstream reservoirs of Flaming Gorge in Wyoming, Blue Mesa in Colorado, and Navajo in New Mexico; or compensating farmers and other users to use less than their share, sending the water instead into Lake Powell.

5. Is a new water-share agreement coming?

The seven basin states are about to begin negotiating a successor agreement to the 2007 Interim Guidelines, the current legal regime for water management and drought mitigation in the basin. Negotiations are expected to begin in earnest after the Biden administration names a new commissioner for the Bureau of Reclamation.

Basin states have traditionally worked together to forge agreements in a spirit of interstate comity. But there have been several conflicts. Most recently, the Utah Legislature in March created a new Colorado River Authority to fight for the state’s 23% apportionment, saying it needs to assert its rights relative to the other states in the basin which are “posturing” to take away Utah’s share.

The new guidelines, which are to be in place by 2026, should reflect ecological values, water rights of Native American tribes, and the need for more conservation measures by users in the seven states, those involved in the process said.

To Learn More:

Drought Fueling Western Wildfires, Water Wars, Legal Conflicts
Drought Is the U.S. West’s Next Big Climate Disaster
Colorado River Drought Accelerates Plans to Pay to Forgo Water
Utah Bill Creating Controversial Water Agency Sent to Governor
Utah Proposes New Agency to Assert Its Colorado River Rights
Colorado River Getting Saltier Sparks Calls for Federal Help
Colorado River Expert Biden’s Pick for Interior Water Post

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To contact the reporter on this story: Tripp Baltz in Denver at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chuck McCutcheon at