As a headwater state, Colorado River issues have always affected Coloradans. Becky Mitchell, the state of Colorado’s first full-time commissioner to the Upper Colorado River Commission, has made fighting for Coloradans’ water rights while advocating for water conservation her top property. Mitchell spoke with the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District and Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority boards, as well as members of the public, on Friday, Oct. 20, about her hopes for the future of the Colorado River.
The Colorado River impacts the lives of 40 million people across two countries, seven states, and 30 Native American tribes. In recent years, the river has been unpredictable. “The hydrology that we saw these last 20 years, there was a 3% chance that we’d see that,” Mitchell said.
“As you can probably tell, if you open the news or looked out your window, issues are becoming more frequent on the Colorado River, and really, when we talk about how much the Colorado River impacts every Coloradan, it’s appropriate that somebody be able to be completely focused on it, especially right now, and especially with the critical time that we’re in,” Mitchell said.
In her new position — Mitchell has worked full-time on the river commission since July 5, 2023, after formerly jointly holding this position while also being the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board — she is able to be on the ground much more, receiving input from Coloradans.
“What I’m trying to do is take the opinions of the people on the ground that water matters to, which is everyone, and really take those positions and pull them into Colorado’s position as we go into negotiations,” Mitchell said.
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The need for renegotiation
The 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines currently determine the management of Lake Powell and Lake Mead reservoirs, and were designed to last 20 years, meaning they will be up for renegotiation in 2026, but discussion about redefining these rules has already begun.
Under the guidelines, the upper basin, which includes Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, has disproportionately been forced to reduce its water use, as the lower basin, consisting of Arizona, California and Nevada, can receive releases from Lake Mead and Lake Powell, according to Mitchell. In 2020, the upper basin used 4.5 million acre-feet of water. In 2021, the upper basin used 3.5 million acre-feet of water. “That wasn’t because of extraordinary measures. That wasn’t because of deliberate choices. That was essentially mother nature mandating what we use, because it wasn’t there,” Mitchell said.
The lower basin’s use was about 9.6 million acre-feet in 2020, and 10 million acre-feet in 2021, increasing despite natural limitations in the upper basin. This was due to allowances in the 2007 guidelines.
The pattern from 2020 and 2021 holds true over the last two decades. Looking at inflow and outflow of Lake Powell over the last 20 years, in eight out of 10 years, there has been more water released from Lake Powell than enters the lake.
Restrictions on upper basin use of the Colorado River have also disproportionately affected Colorado’s two Native American tribes, the Ute Mountain Ute and the Southern Ute. In 2021, the Ute Mountain Ute reservation received just 10% of its allocated federal water rights due to curtailments, according to Mitchell.
With climate variability, it has become more pressing to prevent the overuse of water from the reservoirs. “What we need is real, permanent reductions into the future,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell does not want to blame the lower basin states for the dramatic difference in water use. “Overuse is the bad guy,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell sees the negotiations for the post-2026 guidelines as an opportunity to improve upon the 2007 guidelines. “One of the benefits of the interim guidelines, besides them being interim, is that we get to learn (from them). We get to learn what worked and what didn’t work,” Mitchell said.
In times of shortage, the upper basin states divide water usage allotments. As the headwater state, Colorado receives approximately 51.75% of the river in the upper basin. Twenty-three percent goes to Utah, and Wyoming and New Mexico split the remaining share.
Achieving collaboration with the rest of the states’ representatives to the Upper Colorado River Commission is Mitchell’s priority going into negotiations. Though Colorado has the right to 51.75% of the Colorado River among the four states, it has the same number of votes on the commission as the other three states: one. This does not trouble Mitchell.
“Would I like 52% of the vote? Yes. Is it needed? No. Because I think where the UCRC (Upper Colorado River Commission) needs to be is together, and that’s what’s most important. And remember, when you have any organization, whether it’s a business organization, a political organization, if one vote means more than everyone else’s, then their voices are nothing,” Mitchell said.
Colorado is setting an example
Mitchell cited several cases of success in water conservation efforts she has seen in Colorado, including agricultural innovation to grow crops that do more with less water, and strict administration of water use according to priority. These changes have stemmed from necessity. “We’ve built communities, areas that are based on flexibility,” Mitchell said.
The adaptations that Colorado has practiced in recent years are lessons that can be shared with all of the Colorado River basin states. “I don’t care where you sit in the basin; if you want security and certainty, it’s not planning for the river of hopes and dreams, it’s planning for the river of reality, and that’s what I think we all need to do,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell continues to advocate for continued water conservation in Colorado, to benefit Coloradans. “What we want to do is do things for our own resiliency in Colorado and across the upper basin. We want to do things that say, ‘we’ve saved for our future,’” Mitchell said.
“I’m not here to get people invited to my funeral. I’m here to do the right thing. The right thing for Colorado, the right thing for the upper basin, the right thing for the river, the right thing for the 40 million, the right thing for the 30 tribes,” Mitchell said.