American and Mexican officials have been negotiating an agreement to replace their current five-year accord, which expires in 2017. Jewell said she is optimistic about those talks, and also about recent negotiations between states on sharing cutbacks if the levels of reservoirs continue to drop.
“The Colorado River is over-allocated. There are more water demands on that river than there are resources,” Jewell said Wednesday during a hike in the newly created Sand to Snow National Monument. “What has been happening in a really powerful way is seven basin states have been getting together outside of politics to say, ‘What are we going to do about this collectively?’ Because we have a problem together that we need to solve.”
Representatives of California, Arizona and Nevada said last week they hope to have a deal finalized by the end of the year for all three states to accept cutbacks in order to keep more water in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, and stave off a more severe shortage.
“I think it’s extraordinary collaboration. It’s extraordinary in terms of its scope and scale and the fact that people are staying at the table and working together,” Jewell said. Without mentioning California specifically, Jewell noted that some states have water rights “that don’t require them to be at the table, but they’re at the table anyway.”
She said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Estevan López is deeply involved in the talks with Mexican government officials.
“We need to get the next minute renegotiated – Minute 32X we call it – with the Mexican government. And those negotiations are going really, really well. So we would love to get this wrapped up,” Jewell said. “I feel optimistic that we’re going to get in a good place with the Colorado River because we have to.”
Mexico receives a share of the flows from the Colorado River under a 1944 treaty. In 2012, American and Mexican officials reached their most recent agreement, Minute 319, which specified how reductions would be shared in the event of shortages.
That landmark agreement made possible the 2014 “pulse flow” flood in an effort to help restore the long-dry Colorado River Delta. The agreement also enabled Mexico to keep some water in Lake Mead near Las Vegas for future use.
“Right now, Mexico is storing extra water in Lake Mead. That is helping drive hydroelectric power generation, and also just the elevation in that lake. That is so important for where the outtakes are from the lake,” Jewell said. “It is really important that we get that next part done because it was only a five-year program, so we don’t want the clock to run out on that.”
Much is riding on the separate negotiations between states, and between Mexico and the United States. Without changes in how the river’s flows are allocated, the potential scenarios appear dire. The Bureau of Reclamation could declare a shortage during the summer if it projects Lake Mead’s elevation would sink to an elevation 1,075 feet or lower at the beginning of next year. The U.S. Department of the Interior would take charge of water allocation if the reservoir’s level were to sink to an elevation of 1,025 feet.
“If we don’t work this out around a negotiating table, people that understand these issues deeply – and they are complicated and they are technical – we will end up in an environment that is driven by the courts and is driven by politics, and I think that’s a huge mistake,” Jewell said.
Lake Mead’s levels have declined during 16 years of drought, and climate change is projected to add significantly to the strains on the river.
Officials in California, Arizona and Nevada say that while they’ve discussed the outlines of proposals, difficult negotiations remain between water districts in each state and between the states. The federal Bureau of Reclamation is also involved in the talks.
Tanya Trujillo, executive director of the Colorado River Board of California, said recently that if agreements are reached to plan for various scenarios, “then we have that basic framework in place that we can rely on.”
The Upper Colorado River Basin states – which include Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico and Arizona – also have been considering measures aimed at ensuring the levels of Lake Powell don’t reach critical lows. Don Ostler, executive director and secretary for the Upper Colorado River Commission, called it a “parallel process” to the talks in the Lower Basin states, but with different circumstances.
Ostler said the Upper Basin states are considering “what may be possible on a voluntary, temporary and compensated basis” to keep Lake Powell from hitting shortage levels.
Jewell said the growing stresses on the Colorado River make it vital for all of the parties to be at the table and working together.
“If we want to actually have a long-term solution to this incredibly complex issue, we need to keep politics out of it,” she said. “We need to keep the experts at the table. We need to understand each other’s issues and work through those.”