Western Water Managers Meet To Relieve Colorado River Tension

May 3, 2018
Originally published on May 1, 2018 1:19 pm

After nearly a month of terse exchanges among water managers in Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona about Colorado River conservation strategies, representatives from the five states met Monday in Salt Lake City to hash out their differences.

At issue is how the Central Arizona Project (CAP) -- the operator of a 336-mile aqueduct that pumps Colorado River water to farmers and cities -- is conserving water in Lake Mead, the river’s largest reservoir. The project is managed by the Central Arizona Water Conservancy District (CAWCD) and is the state’s largest water provider.

The meeting didn’t resolve the issue, says James Eklund, the Colorado representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission, but CAP officials did offer an apology.

“District representatives expressed regret about their use of rhetoric in describing the policy of maximizing reservoir releases solely for the benefit of the [Central Arizona Water Conservancy] District at the expense of the rest of the Colorado River Basin,” Eklund said in a written statement.

States in the river’s Upper Basin -- Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico -- accused CAP and CAWCD of manipulating how much water the project received to avoid a shortage, while still gaining more water from those states’ biggest reservoir, Lake Powell.

In response to a series of public statements and an infographic sent to CAP’s Twitter followers demonstrating this strategy, Upper Basin representatives sent a letter in mid-April saying CAP’s behavior, while within the rules, was a violation of the watershed’s collaborative spirit. The larger basin-wide feud was borne out of a dispute within the state of Arizona over which agencies have final authority to decide how to conserve water.

“CAWCD regrets that intra-Arizona issues have impacted other parties in the Colorado River basin,” said CAP spokeswoman Crystal Thompson in a written statement. “Specifically, CAWCD regrets using language and representations that were insensitive to Upper Basin concerns, and resolves to have a more respectful and transparent dialogue in the future.”

Meeting attendees did not schedule a follow up meeting to further address the issue, and a meeting between CAWCD and state of Arizona water officials has yet to be scheduled.

The dust up caused at least one city to pull out of a Colorado River conservation program meant to boost reservoir levels. The city of Pueblo, Colorado’s water department cited CAP’s behavior in rescinding its proposal to participate in the System Conservation Pilot Program.

“This river really only works and functions the way we’ve designed it if trust is in abundance and we’re truly viewing the entire basin as connected,” Eklund says. The discussion in Salt Lake City was a starting point, “but the proof of progress will be in [CAP’s] actions.”

This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

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