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Colorado River states are ready to work on a longer term deal to share water


It was big news when the seven states that share the Colorado River announced an agreement to temporarily cut water use. It averted a crisis as Lake Mead was in danger of falling so low that it could no longer generate hydroelectric power. Now, it's only a temporary solution, and the river states are working now on a long-term deal. Here's Luke Runyon, member station KUNC in Colorado.

Luke, temporary solution - were there temporary winners and losers from it?

LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: Well, there aren't really any losers here, and that's thanks mostly to a lot of federal money. California, Arizona and Nevada agreed to leave a lot of water in the river, so Lake Mead will stop shrinking. And that takes pressure off the other states who won't have to make more cutbacks than they already have. So the agreement was relatively easy to reach because there's a billion dollars in the Inflation Reduction Act to give water users money in exchange for not taking water, so some users are being compensated. But it is temporary. The money only lasts for three years.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So what happens after three years?

RUNYON: Well, they're going to need a new agreement. Yesterday, I met with the top water negotiators for six of the seven Colorado River Basin states, and they told me that formal negotiations are going to start next week. So they're giving themselves some time to come up with a new deal, one that's supposed to be longer term, like for decades.

MARTÍNEZ: Decades - that sounds a little harder to negotiate than a three-year temporary deal.

RUNYON: Yeah, definitely. For one, there're going to have to be a lot more people involved. Previous agreements on how to share the Colorado have, for the most part, ignored the 30 Native American tribes in the basin, and there's wide agreement that that can't keep happening. Stephen Roe Lewis is the governor for the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona.


STEPHEN ROE LEWIS: All Basin tribes need to be at the table. It's no longer acceptable for the United States to meet with seven Basin states separately.

RUNYON: He's saying that federal leaders can no longer only negotiate with states over water in the river. Tribes have legal rights to water that have to be taken into account, and no one really knows how adding tribal nations is going to affect the shape of this new deal. So it's a big unknown.

MARTÍNEZ: And that's probably not the only thing that's going to make it tougher to reach this decadeslong agreement.

RUNYON: Yeah, because really what's needed is permanent reductions in water use. They simply can't keep drawing on the Colorado like they have in the past. So reductions are what climate scientists say are necessary, and there's just not as much water in the river as there was 100 years ago when this whole river-sharing system was set up. And a lot of that is because of climate change making the river smaller, and fully grappling with a warming climate is emerging as a big focus of this next round of talks. Here's Becky Mitchell. She's the state of Colorado's top water negotiator.


BECKY MITCHELL: For me, it's important that the next set of guidelines really acknowledge that climate change is real, and they've - it's resulted in significant changes to the Colorado River system.

RUNYON: No one really knows how much water is going to be in the Colorado going forward, but they know over the long term it's going to be less than the states are drawing out now. On paper, people already have rights to more water than currently flows down the river. So in the new agreement, someone is going to feel the pain and simply not going to get some of the water that they have access to right now.

MARTÍNEZ: That's KUNC's Luke Runyon. He's the host of the podcast Thirst Gap about the Colorado River. Luke, thanks.

RUNYON: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
As KUNC’s reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.