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The Colorado River: Old Challenges, New Deals, and An Uncertain Future

The Colorado River has wound its way through the American Southwest for millions of years, carving canyons and providing water and life to animals and countless generations of people. Over the past 4,000 years, the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT)—the Mohave, Chemehuevi, Hopi, and Navajo—have worked the floodplain, practicing irrigated agriculture and building communities. Over time, colonization and subsequently skyrocketing populations have milked the Colorado River for all it’s worth. It now exports more water than any other river in the U.S., supporting critical drinking water supplies, irrigation and agriculture, hydropower, and other necessities for 40 million people across seven states. It’s also the country’s most endangered river as rising temperatures, drought, and poor management wreak havoc.

U.S. water policy has not been kind to the Colorado River, nor to its original managers—as with many aspects of U.S. society, centuries of policies written by non-Indigenous politicians have long sacrificed tribal interests. In 1922, seven southwestern states—Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, California, and Nevada—signed a river compact which allocated water supply to non-Indigenous farmland and cities. Though the CRIT are the river’s original managers and most senior water rights holders, the original compact denied legal shares and water infrastructure to 30 Indigenous tribes in the river basin. Over the years, CRIT members have fought for legislation and court cases to claim their water and seats at the decision making table. Tribes have thus far secured rights to 25 percent of the river water, but still lack infrastructure to access their share.

Now, as the broader U.S. population suffers ramifications from the river’s overuse and climate change, Native American tribes and other vulnerable populations face mounting environmental and social injustices. It’s the age-old tale: those who contribute least to climate change and related issues are facing disproportionate suffering. And the situation is dire for everyone: if people doesn’t start living within the river’s means, in a way which alleviates unjust burdens, we will see disastrous effects on drinking water, power production, food availability, and more.

The old water division is no longer accurate. Where the original river compact divided a 17-million acre-foot river amongst half a million people, today’s Colorado River is 11- to 12-million acre-feet and serves 40 million. Last week, however, the Department of the Interior announced the result of more than a year of negotiations to help stabilize the Colorado River System. This initiative follows up on 2007 interim guidelines to address water shortages and hopes to address a ‘now 22-year-long mega-drought.’ The new joint plan calls to conserve at least three million acre-feet of water within the Lower Basin states (California, Arizona, Nevada) by the end of 2026. The Inflation Reduction Act will provide more than $1 billion to drive more then three-quarters of the savings, supporting better water management, conservation efforts, and new infrastructure.

The U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, praised successful partnerships between the Biden administration, states, Tribes, and communities which made this agreement possible. But many still fear a yet-uncertain future, and rightfully so. Moving forward, it will be essential to account for and answer questions like:

  • What happens after 2026? The proposed cuts are only a portion of what is required to avert significant water crises, and that’s even without the uncertainties of worsening climate change.

  • How do we account for the climate impacts that are already in motion, regardless of climate action moving forward?

  • How do we evolve heavily water-reliant societies to live within a river’s means?

  • Will water cuts and subsequent policies account for systemic racism and water inequalities? Who will be involved in decision making?

  • How can we ensure that cuts don’t further disadvantage communities which have historically—and still are often—robbed of their rights to water?

  • How can we ensure that new infrastructure is routed to the right places, to those in most need?

The new compact is more inclusive than previous deals, a hopeful step forward, and a true accomplishment to celebrate. We look toward future answers, more wins, and the ongoing work which ensures a clean, equitable, just future for all.

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